Startup Weekend Toronto – Library Edition

A few weekends ago I was part of Startup Weekend Toronto as a developer. The theme of the Startup Weekend was “Library Edition” so all the ideas were related to libraries in some way.

Prior to the event I was a little worried that my development skills wouldn’t be up to snuff to build an interesting prototype for the pitch at the end of the weekend. So for any fence-sitters out there – you don’t need amazing development skills to contribute usefully at Startup Weekend.

Why? For our Startup Weekend, the concluding pitches were five minutes long. That includes a presentation of the problem, analysis of the business landscape, marketing, business plan, AND and the tech demo. I think we budgeted 60 – 90 seconds for our tech demo. As such, what you really need to develop is something to conveys the heart of what the startup is about, not necessarily a working prototype. The term “minimum viable product” (MVP) gets tossed around a lot but what’s really being built is a “minimum viable demo.”

Friday

We began on Friday night with pitches. Everyone with an idea pitched it to the assembled crowd of developers, designers, and other library types. Of the three groups, designers were probably the rarest, then developers, and then a majority of library types. After the pitches, the pitchers assembled in a room holding a sign with the name of their project. The other attendees would then put stickers on the the ideas they were interested in working on. After all was said and done there were 13 teams remaining.

Our team leader pitched an idea to deliver reading lists to parents of children aged 0 – 5. Research shows that reading as early as possible is strong predictor for love of reading later in life. Our team had 8 people; 5 librarians, 2 developers, and a designer.

We had catered dinner and talked a little more about the idea, and got to know one another.

Friday night on the subway ride home I thought about what we might build. A reading list was a bit different from the other types of applications we’d built. A list had many books, but a book would belong to many lists. A parent could have many lists. Furthermore, a book would also be part of a catalogue.

After reading about the different database associations it dawned on me that a ‘shopping cart’ would be a good, well-documented analogue to the problem. Instead of the store catalogue, it would be a library catalogue, and instead of a shopping cart with items it would be a reading list with books.

Late that night at a McDonalds I read through Rails shopping cart tutorials on my phone while toddlers climbed on my table and vagrants poked through the trash cans for coffee cups. Confident that I had a good guide for our work, I went to bed.

Saturday

Saturday morning I realized the subway doesn’t run as early and I ended up getting there later than I planned. Fully expecting that my group would be assembled and working by the time arrived, I prepared to feel sheepish. Instead, I found most of the attendants enjoying a catered breakfast including bacon and eggs, canned orange juice, and a selection of fresh fruit.

It was on Saturday morning, looking at the timeline for the weekend, that we realized that we definitely had no time to get busy setting up a Rails application with models, and views, and controllers, and log-in functionality, and this and that. The designer set about doing a mock-up of the front page in Photoshop, and I set about creating the reading dashboard and “badge” functionality. We needed to show the judges the reading list, the connection to the library catalogue, the gamified ‘badge’ system, and the connection to librarians via Q&A.

The designer had picked a colour scheme and pulled together some branding overnight so we all had something to work with.

Annoyingly, the demo web page took much longer than expected. I think I surprised myself that even with the long hours we spent working, getting everything to look right and also mesh with the designers intentions took a long time, although everything was done to the team’s satisfaction.

While we were working on the code the librarians came up with a survey to gauge market interest. Amazingly, although there were only 8 of us, with all of us asking on Facebook for survey responses, we got over 180 responses in less in 24 hours. Going out into the world to talk to parents wasn’t as successful as it was a cold weekend and few parents were outside.

By Saturday night we realized that the home page wasn’t going to be as functional as we’d hoped, and so by 11:30 or so that night we decided to just slice up the Photoshop mockups and set clickable areas on those, rather than actually doing up individual objects on page written in code.

Sunday

By Sunday noon everything was more or less presentable, so the designer and developer spent a few minutes with me pointing out ways to give the badge page a little more visual interest with different colours and layouts, betraying my function first sensibilities. (That’s not to say that it’s any less functional with their suggestions)

There was a last minute push to incorporate our branding into our PowerPoint slides to give everything coherent feel. We time-tested the slides but consistently went over time limit (5 minutes), but by then there wasn’t any time left to significantly revise the presentation so we just hoped for the best.

The presentations started and were evaluated by a panel composed of academics and entrepreneurs in the library and book space. While we watched the presentations, our team leader was nowhere to be seen. Five minutes before our presentation, where I was to be slide-clicker-in-chief, I spotted her outside in the foyer, practising. One on-camera fist-bump later she had the crowd going with an engaging and funny presentation which was only marred by the 5 minute cut-off. I thought we had some good competition from some teams with ultra-slick live websites but it would take an hour (Or two?) after the end of the presentations before the judges decided.

We won third place! Judges liked our main idea but thought we should refine it a little more. The prize pack included a set of headphones, some Amazon gift cards, and some subscriptions to lynda.com. It was kind of awkward to divide up, and we ended up returning the headphones to get a Future Shop gift card to further divide amongst the team. After the win announcements we were off to the pub for pint, and to catch up with other Bitmaker types who were in teams who had placed 1st and gotten Organizer’s Choice.

* * *

A few weeks later we got an email from a small library federation expressing some interest in our product. We’re putting the team back together to see where this goes …

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