My name is Tina Santiago, and i’m a hack-a-thon-a-holic. It’s been 6 weeks since my last hackathon.
Recently, I met up with Ahmed Siddiqui, StartUp Weekend Bay Area Leader by day, kids app developer by night and overall awesome human being all the time. Here’s a brief Q&A:
Q: What is Startup Weekend?
A: Startup Weekend Bay Area, is an intense 54-hour event, which focuses on building a web or mobile application that could form the basis of a credible business over the course of a weekend. The weekend brings together developers, designers and entrepreneurs to build applications and develop a commercial case around them. With access to Silicon Valley’s best and brightest innovators, SWBAY offers a unique opportunity to connect and learn from leaders in the tech industry and provides an experiential education process for event participants.
Q: Why do you think the hackathon model for generating new ideas is effective?
A: Hackathons are really interesting because they encourage action. I think a hackathon is the best type of un-conference that you can have because there is less talk, more action. A traditional Hackathon starts off with an existing product and then challenges developers to come up with unique uses for that product. I think it is a fantastic model for really observing what types of things come out of it, but rarely are these products commercially viable because there is too much focus on the hack, and not enough time spent on customer development or the business model.
Q: Why are hackathons a valuable sponsorship opportunity for companies?
A: In the Bay Area, we work closely with our partners such as AT&T, Microsoft, Kno, Grockit, TechShop, Autodesk, and Qualcomm, to put together unique experiences. Every event has its own flavor, and we work closely with our partners to get the most value for them and our attendees. A fantastic example is Microsoft, our partner for Mega Startup Weekend. In this event we invite 300 participants to work in three different tracks. This year, we chose Mobile, Gaming, and Robotics as our three tracks. This event was unique because we invited the top engineers from Microsoft to mentor and participate. We ended up having some businesses built on Microsoft Kinect, Microsoft Windows 8, and on the Microsoft EDDIE Robot. This was an amazing event that gave our attendees access to bleeding edge technology and mentorship, and it gave Microsoft great exposure to our community of developers, designers, and entrepreneurs.
Q: How does Start Up Weekend continue to support the “winners” after the event?
A: We support our winners and any teams moving forward by providing them extended mentorship opportunities and introductions to potential customers and investors. More recently, we have been having office hours for teams to come into our San Francisco office and work with us. With almost 1 event a month, we have built a substantial network of entrepreneurs, developers, designers, mentors, and investors that all help each other. Startup Weekend isn’t just a weekend event, it is a network and community.
Q: Any other thoughts?
A: I think this movement is wonderful, and proves that the costs of building businesses is going down, and these weekend long events are perfect for testing ideas. Granted, it is too difficult to build an end-to-end business over a weekend with complete strangers, but I do feel that this is the best possible networking that you can do, especially in a learning environment that Startup Weekend provides. It is okay to fail, just fail fast!
Since I moved to San Francisco, I’ve given up four of my precious weekends to participate in a number of hackathons: Angel Hack at Adobe, Start Up Weekend at the AT&T Foundry, City 2.0 at California College of Arts, and Creative Currency at The Hub SF.
I have only positive things to say about my hackathon experience. I’ve met some of the most brilliant and creative people in the Bay Area who who share an optimistic, can-do, will-do attitude. To echo Ahmed, in my experience, hackathons give you a unique opportunity to fail fast, another way to describe accelerated learning. I’ve never learned so much about technology, design and business strategy in such a compressed amount of time. It’s like bootcamp for the brain.
After some reflection, here are a few lessons I took away about from the challenge of working in a boiler room with a group of strangers:
1. Spend time defining the problem.
Framing the problem you’re trying to solve is half the battle. Because each team member has a unique point of view, they may be speaking a different language to interpret the problem at hand. On top of that, the number of data sets and APIs that are made available can be overwhelming, messy , complex.
This is where the design process becomes so crucial in framing the problem: unpacking the business goals, the technological constraints and user needs can help to simplify and communicate the complexity.
2. Frame your conversations.
Often, when friction ensues between team members, it’s because people are speaking in different contexts. It can be very frustrating when one person is generating ideas, while another person is shooting them down like a clay plate. These kinds of conversations can often get heated because of competing agendas, points of view and passions in the room. This is why it’s important to recognize the difference among opinions, ideas and data. In my experience, making collaborative decisions is always best when you can point to data to support the decisions being made.
Establishing the goal of the conversation can really help. For example, if you simply frame your conversations as a ‘brainstorm to generate ideas,’ this can really help to build creative momentum within the group. This is what is called building a divergent context. Of course, at some point, decisions need to be made. Again, it’s important to define this context and frame the conversation as a “convergent” one and point to criteria and data as much as possible to make decisions.
3. Find the right team.
Gathering a multidisciplinary team is key. The best teams are the ones that have a complementary set of skills. Putting a designer, an engineer and an entrepreneur in a cooker can have incredible results.
Needless to say, this can also be very challenging since everyone has an opinion and their own point of view. This is where the art of listening and the virtue of patience comes into play. I’ve been surprised and humbled by the amount of insight emerges when you take the time to listen and try to learn a different point of view.
4. Be prepared to be unprepared.
No matter how much research you do before the event, you’ll never be prepared. That’s because you don’t know what will emerge. The hackathon experience invites serendipity and it’s best to be open to spontaneity and welcome new ideas.
5. Work backwards.
No matter how many sticky notes and white board scribbles you generate, it really means nothing until you have a story you can weave through. Before starting anything, it’s important to imagine the form of your story and output and develop a roadmap on how to get there. This is crucial for a weekend long event when time is of the essence.
I’m proud to say that my partner in crime, Patrick Keenan and I came out winners in two out of the for four. [Insert shameless plug] Thanks the GAFFTA Creative Currency hackathon, we’re continuing on with our project called SQFT, an online platform for pop up shops to find short term leases.
Special thanks to Startup Weekend and all the other amazing hackathon organizers for their amazing work in creating opportunity for new ideas.