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Startup Weekend Baltimore 2011 Recap (Plus Tips for Future Attendees)

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