13 Teams, 100 People, 54 Hours: Lessons from Startup Weekend in Seattle

3/22/10

“Exhaustingly awesome.”

“The talent in that room is pretty inspiring.”

“54 hours…from idea to products I’d pay money for in just 54 hours. Wow.”

Those are just a couple comments I gleaned from some of the attendees and guests at the demos held at the Startup Weekend demo finale. I’d second each of these thoughts—you are crazy if you didn’t walk out of that room with a clear sense of potential and possibilities.

I had the privilege to attend Startup Weekend held in Seattle from March 19-21 at Adobe’s Fremont campus—my third time participating in a Weekend. If you haven’t heard about Startup Weekend, it is a 54-hour intensive event that throws a group of entrepreneurs, developers, business people, coders, and startup junkies into a room, lets those individuals form teams around crowdsourced ideas, plies them with caffeine, beer, and junk food, and lets the magic happen.

And what results from that combination is downright stunning. Sitting in the audience on Sunday, the crowd was treated to demos of an amazingly rich Facebook application, a powerful application leveraging open-source mobile phone camera software, a ready-made online portal for “green” consumers, an iPad game for kids, iPhone applications for video game swapping and mobile app discovery, and location-based tools to better connect users, just to name a few of the demos. I go to meet the people and get a chance to see what smart people think are the next big ideas for innovation. And this weekend we saw some interesting trends.

What did I take away from this Startup Weekend?

Now first let me say that it’s easy to get caught up in the exciting demos and the “tech-focused” product ideas being offered up at an event like this. But the reality is we might only see a couple of these technologies make it past the weekend and be heard from again. Even still, I think there are some real insights that I drew from the projects about what is on the horizon for startups in the technology space, mass-adoption of technologies, and more generally about the Seattle tech scene. Here are my thoughts:

* Everything is getting more social. Facebook and Twitter alone have created huge opportunities for new companies. Raising Uncle Jesse (a “hopefully” viral Facebook app), Digri (discussed below), MobVoice (a real-time crowd-source rating service), Locql (a tool to get local information from local individuals in your social networks), and EveryDayOneThing (a “green” consumer portal) were technologies that all tied into Facebook, the largest social network in the world, and/or Twitter. As our personal online networks grow, technologies will be needed to help us better manage, mine, and understand our networks.

* Location, location, location. Lots of folks outside the tech world have never heard of tools like Foursquare or Gowalla which provide location-based mobile service (the most common current application is some variation of “checking into” bars, coffee shops, etc. to let your social community know where you are at). While these location-based platforms may not be completely mainstream yet, a couple “little” companies (such as Google and Facebook) have their eyes on this space themselves. Several of the ideas from this weekend utilized geo-location: SwarrmApp (a location-based video-game swapping service) and Shall We Meet Up? (a tool to help users meet new people in an area or location). With more phones able to track your location, look for this trend to continue to grow.

* Open-source software tools are making development faster and cheaper. You really can build a mobile application in 54 hours that works, looks good, and doesn’t require an army of developers coding away. I was part of team App And Seek, a gang of 10 people (five developers) that developed matching games for the iPhone and the iPad designed to help you discover new mobile apps in fun, game-play style. We first sketched out the basic idea on Saturday morning at 11 am, worked hard over the weekend, and submitted our App to the iTunes AppStore at 8 pm on Sunday evening. Total time: 33 hours. Total out of pocket costs: $100 for the iTunes AppStore Developer ID. With any luck, it’ll be available for sale in two weeks. That’s what I mean about faster and cheaper development.

* Think we have a lot of iPhone and Android Apps now? Just wait. The team Shall We Meet Up? had an interesting idea for a mobile application, but found itself without anyone with iPhone development experience. Never fear, Seattle patent attorney Adam Philipp made a couple phone calls and became a beta user of Red Foundry, a new tool set that allows non-developers to create iPhone apps. Adam is not your average “non-developer” (he has a degree in computer science), but Shall We Meet Up? utilized some unique location-based functionality that was probably out of reach of anyone trying to pick up app development for the first time.

* Seattle’s got talent. Lest you think all the best developers and entrepreneurs are in the Valley, check out the technology from the attendees including SnapIt (a browser plug-in that integrates any web page with mobile camera phones), EggStuff (an educational iPad application), and PitchBank (think UrbanSpoon for the startup investment community). Seattle definitely has top flight talent and it is great to see the community embrace it.

Digri (pronounced ‘de-gree’) may have served as the intersection of all five of these themes at Startup Weekend. The winning team from Startup Weekend (as selected by a judging panel and the votes of the attendees) designed a service to combine your personal social network with location-based services—all on your mobile device. As an example, imagine if you attended a conference and were able to get a report on your phone as soon as you walked into the room with not only the names of other people in the room that you may have something in common with, but who you may know in common through Facebook. (Digri tells you if you share a mutual friend to help “break the ice.”) And like the rest of the teams, Digri’s fully functioning platform was built in just a weekend.

So, does Startup Weekend really foster new businesses for Seattle?

One of the criticisms of Startup Weekend is that very few of the teams that form over these weekends go on to start businesses. Of the 13 teams that presented their demo on Sunday, will any of these go on to build a business around that technology? Hard to say. My guess is you’ll have at least a handful that will try and “keep the band together” or find some way to get their products far enough along to get them into the hands of consumers.

The reality is, building a Startup Weekend product is like meeting someone at a bar on Friday night, getting married in the morning, and then not planning to see each other again after the weekend. It’s fast; it’s intense; and then it’s over. These teams jump in quickly and usually don’t worry about what comes next. So the fact of the matter is, many of these teams have no intention of sticking together, and that’s the great thing about Startup Weekend.

But rather than focus on whether or not Digri becomes the next Foursquare, SwarrmApp takes marketshare from GameStop, or Raising Uncle Jesse takes on Farmville, it is probably most important to understand that this event has a broader social graph. You may work with a developer, designer, or marketing person who may become part of your next company, or you might encourage them to apply for a job opening you know about.

Startup Weekend has become a global phenomenon (events held in 60 cities and 18 countries last year) thanks to the hard work of the Marc Nager and Clint Nelsen. And here in Seattle, the continued community support will help more companies “graduate” from Startup Weekend or will help attendees leverage the Weekend to build their next startup.

In Seattle, we saw TechStars offer an “expedited review” of any application submitted by a Startup Weekend alum; we saw a panel of judges on Sunday made up of leading entrepreneurs, investors, and startup aficionados; we’ve seen large companies from Adobe to Google to Microsoft offer their facilities to Startup Weekend, and we saw the larger community embrace the teams attending Startup Weekend 4.

Quite a weekend. Now I think there are 100 or so people who could all use a nap (me included). Can’t wait to do it again at Startup Weekend Seattle 5. Hope you can make it.

Eric Koester is co-founder and COO of Zaarly and an attorney, formerly with Cooley LLP. Follow @

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