Thursday, January 19, 2012

Startup Weekend (also known as, I'm back!)

It has been nearly a year since my last blog post, I realize that; but I'm happy to say as of January 1, 2012, I have taken my design studio full-time and am therefore working 100% for myself! I have been wanting to get my blog back off the ground since Day One, but other "business stuff" keeps taking up my time! There's so much I need to brief you on since my last post, but first...!

My main reason for writing this comeback post is that I experienced something absolutely magical this past weekend. People are asking me to recap, so here goes:

Thanks to my good friends Donald DeSantis and Adam Stelle, I was lucky to attend Seattle Startup Weekend #10, hosted at The Hub in Pioneer Square. What's Startup Weekend, you ask? Well, it's a 54-hour event (from Friday evening to Sunday evening) that brings geeky, brilliant developers and businesspeople together to essentially create tech startups in one weekend (they're hosted all over the globe, so check out the Startup Weekend website for details on how to join one in your area!). This past weekend, the theme was "Rise of the Designer," and design was being emphasized more so than it usually is at Startup Weekend. This last detail was the main reason why I was there.

I had always heard about Startup Weekend, but had always psyched myself out of actually attending an event.

Oh, they probably don't really need designers...

Oh, I'm not a good enough designer... 
(see #1 from this post by Dwight Battle, a fellow Startup Weekend designer)

Oh, but I don't have time...

There was always something holding me back.

But since I was now working for myself, I figured it would: a) be a good networking experience; b) provide me with some kind of design experience so that even if I was absolutely I would learn from it; and c) get me out of my house where I now spend all my time plugged into my desktop.

I sucked it up and went.


The weekend kicked off at 5pm on Friday with pizza, beer, and chit-chat with the other attendees (100+ of us!). The various Startup Weekend workers and volunteers were all amazing and did a great job of getting everyone fired up. We were all asked to raise our hands to show if we were developers, business people, or designers. I half raised my hand for the first two, then shot my arm high in the air for the last option, along with about 30 other individuals (although a murmur went through the crowd when "us designers" raised our hands because it was apparently a significantly larger group than at past Startup Weekends).

Eventually, the pitches started. This meant whoever had a potential business plan could hop on the microphone and share their idea in 60 seconds or less. Some people came with pitches they had already been thinking about (or working extensively on) for months; others thought of an idea less than five minutes before jumping up in front of the crowd. (I thought about pitching, but figured I would simply listen this first time around and pitch at my next event.)

There were a lot pitches, and out of those I wrote down eight that interested me:

Seat with a View
An app which would help you find the seat with the best view on a plane depending on the plane's route.

A way to test your website on mobile devices to show clients how it will be displayed in different environments.

Similar to Foursquare; but instead of seeing where your friends are after they've already arrived to a location, you can shout out to your friends where you're currently located and whether you're hungry, thirsty, or bored. They can then easily see who's available in their immediate area and make plans.

Easy, inexpensive home-monitoring service as an alternative to the similar, outrageously-priced services currently available.

Example: You're at Starbucks buying coffee and you decide you want to buy a coffee for your friend for the next time they go to that same Starbucks. You purchase something for a friend and they receive an alert on their phone that you have given them a gift and it's waiting in a general area (visible on the app's map). The next time your friend is in that area, once they're close enough to the gift, they can see where it's located. When they get close enough to the location, they can "open" it and redeem their gift at the store.

Awesomely crazy guy who brought a Roomba vacuum and talked about turning it into some kind of robot. Hilarious/amazing pitch.

An app that electronically stores all of your various savings cards for grocery stores, etc. (after the pitches, the pitcher discovered that a really amazing version of this already existed, so he ended up bowing out of the running during the second shorter pitch round, even though it was voted as one of the favorites).

A web app essentially combining the Seattle-based OneBusAway with Google Maps so you wouldn't have to switch between the two when planning your transit route.

A GPS-based mobile game where you select your superhero or villain persona and play games (virtual Rock, Paper, Scissors, etc.) against others when you enter the same vicinity.

For the voting section, everyone was given three Post-It notes to add to their favorite options hanging as signs on the wall. I ended up voting on Superheroes, Surpr!ze, and WhichBus (although came close to voting for Seat with a View and ShowOff).

After voting, the top 16(?) pitches were selected, and the pitchers were sent to various areas of the room where we could then follow-up and ask them more specific questions about their ideas and ultimately decide which group to join.

I talked to the Superheroes guy, but Michael Tubridy, an amazing illustrator I knew, was already planning on working with him, as was another designer, so I speculated I wouldn't be as involved in the hands-on design process if there were multiple other designers already on the team. I walked over to the WhichBus guy (Gilad) who had formed a pretty solid-looking group, although after chatting with them for a bit discovered they didn't yet have a designer. WhichBus sounded like a great idea and a great group so I made my decision to hop on!

There were seven of us (Kim, Dave, Gilad, Dave, Daniel, Kevin, and myself) and we got down to business immediately. We went around the table, introduced ourselves and, after everyone stated their various skill sets, we realized we all complemented each other quite nicely: 4 devs, 2 businesspeople, and 1 designer. Kim asked if I was good at logo design. I said I thought I was okay (but really, in my head, panicking because I was feeling rather unsure of myself since the design side of things was all on me now).

We set up a table, grabbed some chairs, and claimed one of the large whiteboards leaning against the wall. We quickly made a list of all the potential features of our app. Nobody argued with anyone. No one told anyone else their ideas were stupid. Everyone was so positive and excited, and nobody brought anyone else down. Absolute group brainstorming perfection.

We looked at our list and, realizing there was no way to accomplish everything in one weekend, went through the list and voted on the things we thought were absolutely necessary for the demo, prioritizing items based on Roman "thumbs up/thumbs down" voting. A few minutes later we had our list. Again, seamless. Our team was awesome.

Daniel and I tried to get GitHub working on my archaic MacBook (which, because I rarely use it, is still only running Tiger - that's right, let's backtrack: Lion, Snow Leopard, Leopard... Tiger). Our attempts proved unsuccessful, but by that point it was getting late so we decided to pack it up and come in fresh Saturday morning at 9:30.


Daniel, Gilad, and I were the first ones in. Daniel set up a DropBox folder and synced it to GitHub so I could at least have access if I needed it. Gilad started working on the back-end. I started brainstorming our logo, which would dictate the whole look and feel of the app. And we all ate waffles.

Everyone eventually rolled in, and by around noon (maybe 1pm?) I had completed our logo. Kim whipped up some wireframes in PowerPoint, which I then used in designing our mobile screen mockups...

This was something I had never done before.

But I tried not to get hung up on my lack of experience and instead tackled it head on. It helped that my team liked the logo and that people from other groups liked it, too; but I guess my insecurity drew from the fact that I still have a difficult time calling myself a "designer." It's still relatively fresh in my vocabulary considering I only really discovered my true passion for design a few years ago.

But, again, I sucked it up and created mobile designs based off of an iPhone 4's screen dimensions and resolution (I'm still not sure if this was the best way to do it, but it worked).

By the end of the day, I had created four different screens, as well as a different version of our logo to use on Twitter and Facebook; Kim and Biz Dave tackled our LaunchRock page, our social media accounts, survey, and whipped up the framework of the PowerPoint deck for our demo; Gilad and Dev Dave had pulled the APIs for OneBusAway and Google Maps and had altered them so that we had working code; and Daniel and Kevin worked on making Gilad and Dave's progress work with the front-end design.

We had various check-in meetings throughout the weekend where we stated what we'd been working on, what we were about to work on next, and ideas for how best to tackle certain problems.

I really can't accurately describe how well our group worked together. We didn't realize how lucky we were until we heard about other groups fighting and even disbanding altogether. We had just assumed all the other groups were in the same groove. We were all on the same page the entire time. We trusted each other 100% and let each member do their own [targeted] thing (with the occasional check-in meeting), and were ├╝ber-productive because of it.

We wrapped up for the evening around midnight. Still going strong after an exciting and productive day, I ended up going out to The New Orleans with Adam, John, Kyle, Kav, Eli, and some other Startup Weekenders (great people, I might add). I got home around 1:00am and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.


I arrived at The Hub again right at 9:30am and started tweaking Kim and Biz Dave's PowerPoint deck to match our branding. This was the part I loved: not PowerPoint (of course), but seeing all of the different elements come together with the same look & feel. Cohesion. Consistency. My favorite.

Once everyone arrived, the rest of the day was spent finishing the deck, rehearsing for the demo, and finishing up as much back-end work as possible. We finished with a good hour to spare before the demos, and spent the time relaxing, chatting, and debriefing with each other (all the while in amazement that we were done so early, maybe even second-guessing ourselves a little).

When it was time for the demos, we helped with table take-down and chair set-up, and snagged seven seats together near the front. After all, we were a team (and a great one), and we wanted to make sure we were all together when Gilad and Kim presented everything we accomplished over the course of the weekend. I didn't notice it then, but I'm now under the impression not all the groups felt as chummy as we did.

Gilad and Kim did a great job with the presentation and demo. The judges weren't too harsh, with Scott Rutherford only really quizzing them on how we would market this to other cities where similar apps might already exist. Jenny Lam, designer and founder of Jackson Fish Market really liked our design. To be honest, I can't recall what Rebecca Lovell and Adam Phillip said, but the presentation went great and I was incredibly proud of our team.

After all of the groups presented, the judges left to deliberate on another floor. We hung around chatting, getting water, and cooling off at the back of the room where it wasn't 100°F.

The judges eventually returned, everyone got settled, and Jenny announced the results:

The first award announced was for the Honorable Mention and the Design Award. I'm so pleased to say WhichBus was selected for the honor, but I'll get back to that shortly.

The rest of the awards were announced as follows:

Best User Experience

Best Presentation
ChickenCheckin (formerly Koombaya)

Best Market Validation
StreetCode (formerly BumPay)

Best Business Model
Iron Blanket (formerly AlarmCo)

(See the full summary of each group in this story by John Cook of GeekWire.)

Even though we didn't win overall, I couldn't have been happier. I had an amazing time, met some astounding people, did things I had never done before, and, perhaps best of all, proved my insecurity as a designer completely wrong. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

Thank you to everyone at Startup Weekend, to all the volunteers, to all the judges, to all the attendees, and, most of all, to my team. I'm so looking forward to planning the future of WhichBus with all of you!

And thanks to you, readers, for getting all the way to the bottom of this post. But what are you waiting for? Go sign up for WhichBus to be alerted when we officially launch! 



  1. Good stuff! I'm always somewhat relieved when I hear designers have the same self doubt as I do. The same thoughts you were going through being the sole designer on your team were the same ones that were going through mine. It's a lot of pressure, especially when the focus of the weekend was on us. You pulled through spectacularly, though!

  2. Great story. So glad you had a great team. I could feel your good vibes from the next table over. High five.