It was about 4pm on Friday and I remember telling a friend I wish I hadn’t committed to going to Startup Weekend. I’ve had a grueling couple of weeks of work and I knew from my previous experiences that it was going to be a taxing weekend. As I was walking to the gym, I was struck with an idea. Why not float around during the weekend and go around helping teams instead of committing to one? I finished my workout and jogged home in the rain satisfied with my decision.

It was easy to spot the venue when I got there with my friend around 6pm as there were a few guys milling around in front of Drexel’s Earle Mack School of Law. The auditorium was packed at this point and pitches were about to begin. I went down the stairs and found a spot to stand by the wall. I was surprised at how many people I didn’t know at the event when I glanced around the room. I’ve been involved in the Philly tech scene since 2006 now and I like to think I know mostly everyone. I watched a long line of people line up on the other side, to the point where they had to stand outside the door.

Frankly, I found most of the pitches bland. A few grabbed my attention such as the hangplan pitch by Melissa Morris Ivone, the OperationNice gal from Philadephia. She found herself discovering what her friends were up to when it was too late and wanted an application that would allow her to look at her friends calendars and “check-in” if she was interested in joining. I walked over to my friend Chris Baglieri to see which ones he liked. We went down his list and briefly discussed them. By this time, the pitches hadended and everyone had a few minutes to go around and talk to the ones they liked. I snagged Melissa as she was heading over and the three of us discussed her idea in more detail. The more information she shared, the more I liked the concept. I could also see myself working with Melissa, and Chris and I have been talking about working together on a project. We talked to a few other members who came up to us and waited for the voting process to begin. By the end, it was clear hangplan was moving forward.

The pitchees (is that a word?) gave their elevator pitch one more time and everyone commandeered a spot to greet each other and talk about next steps. From right to left clockwise, our team included Michael Kolb, Brendan Lowry, Melissa Morris Ivone, Chris Baglieri, Jared Weinstock, Nathan Vecchiarelli, Quoc Le, Thach Nguyen (aka Rocky) and Andrew Ward.

startup weekend philly - day 1

The next morning, we determined our MVP would focus on 3 things – 1) integrating Facebook and allowing users to view their friends calendars 2) adding the ability to set up a new plan and 3) allowing friends to join a plan. The developers – Chris, Jared, Nathan, Mike, Quoc and Rocky – got to work. Chris and Nathan worked on the site, Mike on Facebook integration and the API and Jared, Quoc and Rocky on the mobile app. We literally had the perfect team, skill sets and personalities to execute on this idea.

Meanwhile, Melissa started designing the logo and background for the site. Brendon, Andrew and I talked about the brand, brainstormed marketing ideas and created a Twitter and Facebook account. We also bounced around some business models. Andrew put together a list of assumptions and we crafted a survey to test them. The goal was to figure out what type of people would use our application and what they would want to get out of it. We asked questions to confirm the pain-points we identified which focused on the methods they currently use to make plans with friends, what they disliked about it, what they would prefer, etc. We sent it to friends and spread it through our social networks. In addition, Chris and Muhammad from Houdini helped us get people to fill it out using their app which automates the Mechanical Turk process. We determined a couple of things from the survey – first, that college students were the perfect initial target market and second, that more than 50% of users would use the app to make plans a few days ahead of time so we decided to focus our messaging on creating plans within a week.

We had intended to launch our own sign up page but ran into trouble so we ended up using Kickoff Labs (a LaunchRock alternative) with the help of Chris’ friend. We were extremely active on our Twitter page, Facebook account and Tumblr blog (check it out for some funny posts), and it paid off – we had a hundred sign ups by midnight.

Day 3 was a blur and it seemed to drag on at the same time. Melissa had a fantastic, creative idea to put together a video showing a use case of how two friends can use hangplan as shown below. We used it in all our marketing initiatives to drive sign ups and found it helped our followers understand the concept better. We even got our first press story from PhillyPartyAmbassdor.com who agreed to endorse us and use our application when we launch.

We confirmed Melissa, Jared and I would pitch. Melissa would describe how she came up with the idea, go into the problem then the solution while showing a demo of how to set up a plan live on the site (You can check it out at http://hangplan.herokuapp.com). Jared would come in, act like he’s bored, glance through the mobile app and decide to join Melissa’s plan. I’d finish the presentation by detailing our user acquisition strategy, marketing plan and revenue model.

And that’s exactly how the demo played out Sunday night. Believe it or not, it took five minutes which was the time allotted for the presentation. Our Q&A lasted the same time. We were fifth to present overall from a list of twenty. The night seemed to drag on after and it was hard for me to sit still. Winners were finally announced around 8pm – Intro’d, an application that makes it easier to make introductions, by Jason Lorimer and Kevin Griffin took third place. We cheered when we learned we took second place and EffthePPA, an app that helps Philly drivers determine where to park, won First Place. For detailed coverage on the overall event, check out TechnicallyPHL’s recap.

hangplan team after win

I actually predicted we would win when we gathered together the first night. We had a great idea, the perfect team, the right personalities and all of us would use what we were about to build. All ten of us have confirmed we want to continue on. You’ll notice it’s been added to my sidebar under “My Projects.” :-)

Thanks to the hangplan team for an unforgettable experience, to the mentors for helping us throughout the weekend and to the judges for recognizing our hard work. Of course, I can’t forget Brad Oyler and Yuiry Porytko for organizing the event.

If hangplan sounds useful to you, sign up at http://www.hangplan.com and stay updated on our progress via Twitter and Facebook.

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about my trip to Startup Weekend Baltimore, building AdsGrader and provided takeaways for those interested in going to an upcoming event. I didn’t mention that we were one of the four teams followed by Justin Gutwein, the founder of ShineOn Storytelling to create a documentary about the event.

I was blown away when I first watched it this morning. Check it out for an in-depth look at the event and the entrepreneurs who made it happen (myself included!).

 

The Entrepreneurial Spirit from ShineOn Storytelling on Vimeo.

 

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