Building a Web Business is Hard, Technically
This past weekend, 72 co-founders got together to try to build a web start-up from concept to launch in an experiment dubbed Startup Weekend. They (designers, developers, UXers, marketers -- even lawyers) started on Friday by selecting a business idea from a list of 50 suggestions. They cranked almost non-stop until the wee hours Sunday night, but ultimately didn't accomplish the stated goal of having VoSnap open for business on Monday. The software just wasn't ready, and to that end, they admit, it was a failure.
It's clear to me, though, that the weekend was a success on many levels, and I commend the group for being so open with their experiences along the way. I was in Colorado and couldn't resist stopping by on Sunday afternoon to see what was happening for myself. David, Andrew, and Matt showed me around a bit, and I was able to be a fly on the wall. I was there less than an hour, but a couple of things struck me right away:
- There was a great productive energy. I showed up 40+ hours into it, and everyone was still getting along great and enjoying themselves. There was lots of collaboration and real work getting done. It was fun to be around.
- It was more about the experience than the results. It was relaxed. People weren't overly stressed -- it was more about having the chance to work along side a bunch of other smart people. Everyone was clearly learning a lot from each other, and they seemed to value the experience more than any potential value of owning 1/72th of a start-up (something the TechCrunch flamers don't seem to get). It was certainly intense and focused, but it wasn't a make-or-break attitude. Given the situation, I think that's fine.
I was disappointed for the team when I learned yesterday that the site didn't launch. I know they worked hard, and I'm sure a lot them are frustrated. Several people have been supportive, and I echo their positive sentiments. I'm hoping to help organize a start-up weekend in DC (and perhaps Durham?), and the Boulder team's experiences will be key to any future successes.
The Key Lesson? One of the coolest things about Startup Weekend was all the different disciplines represented in one room. Designers, marketers, strategy guys, and developers, all working side-by-side. Classic teamwork. Appropriately enough given the team-spirit of the weekend, the no-launch isn't being pinned on any one group. I think that's fair -- it was a team effort, and everyone no doubt cut corners to save time, turning in quality but in some sense "incomplete" work.
Here's the problem: developers can't turn in "incomplete" work if you're ever going to hit a deadline (they can turn in "crappy" work, but that's another post ...). It all has to work. That's not an indictment of the developers -- far from it. It's a nod of respect. They have the hardest (in this context) job, period. Everyone gets to cheat but them. Creative can design an imperfect UI. PR can write shallow promotions. Even the overall strategy can be somewhat off. When you only have a weekend, of course there will be limitations. All of these problems might mean that the business won't do well, but they won't keep it from launching. Bad (or a lack of) code, though, will. At the end of the day, some developer has to sit down and make everything work, or else everyone goes home empty handed.
The Startup Weekend experiment highlights the obvious: without a functioning backend, there is no start-up and nothing else matters. This isn't news to anyone. They apparently had tip 1(a) -- "It's the backend, stupid" -- up on a board somewhere, but they didn't need me to tell them. They knew it going in, but development challenges are simply hard to predict and overcome, and they're always the most likely to blow your schedule.
Whether you have a weekend or a year, just remember that your app is probably harder to build than you think (technically). Plan and adjust accordingly.