(6 minute read)
This weekend just gone I attended Launch48, an event where the objective was to build a viable commercial web application in just 48 hours with a diverse group of random people you meet at the event itself.
Friday was the first day of the event. The bulk of the day was the Launch48 conference. I think I was able to take away something new from each speaker who came on (download my notes - PDF). We were based in Paypal's offices in Richmond, where the weekend event was also being held. After the conference came idea pitching time in the evening. Essentially, anyone who had a web business idea (mobile apps counted too) got 60 seconds to pitch their idea to all the attendees. There was some odd ones (in my opinion) - one guy wanted to build a website where people could search for good retirement homes to send their parents to - but nearly all the ideas had some sort of value in them. What I observed was that a "winning" pitch was 50% about the idea and 50% about the way it was pitched. The most important thing to keep in mind when pitching in 60 seconds is that the audience have to understand what your idea is, how you intend to make money from it, and who your competitors are. You needed to be able to speak clearly. Even if you don't have a decent idea you should pitch it (as I did) as it's good practice to pitch. Not only that, as I learned over the course of the weekend it doesn't really matter if your idea has already been done by someone else - you can always do better. It's about execution, marketing, branding, and a lot of the other things.
After all the pitches had taken place (there were about 30 in total) all the attendees voted on each idea by a show of hands, helping whittle them down to the 12 most popular ones (mine didn't make the cut!). These remaining ideas were then re-pitched, this time for 2 minutes each, which included a short Q&A session with the audience. Afterwards another voting session resulted in the 6 most popular ideas being chosen for development over the coming weekend. All attendees then allocated themselves to whichever idea they wanted to work on. Because absolutely anyone could attend the event there was no control over the proportions of coders vs marketing vs business people vs other skillsets. I was a little surprised at the relatively few number of developers there were there. Some ideas had a lacking in certain skillsets - for instance, the idea I chose lacked enough developers, another team lacked in designers. After this we all grouped into our various chosen teams and got to know each other briefly before heading off home.
On Saturday we started the earnest work of getting our idea - Wraply - implemented. The basic idea behind the site is that it lets you easily buy a gift for yourself or a friend by pooling money from a number of people. An improvement on the old-fashioned method of chasing up people for money and then pooling it all together manually.
One thing I quickly realised early on was that people differed widely in their competency and proficiency. For instance, we had 3 developers in our team yet we all came from different programming language backgrounds and had different levels of programming experience. Luckily another developer who had missed the conference the day before joined us in the morning, at which point we had two developers with the same skillset and programming experience. These two guys did the heavy lifting whilst the other guys chipped in where they could.
Another thing I learnt was the importance of knowing your target market. I would never have come up with the target markets that they came up with. I could really see the importance that good marketing, usability and business modelling played in making such a project a success. Even if we didn't accomplish all our technical goals over the weekend, having a solid business and marketing plan would make it more likely that we'd be able to get funding if need be to take the project forward. Our revenue model hinged on affiliate revenue via Skimlinks - yes it's variable, but reliable enough if we were able to build up real volume of gift pooling on our site.
We kicked off the marketing and PR drive early on, with entries on various social networking sites such as Twitter. The usability and design teams then constructed some wireframes for the dev team to start coding to. Coding didn't start till 5pm on Saturday, which in hindsight was way too late since we could have gotten so much more done had we started earlier. But of course, we had to spend time figuring out the database structures and what language/framework to use to build the site in (we opted for PHP and CodeIgniter).
Another sleepless night later (I had so much adrenaline going through me!) and it was the final day of the event. Today was all about coding and implementation and I really had to stay focussed in the moment and stop myself worrying about whether we'd get everything finished in time. One of our coders was a Paypal guru and spent the whole day battling their APIs to try and get us payment integration working! Although we didn't have the time in the end to get this properly integrated into the site we did manage to get a demo of gift pool creation of working. Probably the coolest feature on the site was the ability for the user to enter a URL to an Amazon product page onto our site and then see the title, image and price of the product magically appear on our webpage (AJAX fetch using Amazon's web services API).
Usually when I'm building software and websites I take time to handle errors gracefully, log where I need to and write browser-based automated tests to ensure robustness in the face of future changes. On this weekend I threw all of those practices out of the window and just got it working in whatever way I could. I had to tell the guys presenting the demo not to enter the same email address twice when creating a gift pool as the database would throw back a 'duplicate not allowed' error if they did so!
Come 4pm we were first up to present to all the event attendees. It went smoothly. Over the weekend, as we were developing the website and business model we kept finding more and more direct competitors to our idea already out there on the web (e.g. Lottay). Apart from being disappointing minds it meant we had some tough questions to answer in the Q&A session of our presentation. I still feel we can differentiate ourselves from our competitors enough to have a chance for success in the marketplace. The other team presentations were really impressive. Some of the other teams even almost had complete products ready to be released to the public at large (in fact, Given.org is pretty much done). Congratulations to all of them on their successes.
After the presentation saga we all headed off for beer and pizza (classic startup nutrition) and just chilled out, chatted to people and networked. We were all pretty knackered by that point I've gotta say. It has taken me a couple of days to recover from it all!
I learnt an awful lot from this weekend. I learnt how quickly you can build a functional prototype if you really have to in a short space of time! Oh, and wireframing is a must before actually building webpages. Being a good software engineer with some creative design and usability skills isn't enough to make a successful web business. I need to think about marketing, PR, revenue model, branding and lot of the other things. I got to meet and learn from a diverse group of people, all with an entrepreneurial mindset like myself. I would definitely do this again, and I recommend anyone with an interest in web business (or otherwise) to do it.