Monday, February 4, 2013

Startup Weekend UW

One week has elapsed since Startup Weekend! Here's a picture of my awesome team:

Team Dookie! (Name explained below...)
We developed a crowdsourced public health service called PoorMe. The explanation is this: Public health data is really valuable, but hard to come by. You can help by sharing your symptoms when you're sick. There's more to it than that, though. In addition to logging your symptoms (which only show up anonymously) you put together a list of ways your friends could help you out while you're sick, by recommending something to watch on Netflix or bringing you some soup. The hope is that by creating a "community of co-misery" and a space for altruism and taking care of your friends, we'll make a website that people are more likely to use to report their illnesses. Then we collect more timely public health data than just a) sick people who make it to hospitals or b) what Google can infer from people performing flu-related searches.

PoorMe's website and heatmap of symptoms in Seattle

If you think this is a nice idea, you'll be happy to know that we're still working on it!

Format of Startup Weekend UW

There were about 125 people in attendance. This event was held at one of the new dorms of University and Washington, so a lot of the people were students, undergrads especially. I suspect other Startup Weekends have an older crowd and non-zero alcohol.

Initial pitches
On Friday evening, anyone who wanted to give a pitch got 60 seconds to do so. There were something like 56 ideas pitched, including me deciding at the last minute to pitch this Collaborative Photography idea. Then we got stickers and went around chatting people up and voting on our favorite pitches via sticker. About 20 pitches got enough stickers to advance to the next phase (I got 3 stickers and the minimum was about 4) and then we formed teams around those ideas and got to work. By Sunday afternoon, there were 16 final presentations which were related but usually not exactly the same as the original pitches.

Pitch pruning

What I was hoping to get out of it

A friend had described Startup Weekend as an awesome experience for her, so I wanted to try it out. I'm also going to Crowdcamp in a few weeks, which will be another weekend-long hackathon type event and I wanted to practice being productive in a brand new team for a weekend. I also wanted to use the experience to get out of my comfort zone (is start-up starting right for me?) and possibly figure out what the business side of startups is all about.

I succeeded at the extrovert-boundary-pushing, idea-pitching bit.

I had a great time, too! I had a lot of fun with my group, going out and seeking customer validation and learning enough Django to be useful and making fancy things with Google maps.


Rants about money

I feel as confused by "business" as before. Academia, or at least non-profit land and doing things for the common good makes more sense to me. My distorted view of money is that I'd rather pay for the opportunity to make things than to pay for something mostly useless made by someone else.

The project I gravitated towards was pitched by another grad student and is totally inline with things I believe, like getting the crowd to contribute useful data in a way that adds up. It should be funded with grants and be a non-profit and stuff, right?! My least favorite part of the weekend was the "mentors" asking us how we were going to make money and us coming up with awkward, orthogonal stories to do so. Some of those ideas, like one-click delivery of food and medicine are starting to sound okay, though, and people do seem to like them. But it's just a website. We shouldn't need that much money to make it go.

Two of the teams at the end had "business models" that I really rather liked. They seemed the most genuine to me, anyway. The teams were and which got other people to donate their $100 AWS credit (that was another sweet perk of attending!) to essentially fund those websites for a couple years until the joke and the AWS credit dies out. Also, both of these groups had smooth, hilarious presentations.

The presentation for Perfect Guy But... was hilarious.
The only other idea that I would personally consider paying to use was something called NomOn, which would deliver a random food item in a certain price range. "Are you ever too hungry to make a decision?" YES LIKE ALL THE TIME...

Poop and pivoting

Finally, story time about where Team Dookie came from! Also, another dirty word: pivoting!

The original pitch was called "Dookie Detective" and the idea was that people with stomach troubles could log their symptoms and where they'd eaten recently and together track down the source of various food-borne illnesses.

Unfortunately for us, when we went out and talked to people about such an app, they got kind of weirded out. People don't want to talk about poop, let alone log it on their phones. "If I'm spewing from both ends, I want to focus on getting better and not touch my phone," they said.

We may have also started asking people about tracking their poop on a daily basis and not too many people were keen on that either. One guy at the med center did exclaim, however, that "poop is fascinating!"

Anyway, middle of Saturday, we switched focus to general kinds of sickness, like the flu and whatnot, and ways to make being sick suck less. That made things more comfortable for everyone. There are still plenty of references to poop, though, especially in the github repository where everything is in a folder called "poopreporter". And there's the name: PoorMe!

This post has gone on for too long now, but look, here's a project facing the poop-analyzing problem head on: In my heart, they earn the true "Dookie Detectives" title.

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