I traveled down to Baltimore to participate in Startup Weekend on Friday, April 15th with two goals in mind. The first was to check out the tech scene. The second was to see if I can find a group of smart people to help me work on an idea that had been ruminating in my head for a while.

I was numero uno to pitch at the event. The concept is called AdsGrader. It’s basically an assessment tool that helps bloggers to determine the ad potential of their site. It obviously evolved from 123Linkit. Most bloggers use Google Adsense and Amazon Associates to monetize. Some of the more serious professional bloggers experiment with other methods but it’s tedious and time-consuming. The idea is AdsGrader would alleviate those pain points by determining the potential of those ad networks for you. You insert your blog URL and category and it would provide you with assessment of where it currently stands measuring the most vital advertising metrics that impact revenue.

I was able to form a great team which included Particia Gorla (Python developer), Ryan Spahn (designer), Paul Morana (Photshop whiz, marketer, biz dev, etc) and Nick Kriss (VC background).  As you can see, we had a group with diverse skillsets (photo below). We cranked away hard for those 54 hours. One of the first things we did was narrow down our idea to something we could get out in 2.5 days so we decided we were going to focus on integrating two networks to start – Google Adsense and 123LinkIt. We went back and forth on business models numerous times. I’m grateful for the mentors provided because they had great input. We put up a LaunchRock page on Saturday to start capturing emails. Using our existing networks, we were able to attain 120 sign-ups in less than 24 hours (keep in mind it was a weekend) – the most out of any other team.

Startup Weekend Baltimore 2011 team

Sunday -> it’s demo night. The two days felt like a week and it was too short at the same time. Twenty-four companies presented. While we did not make it to the top three, we learned a lot and are moving forward with the idea. To stay updated of our progress, follow us at @AdsGrader or on our Facebook page – which includes some great pictures of the event.

I highly recommend making it to one of these events. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had this year. It was very gratifying – you’re around similar-minded, smart people getting shit done. Almost all of us came to the event with just an idea and we walked away with a part of it built, even if it was just a demo.

If you haven’t been to a Startup Weekend event, here’s what to expect. On Friday night, you’ll have time to network with the attendees and then pitches will begin. These are basically one-minute (strictly enforced) elevator pitches except you also include what type of people you need to make your idea happen. Mine went a little something like this as an example:

“Hi, my name is Yasmine. I’m not a developer but I have technical knowledge – I currently run a social advertising software platform in Philadelphia. Is anyone here familiar with Hubspot or at least their line of grader tools? There’s Website Grader, Twitter Grader, Facebook Grader, etc. My idea is called AdsGrader. As techies, I’m sure we have a lot of domains, blogs, maybe some content sites. What I’d love to do is build an assessment tool that will analyze blogs in particular and determine their ad potential. I need a designer and a couple of developers. Remember: AdsGrader – revenue assessment tool for blogs.”

After the pitches, everyone votes on their top three to five ideas (this ranges from city to city). The organizers will tally the results and determine the number of teams formed based on the number of attendees. After they’ve been announced, each person gets another chance to step up to the microphone and explain their concept. Interested parties go up to the presenter and from there teams are formed. Introductions commence and the teams start setting roles and developing a roadmap until 12am. (P.S. I haven’t heard of a Startup Weekend that allowed sleepovers yet). Saturday is spent working and developing the concept and Sunday is demo day as mentioned earlier. At this particular event, we had 5 minutes to present and 5 minutes Q&A. The top 3 companies received cash and services as prizes.

Here are some tips for making the most of Startup Weekend (including some lessons learned):

  1. Your concept name doesn’t matter so don’t spend hours agonizing over it. You’ll probably change it once you form your team. Just come up with something catchy and easily memorable during the pitch.
  2. Make your pitch count. There were about 80 pitches I believe. If you’re going to get up there, be one of the first or make yours stand out in some way. After a while, I noticed a bunch of people (including myself) zoning out and losing concentration. Always repeat your concept’s name at the end to help people remember it.
  3. Pre-network if possible. I loved how the organizers started a Facebook group where those interested in the event got to ask questions and discuss their idea before the event. Also, utilize the networking time before pitches and during the voting process. Talk to the types of people you’re going to be looking for (the lanyards will specify if the person is technical or non-technical) and start building connections early.
  4. Focus on one part of your concept. You’re not going to be able to build everything you want over a weekend. Do one thing and do it really well.You’re probably not going to get a designer. That said, make it count if you find one or can share one with another team. Aesthetics count during presentations, even if you’re told they don’t.
  5. Practice for your demo early. It was obvious some presenters didn’t practice thinking the pitch was going to be a breeze and it showed. I would recommend starting your PowerPoint as early as Sunday morning. Make sure it includes a demo of some kind. We had five minutes to pitch and we were encouraged to finish in four.  (For women only - if you need a quiet place to practice out loud, try the bathroom! I know it sounds crazy but it’s a great way to take advantage of men/women ratio. At one point, I got 45 minutes in without being interrupted).
  6. Talk to the judges. Win or not, find out what they liked or didn’t like and how you could have improved.
  7. Follow-up. I made a few friends from the event and expanded my list of acquaintances by emailing every single person I wanted to keep in touch with. A couple of these contacts may lead to business with 123LinkIt in some capacity.

A huge thanks to Mike BrennerPaul Capestany and Kav Latiolaisa, a few of the organizers who made an impact on my visit/presentation in some way. Startup Weekend Philadelphia will be on October 7, 2011. Follow @PHLSW for up to date information and good luck!

Update: For an in-depth look at the event, check out this video from ShineOn Storytelling that followed four teams throughout the weekend (AdsGrader included!).

Update II: I participated in PHLSW 2011 as well, here’s the recap from that event about creating hangplan

We play many roles in our lives. I’m a sister, daughter, aunt, friend, girlfriend, entrepreneur, blogger, runner, chocolate lover and the list goes on and on.

Sometimes, certain roles are emphasized over others which is subjectively deemed acceptable or unacceptable depending on our aversion to the matter. For example, I used to be an avid poker player. I would not have liked it if someone had told me I had a gambling problem.

These days, I’m feeling more and more focus being put on my “entrepreneur” role, specifically being a woman tech entrepreneur. I don’t have the exact number on how many tech CEOs are women off-hand (the last number I heard was 8%, would love a reference here). I understand the attention and concern surrounding the issue. There are advantages and disadvantages of course.

One of the biggest disadvantages is how people have been pigeonholing me as a woman tech entrepreneur vs. tech entrepreneur. I don’t want to be recognized as a woman entrepreneur when I first meet someone. I’m constantly being asked about my opinion on the men/women disparity, how I feel about an idea like XX Combinator, what I think of the latest TechCrunch article, etc. These questions annoy me and they get old after a while. So have all the coverage on the issue on how to raise more awareness. It’s not that I mind more exposure, I certainly don’t. It’s that I’d prefer ACTION to WORDS. This tweet below sums up my opinion perfectly.

To circle to the advantages side, I’m feeling the need to be one of the role models for the “cause” and certain opportunities have risen as a result. One of which is to be a part of an organization called TechGirlz. As you’ll see on the site, the goal is to “empower [middle-school] girls to be future technology leaders.” I wish there had been something like this when I was younger. You may have heard me talk about presenting at their first event this past September where I debunked common misconceptions about the tech space and showed the variety of roles available in the sector (Slideshare presentation is below).

There are currently opportunities to make a difference in getting more girls in technology. These positions are not exclusive to women either, TechGirlz has men volunteers as well. Our goal this year is to hold nine events ranging from using WordPress to programming. If you’re interested in learning more, please contact Tracey Welson-Rossman, the brainchild behind the organization and an all-around awesome person at info@techgirlz.org.

We’re also looking into bringing an organization like GirlDevelopIT to Philadelphia. Great name, isn’t it? Hopefully, we’ll have more news on that front soon.

I’d love for one day to meet someone at a networking event without him/her assuming I’m an employee at my company or to be asked the now dreaded “how’s it feel to be a female tech CEO?”

As a big fan of the 37signals blog, I’ve had REWORK on my “to read” list since it was released. After I heard what seemed like never-ending rave reviews from acquaintances, I suggested it to the Philly Startup Leaders Book Club (a book club I started at the beginning of the year) and it was voted as March’s pick.

The book ditches the traditional steps of starting/running a business such as writing a business plan, studying the competition, raising money, etc. Instead, it debunks them and provides insightful but concise advice on how to start your project(s) quickly.

My feelings about this book are torn. Although I think it’s a good read, I felt the lessons were choke-full of common sense. Also, I was already acquainted with most of the material from being an avid follower of their work and from my experience with running an agile company. There were a few chapters I didn’t agree with (more on that later). Overall, I enjoyed it as a refresher. I would specifically recommend it for non-business/marketing people who want to create lifestyle businesses and are not familiar with the lean startup methodology.

Some of the highlights:

  • Scratch your own itch – this is how I started 123LinkIt and I wholeheartedly believe in the concept of creating something to solve a problem you’re personally experiencing.
  • No time is no excuse – I used to say that a lot until someone told me that if you want something bad enough, you’ll make the time.
  • Good enough is fine – this was hands-down my favorite section of the book. As a perfectionist, I constantly struggle with the little details. Their main feedback is “when good enough gets the job done, go for it…you can usually turn good enough into great later.”
  • Hire great writers - this section discusses how great writers are instrumental because they know how to communicate effectively and clearly, something you need in every part of your business.
  • Decisions are temporary – the authors state “Don’t make up problems you don’t have yet. It’s not a problem until it’s a real problem. most of the things you worry about never happen anyway.” I learned this eventually on my own. I would have saved a lot of time and headaches if someone would have said it to me sooner.
  • Sound like you – …as simple as that. Users expect formal language from big companies, we startups can take advantage of it.

A list of the sections I disagreed with or I felt were contradicting with other material:

  • Planning is guessing - I appreciate the idea of making decisions as needed. The main advice of this chapter boils down to “decide what you’re going to do this week, not this year.” While I can see how it applies in some cases, I’ve personally found it gets you in a trap of working in the business instead of ON the business.
  • Why grow? – This is one of the reasons why I felt this book is geared towards lifestyle entrepreneurs. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but it depends on the goal of the business.
  • Pick a fight – This is a tactic marketers know grabs a lot of attention and it coincides well with the David and Goliath stories. However, I’d rather get along with my competitors then start a conflict war.
  • Say no by default – The idea here is to not document features users request and to automatically decline them. The notion is the best ones will be repeated over and over. While I understand that logic, I feel you end up missing trends and other critical information.

While I had higher expectations for REWORK, I still enjoyed it especially because it was a quick read. It’s a book I would check out from the library (which I’m glad I did), not purchase for my bookshelf.

Thanks to Tom Ciavarella for discussing it with me.