3 days to reality
In a weekend, entrepreneurs push their limits, pool their talents, and take a business from concept to product - for fun and profit
NEWTON - Some people spend their free time doing yard work or running marathons. Hard-core technology entrepreneurs are a whole different breed of weekend warrior.
Fifty-two such geeks came together on a recent Friday evening, fresh from their day jobs, to build a full-fledged business from brainstorm to beta, at Startup Weekend Boston.
Ten pounds of gummy bears, $83 worth of Taco Bell food, 100 Tootsie Pops, and 54 hours later, they launched DeskHappy.com, a website for deskbound cubicle zombies who need a reminder to get up and stretch. But the product was secondary to the process during Startup Weekend, the sixth such experiment hosted around the world since July in which dozens of code writers, dot-com lawyers, marketing moguls, and other techies are thrown together to see what they can build under pressure.
"There's an 80-20 rule in business that's taught a lot. Twenty percent of a company does 80 percent of the work. What if that 20 percent from a bunch of companies got together?" said Andrew Hyde, founder of Startup Weekend. "It's a social experiment."
Countless start-ups flop, never making it beyond the basement, while in successful companies, the start-up process often gets compressed into a sentence: Google "took root in a Stanford University dorm room," according to its corporate history; "Mark Zuckerberg and co-founders Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes launch Facebook from their Harvard dorm room," in February 2004, according to that company's timeline.
But the process of coming up with an idea and honing it, retooling it, troubleshooting it, and launching it can be the most exciting part of launching a company - or at least that's how it seems at the beginning.
At 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 19, a chaotic list of ideas cluttered the white board and people whooped and booed to vote for the idea they wanted to build into an instant business.
By 9 p.m., it was down to either laptop yoga or a project that would create scavenger hunts for mobile phones. The atmosphere had grown divisive - in a friendly way. "Laptop karate," heckled Rod Begbie, a software engineer from Bose Corp. whose business cards say "tech curmudgeon," as supporters from each side lobbied for their pet project.
A short while later, the whole group got behind a version of the laptop yoga idea, and the collaboration began.
According to the rules of Startup Weekend, everyone who attends the event is considered a founder, receiving a stake in the company based on their attendance for the weekend - with Startup Weekend itself, a start-up led by Hyde, taking a 5 percent cut. Two of the previous Startup Weekend projects have fully launched - a web-based instant polling tool called VoSnap from Boulder, Colo., is being run by a core team from the weekend project; ScrollTalk, a new kind of chat room that was the product of the West Lafayette, Ind., session has been live for two weeks.
The team has the option of continuing to run the company as a group, assigning a few players to take the prototype to the next level, selling it on eBay the next day, or just letting it languish.
For the Startup Weekend participants who look forward to putting in 14-hour days on the weekend, working with other ambitious, driven people is all the reward they need.
"I love seeing possibilities - people come together around a common idea and build something from scratch," said Gwen Bell, who traveled from Chapel Hill, N.C., and came up with the idea for laptop yoga.
By the next morning, laptop yoga had won, and rejected business names littered the white board - "deskflexx," "deskarate," "deskergy," and "stretchr" all lost out to DeskHappy, with the tagline: "get back to YOU. . .in a minute."
Then, about halfway through the weekend, the process began to turn toward the absurd.
The instructional relaxation videos the group developed included head rolls, neck stretches, and eye relaxation exercises, but also incorporated the "Coke can roll," in which viewers are instructed to place empty Coke cans on the floor and roll their feet on top of them.
"My responsibility is to make sure we don't take ourselves too seriously," said Jason Donahue, 25, cofounder of Axon Labs, the sleep research company that loaned their office to Startup Weekend, who helped develop the videos. "There will be no spandex."
Meanwhile, in a darkened corner office, members of the "dev" team - made up of about a dozen men and two women fluent in software code used to build the site - quietly clicked between windows of code as the schedule started to slip.
"The whole weekend is ambitious," said Jake Stetser, 31, chief integration officer of the social network Zaadz, as he eyed a schedule that said the team was supposed to do an alpha launch at 1 p.m. on Day 2. It was already, he noted, 1:15 p.m.
In the business development cube, Nathaniel Brooks of Brookline was researching the target market, 30- to 50-year-old women, while Damian Gibbs, 29, a student at Northeastern University in charge of checking out DeskHappy's competition, was inundated by reminders from his computer to relax, stretch, and blink from existing sites.
"Every 10 minutes my computer tells me to take a rest break," said Gibbs.
As the Red Sox were warming up Saturday night, the team was still toiling, with two members of Startup Weekend foregoing tickets for the joys of entrepreneurship.
"It's the camaraderie," said Joe Rothermich, 37, a senior staff scientist at Natural Selection Inc., a tech company, who was offered what he ruefully admitted was a very nice seat at the game. "I don't want to let the team down."
After the Sox won, the DeskHappy team headed out to a local bar to celebrate, reappearing at 9 a.m. the next day.
As the hours rolled on Sunday, the excitement evolved into exhausted urgency as people finished their tasks and waited for the programmers to finish their work. People began to trickle out so they could watch the Red Sox game or take bouquets to loved ones who had been left behind for the weekend.
Bell took a nap.
"Twenty minutes makes all the difference. Then I did a headstand to make it look like I was awake," she wrote in an update to Twitter, a social network.
But before the stroke of midnight, the team had its first version of the website up, featuring the DeskHappy exercise of the day, an eye relaxation that encouraged users to roll their eyes at the website.
Chris Hutchins was preparing to return to New York City, to a tech job he describes as a 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. gig.
"After Startup Weekend I want to quit all jobs," Hutchins said, who says he'll be at Startup Weekend in Washington, D.C., this weekend. "We're all here because we haven't quit our jobs and done start-ups ourselves yet."
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.