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Producing PeerAround: Lessons from Startup Weekend

Written By: Mariya 21 June 2010 Other Posts By: Mariya

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in Startup Weekend NYC, a three-day event during which hackers, designers, and visionaries rally around new ideas on Friday and race to turn them into viable products and companies by Sunday to be judged by a panel of VC experts.  I highly recommend that anyone with a smidgeon of entrepreneurial spirit try out these weekend startup events. You’ll have a chance to sample, in a controlled setting, the compressed fury that accompanies the transformation of ideas into reality. You’ll start with a whirlwind of ideas and a room full of strange faces and end with new friends and a product you’re proud to show off. You’ll learn to operate at break-neck speed, reconcile team differences, and wear a bunch of different hats.  Think of it as bootcamp for wannabe entrepreneurs!

The unique benefit of this particular Startup Weekend is that AOL Ventures, an early-stage VC firm, promised to fund the winner of the event. This extra incentive inspired a flood of pitches on Friday night, with ideas ranging from an EBay for your private data to a Weebly for your private parts. After this multi-hour festival of ideas, teams started to rally around the most popular ideas .

I joined what ultimately became team Peeraround. While there were plenty of interesting ideas pitched at Startup Weekend, I had to jump on this one because I’d planned to pitch essentially the same concept until Jonathan Wegener of Exit Strategy fame came and pitched it better. The vision of the team was to make FourSquare check-ins more useful by pulling in contextual social information from other social networking sites. The first iteration was designed to show you your mutual friends on FourSquare who’ve checked into the same venue, along with some basic Twitter facts and links to their other social profiles. Eventually, the application would integrate more data and add sophisticated filtering functionality to help you find the best people to meet, whether they be angel investors at a conference, influential customers at your business, or attractive singles at a bar. Those of you with FourSquare accounts should definitely check out Peeraround! Our product works on any mobile browser on iPhone, Android, Blackberry, etc.

After spending Friday night and Saturday morning ironing out our vision, we powered through the prototype development with our team of nine, parallelizing the design, development, and marketing across our diverse skillsets. While we didn’t end up winning the AOL Ventures funding, we were one of the few teams to produce a functioning -and dare I say beautiful – prototype and were a huge hit with the audience. Additionally, by committing to this marathon creation process and seeing what resonated with the VCs, we learned a number of key lessons for anyone interested in participating in a Startup Weekend or just seeking to build out and get funding for their ideas:

1) Herd the Cats

Startup Weekend starts with a flurry of brainstorming where the possibilities seem endless. Even after settling on an idea, you and your teammates will be up until 2 AM the first night coming up with clever spinoffs of your original concept – only you’re limited to about 48 productive hours to actually make it a reality. If you’re focused on building a product rather than selling an idea, be sure your team has a tech-savvy project manager like Peeraround’s Rob Kelley who can limit your scope and define your deliverables, as well as conduct effective status updates to make sure everyone is in sync. This is important even if you have talented coders and especially useful if you’re working with strangers under extreme time pressure.

2) Make It Beautiful

As an aesthetically-challenged nerd, I’d never heard of mood boards, wireframes, or any other interaction design terminology. Luckily, the Peeraround team had two talented designers in Christine Sadrnoori and Jorge Martinez who knew about them all. While you don’t want to get lost in minor details during time-sensitive Startup Weekends, the benefits of working on a beautiful project are not to be underestimated. Aside from the engaging impact aesthetics has on your audience of users, we humans are visual creatures and love to see the result of our efforts manifested before our eyes. Watching the Peeraround frontend evolve as the hours passed provided quite a motivational boost to the team.

3) Pitch Your People

With early-stage companies, VCs are often more interested in the people behind an idea than the idea itself. While a startup can pivot multiple times in its development, the management team needs to have the passion and domain expertise to ensure that it thrives through periods of uncertainty. As one of the few Startup Weekend teams to produce a working demo, we were so psyched by our technology that we neglected to discuss our team of seasoned entrepreneurs and powerhouse designers/developers during our pitch to the VCs. Turns out that none of the three finalists that weekend had produced functioning technology, but they had managed to convince the judges that their ideas were high potential and that they had the right team to execute on them.

4) Keep an Empire State of Mind

Two of the Startup Weekend speakers, Dina Kaplan of blip.tv and Kal Valpuri, one of the VC judges, both mentioned how New York can be a better staging area for a startup than Silicon Valley. As a center for media, advertising, fashion, and finance, New York’s broad economy can support a more diverse range of startup ideas than the Valley’s tech-centric culture. When starting your company, keep in mind the ways in which you can leverage Silicon Alley’s distinct advantages and include them in your pitches to NYC-based VCs.

For more about what happened over Startup Weekend NYC 2010, check out this article from the Washington Post. If you’ve participated in a Startup Weekend or similar event, I’m interested in knowing what you built and the lessons you took away from the experience. Feel free to leave your comments below or hit me up on twitter at @mariayava

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  • Jorge Martinez

    Great post Mariya! Congrats on the launch :)

  • mayava

    Test Comment

  • shanereiser

    excellent post Mariya

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