Lessons from Startup Weekend Detroit

What kind of business can you build in 54 hours? That’s the challenge at every Startup Weekend event and the group in attendance at the M@dison building for Startup Weekend Detroit was more than up to the challenge. Six of us from Atomic Object made the trek out to the event to participate. We built, and learned, a lot.

Drew, Mike, Justin, and Jason in Detroit.

Drew Colthorp and I worked with Peter Beaugard, Kari, and Ben on turnDetroit for the weekend. In a nutshell, turnDetroit’s goal is to promote community involvement in identifying, funding, and pursuing opportunities to make productive use of vacant spaces. We were reminded of a few important lessons throughout the event, and our project in particular illustrated that the most important problems to solve are often not technical in nature.

The most important problems are frequently non-technical

Non-technical problems can be very interesting, challenging, and rewarding to take on. Still, as developers, it can be easy to jump into building software when a short deadline looms on the horizon. We spent a lot of time as a team working out exactly what problem we were trying to solve, how to engage communities, how to process incoming ideas, and how turnDetroit could make enough money to be self-sustaining. Peter had already put a lot of thinking into the concept of turnDetroit and that helped frame our minimum viable product discussions.

Software was involved in our proposed solutions to the problems identified, but the type of software needed is not particularly challenging or unique. The approach to personal interactions was much more valuable to define.

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize

It was critical to focus on the product we really needed from our limited time: the pitch. We prioritized tasks that would help build a good story for the pitch. Ben worked diligently on a video to illustrate the concept, Kari and Peter focused a lot of energy on the pitch slide deck, and Drew and I focused in on wireframes for the idea intake, discovery, and funding tasks. Keeping post-it notes hung on the wall identifying our high-value personas and stories helped keep us focused.

Still, we found ourselves off in the woods for an hour or two. Of course Drew and I wanted to build some sort of software to show off during the pitch (we are software developers) and we gave it a brief try. But it came to an end as we were reminded of another lesson:

Frustration saps energy and motivation; success rejuvenates

The technology side of our mockup came together relatively quickly thanks to a combination of familiar and new tools (Staticmatic2, Twitter’s Bootstrap). We had a reasonably functional and flexible layout for the content we wanted to show, but it needed more design attention. Drew and I stated integrating aspects of the design aesthetic from a pre-existing slide deck but were struggling with adapting it to the needs of the web content.

Combined with the already long day (9am to 7pm at that point), the frustration of striving for successful visual design without success left us both nearly ready to call it a day by 8pm. We felt exhausted and unmotivated.

Amazingly, after we aborted that attempt, took a brief break, and then focused on putting together a few Balsamiq mockups (something we’re quite good at) we regained our motivation and worked steadily until 11pm.

We’ve seen this pattern before. It’s a big reason why we find it worthwhile to spend time crafting tools. The less we feel like we’re banging our heads against technology, the more energy we have to solve the problems our customers are more interested in. Good tools more than pay for themselves in the long run.

There’s a lot of positive energy in Detroit

We got to meet awesome people, work on a few great projects, and see first-hand the entrepreneurial spirit at work in Detroit. I hope we’ll see a few of the winners at the Michigan Lean Startup Conference in Grand Rapids on May 17, and I expect We’ll be back to spend some time in Detroit again soon. Well done, everyone.