I have to say, it has been an exciting past four days.
In the matter of four full days, I pitched an idea, met an awesome team, helped build an iPhone app, won an audience vote for the top startup, formed a business, waded into a controversy, got covered on slashdot and engadget, and readied the launch of our app on Apple’s AppStore.
Yeah, not half bad for four days…
I decided the experiences in the past weekend (and beyond) have been unique and surreal enough that I need to capture them somewhere. So, where better than my blog. In truth, I’ve got a bit of catching up to do to get my story current, so the next series of posts may lag reality a bit, but ’tis the realities of life. So, without further ado. The story of Learn That Name.
The Backstory of Startup Weekend Redmond (or the Pre-Beginning)
In case readers don’t know, I’m a lawyer. I focus on technology companies — lots of startups and emerging companies, many of which are or will soon be funded by venture or angel capital. So I love working with tech people. But never done a day of programming in my life (except for some Dos applications when I was 10). And still, I’m always game for a challenge and this story has proven that to be the case.
In January 2009, I had the pleasure of attending my first Startup Weekend held at Google’s Offices in Fremont. I worked with a team on a project called “Tweet Reporters” during the weekend. Fun time; decent idea; but probably too much for a weekend. However, I was able to soak in the experience and meet a ton of people, which I considered a win.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2009. A new team has taken over Startup Weekend and I’m introduced to them by a good friend Rebecca Lovell. I meet Clint Nelsen and Marc Nager over beers at Fado’s and instantly am struck by their enthusiasm, creativity and vision. Having previously participated in a Startup Weekend event, I can quickly see that they’ve identified the key strengths and the key challenges for the organization. And while both Marc and Clint may not have been grizzled veterans, they asked all the right questions and seemed ready to dive into an exciting adventure.
Over the next few weeks, Clint, Marc and I continued to talk regularly. I was excited about the possibilities ahead — and they were excited about their next event to be held up in Redmond in connection with BizSpark, a Microsoft program aimed at small businesses and startups. I will admit, I was slightly skeptical that it was a good idea to partner so closely with any company, including Microsoft (the web address was bizspark.startupweekend.com which seemed to potentially be at conflict with Startup Weekend’s historically agnostic view about technologies and platforms), but Clint and Marc convinced me otherwise. Seems that it was actually laid off Microsoft workers who proposed the idea and BizSpark agreed to help orchestrate and host the event.
As the event neared, I was pleasantly surprised to hear how quickly the event was selling out and at the types of people throwing their hats in the ring to attend. And frankly, I was honestly looking forward to the event.
The Pitch — Day 1: Friday, August 28th
As the Friday evening kick-off of Startup Weekend Redmond arrived, my colleague Jason Barnwell and I were looking forward to the event and drove to Redmond together. Jason is a developer turned attorney and I was an attorney turned… well, just an attorney. But I do love working with startups and entrepreneurs, and connecting with people in the community, so I figured it would be great. Both Jason and I planned to attend the pitches on Friday, skip the actual “business building” part of the weekend and return on Sunday for the demos and presentations. I had already scheduled an event on Saturday evening and was in a wedding for Sunday afternoon, so even if I wanted to stay, probably wasn’t going to happen since I was booked solid.
Clint Nelsen started off the festivities at the Microsoft Executive Conference Center with a welcome and a nice shout out to me for sending him a contract at 1 am the night before (“That guy is a cyborg,” said Clint. Complement? Really not sure). Thereafter Microsoft took over with a series of presentations. The audience was a bit restless during these initial presentations (initial reviews in the twittersphere were less than pleased at the fact we were being told about MSFT products rather than start the pitch portion of the evening). To their credit, the folks from BizSpark must have picked up on the vibe and scaled back the “show me” approach thereafter, replacing it with the “help me” approach — a good move. Dinner soon arrive and the attendees prepared for the formal start of Startup Weekend.
Startup Weekend is meant to allow creative people to come together and make something. And that all starts with the idea pitches. Attendees are given the opportunity to go on stage in front of their peers and make a 30-60 second pitch for a weekend project. These pitches range from the bold (personalizing online search) to the odd (from a SFSW pitch idea… women’s undergarments that require codes and puzzles to remove) to the intriguing (twitter intelligence tools) to the fun (turning twitter avatars into a mosaic). In the end, probably 60 individuals had their moment on stage to pitch their idea to the audience; and the audience had its chance to vote for its favorite ideas.
As the pitching continued over several hours, I did some rounds to talk to folks I knew in the crowd. Good people I’d known from the startup world were there like Adam Philipp, Chad Kirby, Roy Leban, Mike Koss, Mike Crill, Michael Schneider, the Startup Weekend guys, and numerous others. Somewhat late to the party walked in a face I knew I recognized from the last Startup Weekend and other events around town, but I couldn’t quite get the name. Hmmm, I thought. Who is that? Couldn’t quite get it. No matter… until he started walking towards me… and then walked up to me… and said, “Hey Eric. How’s it going?” Oh damn, he knows my name and I can’t even make an educated guess. My cover is blown — abandon ship! I mumbled something incoherent and said it was great to see him and shirked off before I could be asked anything specific to embarrass myself. Several minutes later, well after that awkward conversation, his name jumped back into my head — Lawrence. Lawrence Leung. Works at Optify (who happens to be a client of my firm, no less… yikes!) And, to make matters worse, I’d actually added him as a LinkedIn connection after the last Startup Weekend — look how good that did me. Stupid social networking…
All I could say to myself was, dammit.
As I sat there and stewed on that a bit, I was struck at how poorly I leveraged the people who were “connections” in LinkedIn. Yeah, I am one of those “500+” connection guys, but all that got me was a “+” really. Truth is, I’ve got more connections that I have true “connections.” I wonder how many of those folks I could pick out of a crowd at this stage. I wish there was a way to learn those folks’ names… and, then, as the clouds parted and light shown down (like in the movies) it hit me like a mack truck. So simple, yet something boneheads like me would definitely buy and use. If there ain’t an “app” for that yet, perhaps there should be. Yeah, an app to help you learn your LinkedIn contacts. Simple, useful and needed. That would be cool… if I could only find some developers… and people who knew how to pull in data from LinkedIn and… wait a second.
I started to get up to race to the stage to pitch this hair-brained, last-minute idea to the crowd, but quickly stopped myself realizing I wasn’t even going to be around for the weekend. Attendance was one of the requirements — if you pitch an idea, you have to agree to see it through. Makes sense, eh? So that left me out of luck with my already penciled in Saturday night plans and a wedding the following day. Bummer. Well, it was a good thought and maybe something to think about doing on the side.
And right on cue as if to temp me and fate, Clint took the microphone and said “So let’s cut off pitches at the people currently in line. No more new pitches.”
I hate being told no, so maybe that was it. Or maybe it was that I’d always wanted to build something. Or maybe it was embarrassment still lingering in my system. No matter what it was, it had to happen. Then, as if guided by the entrepreneurial “spirit hands” of Bill Gates and Paul Allen (or maybe Steve Jobs), I decided to go for it. Plans, scmans. I can work around it, right? Can’t hurt to at least give it a try.
So I quickly rose from my seat and snuck towards the line that had only minutes before been cut off by Clint. I tried to make it not seem obvious, but it was hard with 400 eyeballs staring right at you. Then, as I reached the six other folks in line and sidled up to the last person then in line, Clint grabbed the microphone from the presenter and said, “Whoa, Eric, we all saw that. Not cool, dude.”
There it was, I’d been busted. The entrepreneurial spirit hands had dropped me on my rear with a thud. That’s it, then. And I thought for a second about walking away, but at the same moment Adam Philipp stepped out of line in front of me and said, “Go ahead and take my spot — I’m not going to be here this weekend.” Well, neither was, I… but ah, hell.
As the last people ahead of me gave their pitches, I quickly thought about what my pitch would be. As last minute ideas go, this was the “lastest.” Sadly, I hadn’t researched if there was already something out there and had no idea if this was even feasible. I hadn’t thought about the who, what, when, where and how, let alone the “who let a lawyer on stage.” So what was I going to say about this idea… what… to… say… until I turned towards the stage to see the mic was being handed to me. I reached out, grabbed the microphone and took a spot a the center of the room.
“So,” I began, “earlier tonight, I ran into a friend of mine…” I continued to relay the story of not remembering Lawrence, a person I’d met several times before and had made one of my numerous LinkedIn connection. I’d continued on about how the people in your contacts are supposed to be valuable people and the kinds of people that I should know. Thirty seconds seemed like an eternity and a blur. I continued on that this was something I’d like to see turned into a tool or a game for my mobile phone, perhaps an iPhone app. And that was it. I’d pitched. I walked off the stage and headed back to my seat.
As I sat down, I had a few polite nods from the people around me, but nothing indicated my idea was anything special. Hell, I didn’t know what people who code for a living thought of the idea. That is, until someone at my table turned to me and said, “Wow, your idea is getting tons of votes on the site. Holy Cow, your idea is at the top now. Guys, check this out.”
He was right. I refreshed the site several times to see my idea move up the ladder passing all the other ideas on its way. The voting didn’t lie — my idea finished as the top vote getter from the pitch session — topping out at 33 votes from the crowd. Pretty cool, I thought.
That is until I realized that I’d just signed myself up to lead a team to do something I had no idea about. What had I done? What about my weekend plans? What about my lack of knowledge? What about my lack of a clue? What in the hell did I just do?
Jason walked over and asked “Wait, I thought you were just coming for tonight? What are you doing?” He was right and the answer to the later questions was, I dunno.
As I reflected on what I’d done, I realized how stupid it sounded. Just brilliant… a lawyer without a lick of coding experience trying to build an iPhone app in 54, no try 47 hours now… tick, tock… tick, tock…. Just great.
And to boot, my wife was probably going to kick my butt… no longer did Startup Weekend look like just a few hours on Friday and a couple on Sunday evening!
NEXT: Learn That Name… Chapter 2: The Team.