Atlanta, ruby, Sports, startups, Technology

Touchdown Nation finds a rhythm – Atlanta Startup Weekend 3, day 2

Touchdown Nation was formed yesterday (the name was updated from Football Nation so we could secure a web domain, twitter account and be unique on Facebook).  As a part of Atlanta Startup Weekend 3, we’re building an engaging social game for Facebook in less than 3 days.

The first 24 hours of Startup Weekend are a volatile time.  During ASW1, a huge swath of business and marketing types ran away after we chose to work on Skribit, and more attrition followed during early and mid Saturday afternoon as the team lurched into action.  During ASW2, many, MANY teams flamed out when they realized that the person who pitched the idea was trying to find free development & sales labor to build their idea in the coming months.  This year, at least 2 of the 8 teams totally cratered in the first 24 hours.

It happens.  Teams realize they can’t agree on what to build, that they can’t build what they want to, or that someone else already built the whole thing.  It’s not always a reflection on the people involved.  In some cases, I think it IS a reflection of the idea pitched.  Vague pitches about ill-defined products that will take a year to build are recipes for team implosion.

The first 24 hours of Startup Weekend are kind of insane.  You have teams of 5 to 20 people trying to get on the same page to figure out exactly what their project is, how to make money, and how to work effectively with a dozen strangers.

Touchdown Nation was no exception.  We had a great working session on Friday night deciding many of the things the game was and was not.  It changed a decent bit from my original pitch, or at least what I had in my head, which is a good thing and a great reflection on the team.  We came into this morning with a list of things to get done by noon, and we basically hit all of them, but there was still this sense of urgency.  We had a loose plan, a new name, and the technology infrastructure was in place, but hadn’t had any time to actually build the technology, the business, or the marketing.  It’s an uneasy feeling, which makes people on a team want to spend more time generating certainty instead of building something.

In the afternoon, we started to do less planning and more doing.  There are amazing times in startups where I believe the core team is in a rhythm.  In a rhythm, people on different teams understand the common needs enough that problems are worked out in conference calls, not huge meetings, and I believe Touchdown Nation hit that stride today.  When everyone is running toward the same goal, you need less meetings to reach that goal.  Course corrections happen through natural conversations, not huge meetings.

We hit that moment today.  Code started flying, blog posts started getting posted, you name it), but we got everyone technically ready to do their job.

That’s enough for now.  We”re very exicted and having a blast.  Check out @TouchdownNation for the latest news.

Game On!

-Rob

Atlanta, Sports, startups, Technology

Football Nation – Atlanta Startup Weekend 3, Day 1

It’s been 2 years since the first Atlanta Startup Weekend, which I view as a landmark moment in the growth of Atlanta’s technology startup community, and certainly a pivotal moment for me personally.  It grew both my ambition of what startups could accomplish in Atlanta, and my network of like-minded startupy people.

We launched Skribit in 3 days, and it remains one of the most successful Startup Weekend companies anywhere.  Last year, I spent time on the Seed Stage Records and Giving Time teams.  I left Seed Stage after Friday night, before it proceeded to implode on Saturday, and spent the rest of the time on Giving Time, which may be viable but hasn’t launched yet.

I pitched an idea at Startup Weekend, didn’t last year, and decided to pitch an idea this year.  Whether or not my idea was picked, my main goal was to launch whatever app I did work on by Sunday night.

Imagine my surprise when I presented an idea to build a social game for Facebook centered around Football, which I initially called Football Nation (the actual name is TBD), and I ended up with a team to build it!  The idea is that football is super popular, and Facebook apps are super popular, but nobody has effectively combined the two – instead, people are busy building farms, restaurants, and mafias on Facebook.  Not only could a football app be successful as a standalone app, it could provide a foundation to build a niche in social sports games and eventually a way to dethrone EA as the king of sports games.  (Frustration with NCAA Football 10 was actually the pain point that generated this idea.)

Our team is pretty enthusiastic about football.  We’ll be streaming Georgia Tech v. Duke on a projector tomorrow, and probably some other games.  Our team was not as well versed in Facebook social games.  In perhaps an odd move, we spent the first 30 minutes or so of our team meeting playing  the currently popular Facebook games in teams of two.  Mafia Wars, Restaurant City, Farmville, YoVille, and I even assigned Sorority Life to a guy I knew could take it. Hopefully they can detach from these new-found addictions enough to work on our app tomorrow. 🙂

I think we’ve got a good concept, and great thoughts from the team helped solidify answers to some key product decisions.  I am immensely grateful to have a strong development team which I can trust implicitly because I have worked with most of them.  I’m excited about the non-developer elements of our team too because they had great input and we need strong design, marketing, biz dev, etc. to make this thing work, and we have all of those skills.

If you’re a creative type and interested in helping, please find us.  We have a great start, but I believe that with this app, we have  a nearly unlimited need for UI input and asset production to make this game really rock.

If you’re planning to come to a startup weekend, prepare an idea to pitch.  The process of running  a team that has chosen your idea is amazingly different from being a part of a tea built around someone else’s idea.

Tomorrow is going to rock.

Atlanta, startups, Technology

Atlanta Startup Weekend 3 – Launch Something!

Atlanta Startup Weekend 3 is coming November 13th-15th.  Based on my experience at the first 2 Atlanta startup weekends, I want to challenge anyone who is planning to attend to come with the intent of launching some version of their company & product by Sunday night.

The first Atlanta startup weekend created Skribit, which launched VERY late Sunday night of that weekend, and was one of the first Startup Weekend projects to take on a life of its own beyond the weekend.  With every ASW1 attendee united on 1 project, we had an amazingly balanced and capable team, but we lost a lot of people after day 1 when they decided the idea wasn’t for them.  Skribit received funding from Georgia Tech’s Edison Fund, and is actively being worked on by Paul Stamatiou and others.

The second Atlanta startup weekend took on a new format.  Instead of having 60+ people create one company, we split into multiple groups to launch multiple companies – this was a good thing, although it led to a skewed distribution of resources (Reepli may have had 1/3 of the total developer pool, possibly with zero non-developers.)  I’m not convinced that the multiple projects led to any less attrition on day 2 than the ASW1 format.

The other big change was that teams were no longer encouraged to launch their company by Sunday night.  I think this was a VERY bad thing.  Businessy types who had been hunting for a technical co-founder for months pitched their huge-scope ideas.  Developers don’t show up at Startup Weekend to get another job, especially on ideas that several other developers have already declined to work on.  Friday night, I decided to join the Seed Stage Records team.  Late that night, when SSR’s goal for the weekend was set as launching a static web page by Friday night and doing more in the months ahead, I bailed.  The team imploded on Saturday over vision & direction issues that wouldn’t have been a problem if they had been focused on launching a minimum viable product by Sunday night.  Saturday morning, I joined the GivingTi.me team.  I rolled up my sleeves and put a lot of work into building a launchable site over the next 2 days.  It didn’t launch, mostly, I think, because there was NO pressure to launch.  Nobody cared if Giving Time launched by Sunday night, so there was no pressure to work until 1 AM at night, no pressure to cut scope, etc, etc.  It STILL hasn’t launched 9 months later.  As best I can tell, none of the code our team wrote will be used when it does launch.  Almost sounds like a wasted weekend, but I still had a blast.

I believe the first Atlanta Startup Weekend did a better job of building community and launching product.  ASW2 did launch TwitPay, but it germinated from the core Merb team, and I’m not sure the weekend did more than give those guys a kick in the pants to launch a rocking idea (to their credit, they DID launch something).  ASW1 did a LOT more to build Atlanta’s entrepreneurial community.  Part of that is because ASW1 was a part of Atlanta’s Great Awakening.  In many cases, it was the first time many of Atlanta’s startup-oriented minds met and had a chance to size each other up.  I think that’s too flippant, though.  The process of fighting over the concept, scope, and design of Skribit to successfully launch it in 3 days led to a better product and a better community.  At the end of ASW1, I knew who I wanted to work with again, and who I did not (AND I currently work with 2 of my Skribit co-founders).

So my call for Atlanta Startup Weekend 3 is to LAUNCH SOMETHING.  Don’t pitch an idea that can’t be launched by Sunday night.  Don’t join a concept that needs 6 months of work to launch – this isn’t startup speed-dating.  Don’t let your first team meeting degenerate into 1 year planning meetings and a goal to launch a landing page.  Find a great idea with other smart Atlanta / SouthEast regional people to work with to LAUNCH some version of that product in 3 days.

And if you’re working on a startup either full-time or on the side, the same challenge is out there.  Launch Something so you can begin getting customer feedback, iterating on your idea, and learning, instead of thrashing on an unlaunched app.

Atlanta, Politics

Dear Georgia Christian Coalition (about Sunday alcohol sales)

Another year in Georgia, another year where “Christian” interests harpoon efforts to allow the sales of alcohol on Sunday, in large part due to efforts by the Georgia Christian Coalition, which is “vowing to make Sunday [alcohol] sales a Republican primary issue”.

Dear Georgia Christian Coalition:  you’re doing more damage than good.  Show me what part of your Bible shows Jesus running around lobbying King Herod and Caesar to make the 10 Commandments the law of the land?  From where I sit, your efforts on issues like this do nothing but turn non-Christians off to the church, and to the message of Jesus.  Well done.

Jesus didn’t spend his time telling unreligious people what NOT to do.  He spent time building relationships, hanging out with people that religious folks didn’t approve of, and knew that changes in lifestyle come from the heart, not from legislature.  He did spent a good bit of time chastising religious people (Pharisees & Sadducees) who were obsessed with rules and rituals (sound familiar?).

Even more hollow is the moral ambiguity behind the focus on this one issue.  If selling alcohol on Sunday is bad, why are you not leading the charge to introduce laws to ban alcohol sales every day, or prohibit selling anything on Sunday?  Why allow the sale of lottery tickets on Sunday, and why not close down “gentlemen’s clubs” on Sunday or every day as well?  Taking an annual stand against six-packs on Sunday is posturing – if you’re going to take a stand, at least stand for something more than an awkward compromise.

Lobbying against Sunday alcohol sales in the name of Jesus drives people away from wanting to become or even associate with a Christian, and harms the Republican party you so closely tie yourself to.  Try being known for what you’re for, instead of what your against, and focus on people, not laws.

Atlanta, Java, Technology

The Next Episode

Back in March, I reached a decision to leave WeTheCitizens and spend some time in a contract role with Premiere. At the time, I expected that a contract gig would let me spend less after-hours time thinking about the day job, and more time on side projects and other interests. It turns out that even as a contractor, I cared about what I was working on. I consider that a good thing, we built up a good team, cranked out some pretty cool software, met some awesome people – I truly enjoyed my time at Premiere. The challenge for me on contract, was balancing life with billing more hours. In some ways, having a dollar amount directly attached to each hour of your time helps you better value your time. In other ways, it’s easy to imagine how working just a few more hours that week can earn you a shiny new gadget.

In spite of that, I was able to hatch FeatureFrame during my off-hours. It did occupy much of my creativity, and the process of building a product prototype, a pitch for Startup Riot, filing a provisional patent, designing a logo and business cards, and creating an actual business entity has been exciting, challenging, and in a twisted sense, fun. Many thanks to my Twitter posse, who often functioned as my co-founder, providing feedback and helping with decisions where I needed more than just my opinion. No I do not have stock options for any of you. Some interesting FeatureFrame news may yet be around the corner. It is still an interest and a passion of mine, and it will live on, but it’s not quite ready to be my main job.

The other thing I suspected when I left WeTheCitizens was that there were some interesting opportunities out there that weren’t crossing my inbox either because they were being filled by recruiters we’d used at WeTheCitizens, or because people generally seem to have the (often correct) impression that an executive in a startup isn’t really looking for another opportunity, at least until the startup’s been bought/folded and the earn-out is done. Being on contract actually did seem to send a clear signal, “Hey, I won’t be doing this new gig for too long, and I’ll need something interesting to do after that.”

A few moderately interesting things came and went, but one opportunity stood out, and I’m now a few weeks into my new role with Good Egg Studios. For all the times we jabbed at one of my Premiere colleagues for his work on Barbie.com, I never thought I would be working to build a virtual world for kids.  But here I am working on Elf Island.  A glance at the site and the blog should begin to make it obvious why.  This is an amazingly talented team, with the right marketing, the right funding, and the right product at the right time. The creativity and talent of the creative team is off the charts, and has combined with some talented technical resources to build a virtual world that a generation ahead of what kids are currently using.  The $2 billion valuation of Webkinz and Disney’s $700 million acquisition of Club Penguin are both examples of companies who have made this space extremely profitable.  The “secret” of Elf Island and our “play games, do good” mantra (which allows users to directly help non-profit causes) are going to be very sticky features that I think kids and adults will enjoy (even before launch, we’ve already had eager & hopeful users build us a fan site).  Our office space in west Atlanta is a win both for commute and for awesomeness – I need to take some photos, or come by and visit some time.

So that’s the news.  We are hiring a Java developer, a Flex developer, and a technical project manager (dev mgr?), so if you are somebody or know somebody who would enjoy such a role, do let me know.

Atlanta, FeatureFrame, Technology, WeTheCitizens

Startup Riot is HUGE for Atlanta

Startup Riot will rock Atlanta on May 19th, 2008.  ~70 startups will have 3 minutes each to pitch themselves before an audience of other startups and prospective investors, employees and customers.  Bilgistic creator Sanjay Parekh has been a force in organizing this event, recruiting his high-school colleague Drew Curtis of Fark.com as the keynote speaker, and getting more than 70 regional startups signed up to pitch.

Atlanta has had several cool startup community events.  TAG‘s annual business launch competition is underway again, Atlanta Startup Weekend launched Skribit, and we have had awesome unconferences such as 2 years of SoCon and last year’s BarCamp Atlanta.

What sets Startup Riot apart is that it is ORIGINAL and UNIQUE.  I haven’t heard of ANY other cities hosting events where an early stage company can pitch their company to investors and customers for FREE.  Sanjay has certainly been working hard to make the event happen, and the costs seem to already be covered by sponsors.  It is an event I can see other cities copying, and it’s starting here in Atlanta.

Of course I have a vested interest in Startup Riot.  My previous startup, WeTheCitizens. will be pitching.  I’ll be pitching (for a whopping 3 minutes)  FeatureFrame, a video platform for independent film-makers and commercial content-producers, but I’m also interested in the community aspects.  Many, many startups that I know of will be using this event as a major catalyst for them to build their pitch and move their business forward.  I can’t wait to hear about what dozens of other Atlanta startups are working on, and for Atlanta to pioneer an event that other cities will undoubtedly look to reproduce.

Atlanta, Premiere, Technology, WeTheCitizens

The Seas of Job Change – Wrapping up at WeTheCitizens

18 Months ago, I left a transitional role with Proficient/LivePerson to head up the development team at WeTheCitizens. In that time, we scaled the Wildfire platform from running a single gubernatorial campaign to a true SaaS platform that successfully ran for Rudy Giuliani and scales well to holding many national customers concurrently. It’s been quite a ride, filled with all of the highs and lows you could imagine. One of my fondest yet most stressful memories is working until 2 AM on a customer launch, waking up at 5 AM to catch a plane, and spending the morning calling back and forth to Atlanta as our production servers bounced up and down as the team in Atlanta discovered critical issues and bounced the server to apply fixes. Probably 5 minutes before we started training individual users, the system was stable enough to stay up, and the training and launch went great, thanks to an awesome technical team. I’ve worked with some of the best folks a startup could ask for, and I think we’ve accomplished a lot to be proud of. I’ve had great opportunities to expand my involvement in the Atlanta startup community, and met many more incredible people.

With these expanding horizons, came a conflict. There are a number of things I’d like to pursue, but trying to do to much “on the side” while serving in a startup VP role AND pursuing an MBA only comes at the expense of the MBA or the startup.  Testing the waters of any new venture while already in such a role is difficult at best. It’s been a great chapter at WeTheCitizens, and I it’s an opportune time to move on to new things – the team there is poised to thrive without even missing a beat. I’d like to explore some opportunities to co-found a new company.  I have a few ideas of my own I’d like to explore, build, and see if they get traction.  I’d love to take more of the load of Skribit development of of Calvin.  I’d love to explore leadership roles in some other local, fast-growing, young companies.  In leaving WeTheCitizens, I was trying to walk a fine line of finding a role that provided interesting work and long-term potential without conflicting with these other interests.

I found all of that and more in a contract position with Premiere Global (fondly locally known as Ptek), where I’ll be starting on Monday.  The project is important and interesting (I’ll share as much as I can, when I can – strategic projects at public companies can be a bit more sensitive than startup progress), we’ll be building a high-quality development team (solid Java resumes/referrals welcome), and we’ll be building a massively scalable system.  There’s potential for a longer-term position, but the contract nature of the position also affords a more natural boundary between day-job and other interests.  I’ve decided not to take any MBA classes this summer, freeing up some more time.  I’ll have time to pursue a number of different projects that have eluded me recently.  Six months from now, I’ll be in a far better position to decide what my next big step is.  Expect this blog to get a bit schizophrenic.  The role with Premiere is a good bit of hands-on development, so I’ll be sharing some nuggets that will help Java people.  I’ll be a bit more public and promotional with some of my other projects, which will be fun.  I think I’ll be just as busy, but with a much more diverse array of tasks on my plate.

—————-
Now playing: The Doors – The End
via FoxyTunes

Atlanta, Sports

Tornado Night at the Georgia Dome

I went to the Georgia Dome tonight for the SEC basketball tournament.  I caught up with a good friend who’s on UK’s faculty to watch both games, but the weather had different plans.

The Mississippi State vs. Alabama game went to overtime.  The Kentucky fans (a majority of the attendees) seemed quite excited for overtime even though they weren’t even playing, so I thought little of it when I heard what I thought was the UK fans loudly stomping their feet.  Until it became evident that it wasn’t them… it was too loud.

Looking beyond the UK fans, I could actually see the fabric of the roof of the Dome shaking in the wind.  I’ve been in the dome before for storms, and the fabric has never moved.  One of the advertising banners near the roof tore, pieces insulation started visibly blowing through the air of the dome, the scoreboard and partitions hanging from the ceiling were swaying widely, and the stomping noise got louder.  At this point, we decided that being underneath the steel and fabric roof was a bad idea, and were among the first wave of people to head for the concourse.

This was the edgiest part of the evening.  The aisles began filling up, people were becoming impatient with the slow walk up to the concourse, and the train-like sound of a tornado grew louder.  Here, there was a major possibility of a Cloverfield moment – like some monster was about to peel back the roof of the dome, screech, and create mass hysteria.  But simpler than that, if the power had flickered or gone out, if a larger tear had opened in the roof, I think chaos would have erupted.  It was a nervous and tense moment that could have taken a very bad turn.  After this, the stories began to circulate and we looked at visible damage.  One person almost got hit with a bolt that fell from the ceiling.  One security guard saw a rotating storm, another saw a woman who was outside slammed into the building by the wind.  There was an obvious hole in the roof of the Dome.

After lots of waiting, they somehow managed to finish out the Mississippi State  game, and they decided to wait to start the second game.  Overall, their crisis plan needed a LOT of work.  Via my phone, I learned there were ongoing tornado and severe weather warnings, but they left people in their seats rather than requiring them to move to the more sheltered concourses.  They provided very infrequent updates.  They kept telling everyone to stay around, and then suddenly announced that the Dome would close in 15 minutes.  They also postponed the second game just when all of the storm threats were subsiding.

The walk back to my car proved to me that a tornado was almost certainly the culprit.  The damage was extreme, but localized to very narrow areas.  We saw pieces of insulation surrounding the outside of the dome, and what appeared to be random structural pieces of the dome.  Insulation was blown so fast that it severed halves of shrubs.  Metal barricades were bent as they blew over.  Branches and plywood were sheared.

The most convincing evidence was on the Northside Drive side of the Dome.  Just below the roof of the dome were 2 sections where the exterior paneling was ripped off.  The insulation was gone, and torn banners were visible.  There were effectively 2 huge breaches directly to the interior of the dome, which explained why is was so drafty after the initial hit, and why they were reluctant to resume games if more bad weather was coming.  Large metal monument signs had been wrestled to the ground, twisted and wrested from their foundations.  Power poles and trees were toppled like twigs.

The Georgia World Congress Center may have sustained some of the worst damage.  LOTS of windows on the west side of the building were shattered.  Water pipes were broken and spewing water, and fire sprinklers appeared to be running as well.  News reports showed that this caused flooding in the building, and I’m sure this will require major repairs.

My car was frighteningly close to the path of destruction, but appears to be fine.
What a night!  I’m exhausted, and glad to be safe through this experience, which will also be another intriguing memory with a great friend.

Atlanta, Technology

Skribit Reloaded

Andrew Hyde notes that Skribit is now publicly available.  We had been in private beta as we stabilized the product and environment, and are now open to anyone with a blog who’s interested in collecting reader feedback on what they should blog about.  We also added some nice features along the way, and cleaned up some gaps on the Skribit site.

One key focus for this release was closing the feedback loop.  We notify bloggers when they get new suggestions, give them weekly activity summaries, and notify suggestors when a blogger writes about their suggestion.  Simple, but critical in keeping the conversation going.

Startup South is showcasing the Skribit widget as it now renders correctly when the width is narrowed.  Narrow-sidebar-bloggers rejoice!

Lastly, my contribution (with gratitude to acts_as_commentable) – you can now comment on a suggestion.  Because the meaning of a suggestion isn’t always clear.

Major cred goes out to Calvin (the feature machine), Paul, Jason, Lance, Alan, Josh, and anyone else I’m missing who made this latest release possible.  These guys make burning free time on a second startup a pleasure.

P.S. – You may note that I don’t have Skribit on this blog.  It’s not that I don’t want to use it (I REALLY do), it’s that hosted WordPress blogs such as this can’t handle iFrame widgets.  Boo.

Atlanta

The Big Starbuck’s Scam of 2008

No, I’m not talking about charging $4 for a latte. I’m not talking about the fact that Starbucks has wormed their way into so many of my MBA classes as a company to be fawned over. I’m talking about their much trumpeted 3 hour employee training that closed every single U.S. Starbucks tonight. I called shenanigans when I first heard about it – this seems far more likely to be a marketing move – get everyone to talk about Starbucks focusing on “quality”, and maybe they’ll come back to Starbucks a bit more often.

There’s no logical reason you have to close a store for 3 hours to provide decent training, and it’s even less likely that you’ll be able to provide decent training at 7,100 different stores at the same time.So what’s involved in this “training”? Apparently it meant watching a DVD on a portable DVD player. I’ve attached a picture of this, though it didn’t come out all that clearly from my Treo, and I felt hurried as the manager inside glared at me and contemplated chasing me away.

I passed by this Starbucks several times during this training. I saw them looking at paper, watching a DVD, sitting arround, but never did I see them actually touching coffee. Not that I saw the whole thing. But it seems really strange that a company that pays above market wages and benefits can’t teach their employees to properly push the espresso button on the machine, write my name on a cup, and read my name aloud when the drink is ready without kicking out customers. Bad stores need better managers, not 3 hours without customers for one day. Does this look like service-revolutionizing training to you?

Starbucks “Training”