Startup Weekend Tip & Tricks

June 18, 2011

We are less than a month away from our inaugural internal Startup Weekend event at SEP so I’ll be writing up a few posts in an effort to share some knowledge that I have from attending similar hackathon-style events and reading about startups voraciously for the past year.

##Pick any platform you want (as long as it’s web or mobile…) I highly recommend staying away from product ideas that are desktop or hardware based. I will go into some of the business reasons in a future post, but from a technical standpoint it will be pretty hard to make significant progress in a weekend and it can be difficult to demo.

##The end of the weekend product isn’t the final product If you start worrying about prematurely optimizing database calls or scaling to thousands of concurrent connections, you will probably not get much done. You might have a solid architecture on the whiteboard (complete with load balancers, message queues, multi-tiered caching, … ), but nothing to show at the all-important demo. It’s okay if not everything works, focus on getting the core functionality done first and then polishing if there is time left.

If you want to build a mobile app, maybe it would be better to use jQuery Mobile or Appcelerator Titanium to crank out the first version; you can always build native iOS and Android versions if the project gets traction.

##Make use of existing services Unless you have someone on your team who wants to spend their weekend setting up servers and dealing with hosting, deploy your app to PaaS providers like Heroku (Ruby) or AppHarbor (.NET). If you need more flexibility, you can spin up an Amazon EC2 instance pretty easily. Remember that you can always move your architecture to your own hosted servers after the weekend.

Here are some other services to consider, all with free plans for development:

For some design shortcuts, use a website theme from ThemeForest and get icons from IconFinder (make sure to check the licenses).

##Research external APIs ahead of time If your product idea is going to rely on an external API, put in a few hours ahead of time and make sure you can answer these questions when pitching your idea on Friday.

  • Do you need an API key? (if so, get one beforehand - it may take a few days)
  • Do the terms of service prevent commercial use?
  • Is there a license fee?
  • Are there libraries in popular languages already?
  • Are there any request limits that might become a roadblock?

Play around with the API on your own. Make a few calls to it with curl (or hurl if your Unix-fu is weak). Find a library that is well maintained (check when the last commit was) and is easy to work with and try it out.

The ProgrammableWeb API directory is a good place to look if you need to find an API to provide the data you need. Freebase is another option if you need a specific kind of data.

##Have a plan of attack for your idea Assuming the idea you pitch to the group on Friday gets support, it is important that you, as the de-facto project manager, have some idea of how to execute on your idea. Try to slice up the product into independent verticals so people can start working right away and won’t be clashing with each other. There is nothing more frustrating then having 3 engineers sitting around waiting for one person to figure out what to work on next. Make sure you are constantly checking in on everyone’s progress and figuring out the next steps.

For a simple Rails web app example, you could divide the work up like this:

  • Someone can start spiking out controller actions
  • Someone can start on the database schema
  • Someone can do UI mockups on paper and then the HTML/CSS with Serve
  • Someone can start finding gems or integrating 3rd party APIs
  • Someone can build a marketing/sales site (this guide is awesome: CodeFastDieYoung)

Now at least five people with defined tasks and you can hit the ground running on Saturday morning.

Planning ahead and thinking through your product idea will save you a ton of headaches and make the weekend go much smoother. One of the worst things that can happen during a startup weekend is when progress stops completely because of an issue that could have been sorted out ahead of time.

I find that doing this kind of research also helps me get more excited about implementing an idea. Once all of the pieces start coming together on paper, I am anxious to get started coding. Hopefully, over the next month, those planning to attend will start feeling the same excitement.

If anyone else has tips and tricks or suggestions for what to cover in future posts, feel free to let me know.

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