Tuesday, May 1, 2012

simbiozo and the art of the startup weekend

This weekend I was a part of the Boston EDU Startup weekend. You can read some great coverage of the event at BostonInno. The shape of the 48 hour (they kept calling it 54 hour, oddly) event was people pitching concepts for education startups, teams forming around 7 or 8 of those ideas, and then hours and hours of putting together mockups and prototypes, doing market research, and preparing pitches to be delivered in front of a panel of judges the final evening.

My team was "Simbiozo" (the Esperanto word for symbiosis). The concept morphed into an app like "Word with Friends" or "Draw Something" but instead of playing Scrabble or Pictionary you're collaboratively captioning panels from a comic strip with someone with compatible language practice aspirations (for example, maybe you speak English and have just a bit of Spanish you'd like to polish: the app would team you with a Spanish speaker who is looking to do likewise in English.)  Here is a screenshot of the live landing page we made:

The judges seemed to like our concept and were impressed by our presentation, but we ended up not placing. Still, it was a fun weekend, and here are some lessons I took from it:
  • I need to ramp up my go-to-server-language mojo for projects like this-- the Perl CGI on cheap webhosting that has served me well for the last decade and a half is showing its age, and can't easily provide a good backend to the kind of AJAX-based frontend I love to do. PHP, though, shows  promise for filling this gap (at least until I get my act together and can do a node.js site from scratch on something like heroku...)
  • The teams that won were either an idea the teamlead has been working on for a while (and had a working demo for,) or a simple idea on a team full of techies. In either case, I think the "live demo" - even if fakey - goes far in impressing the judges, even more than the detailed customer research that our mentors were saying was the key.
  • I did this the weekend after a 48-hour-game-jam weekend. That was probably a mistake.
So, I still get the impression that I'm not much of an entrepreneur, but I do like supporting entrepreneurs in their ideas. I was fortunate in finding a good team (having the great designer I work with at Alleyoop was a godsend) and I think I helped suggest a single, solid idea, vs the original pitch was was more vague. So despite the failure of the dabblers to make a dent against the people who have been grinding their idea for a while, it was still a solid experience.

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