I spent Remembrance Day weekend building a website for someone else’s business idea, and I found out I am wasting my life.
I spent the weekend at the St. John’s Startup Weekend event organized by members of the excellent Startup St. John’s group and Common Ground coworking space. I went to the event with my own business idea in mind. I brought my Oculus Rift for the opening night pitch to give it the impact I felt it deserved. And I discovered that almost nobody was interested.
I got a lot of feedback on my idea – a bunch of people told me they liked it, a bunch more asked questions that gave me ideas on where to take it next – but at the end of the night, my big hairy idea had failed to find a home in enough hearts and minds to matter. After the first round of voting, I hung on by a bare thread, and so the MC put it to the participants: would two people step up and commit to my business for the weekend? In my case, I had one going into the pitch, and I got another from that request. Then the negotiations started, and I found myself facing a blank wall of non-interest. So I cruised. I talked to some of the other group leaders. I talked to my saviours, both of whom had drifted towards working with someone else. And I took a long, hard swallow, and I set my ambitions to change the world aside.
I was interested in a couple of other ideas that had survived the cut, so I talked to those folks first. But having spoken to them, I found their ideas flat and uninspiring. I looked around for something I could at least apply my skills to, and hit on a group developing a gps-enabled mobile app. I approached that group’s leader, but was rejected on the basis that my skillset wasn’t a good enough match. I was, at this point, profoundly disheartened. I was, in truth, ready to go home and write the experience off as a loss and a life lesson.
My salvation came in the form of an announcement over the room’s PA system. The fundamental pitch: last minute tickets. The need seemed simple enough, and although it struck me as a technically simple (read: not-super-interesting) concept to build a site around, I signed on. The team that I’d approached asked me if I was still available, and I was a little bit undignified in saying no, I wasn’t. I’m not proud, and if I had it to do over again I’d offer to help where I could.
We spent the first night hashing out our basic concept. We went through a lot of iterations – subscription, premium, freemium, sell-through, independent ticket reseller, cinema partner, studio partner, and probably a bunch more that I don’t recall anymore. We spent a little time working out the technical presence – a website, basic and product-focused – and then we broke for the evening.
Our designer was a really talented guy named Chen Li. He wasn’t available for Sunday, so he suggested that it might be more efficient to let him go ahead and build a static image for our site and then I could make functional in whatever way worked for our team. This is a problem I’ve seen handled before – laying invisible elements over top of other interface elements is a common way to “compose” a website’s functionality – so I was confident I could make that approach work. The thing is, when you only have 54 hours from inception to pitch, you really have to know what you’re at, and from a technical standpoint my CSS and HTML skills are woefully underdeveloped. So I spent hours on things that should have taken minutes to get right, and in the meantime my teammates were arguing, and I didn’t really know what anyone was doing, and I felt like the whole thing could be in a death spiral.
I left in the early afternoon to give the car over to my girlfriend. When I got back, the coaches had arrived, and they were absolutely savaging our idea. We didn’t have any of the fundamentals in place, we didn’t have a firm grip on a market, we weren’t doing anything that our competitors couldn’t do faster and better…the damage to our morale was palpable. One of the team members suggested we dissolve and give our talents over to another group. But then a funny thing happened: one of the coaches came back, and he told our initiator that he preferred our original target market. It was like a light switch turned on somewhere inside our group. We’d pivoted so many times so quickly that we were dizzy, but all of a sudden we had something with which to steady ourselves.
I spent most of the weekend building the simplest, dumbest site in existence and getting it up and hosted. This wasn’t work that would impress any of the great techie founders; it was paint-by-numbers programming. But at the end of the day we had a functional website, and it looked, at least, like a million bucks. It worked well enough. It had a few flourishes that the designer hadn’t had time to include – our logo, a highlight on the “almost gone” front-page item, a Facebook signin button that actually kind of worked.
There was a final surprise for me, though. My group wanted me to do the pitch. I was surprised at this; I really thought that my pitch on Friday fell flat. Why else would it have been so difficult to attract a team? But it turned out that it wasn’t the pitch that fell flat, but rather the product I was pitching. It seemed interesting to some people, but even to those people it was too techie and involved to work on in a weekend. But again and again I got the message that they liked my pitch. I just didn’t recognize it until my team told me that they saw my passion and wanted that delivery for our project.
So I pitched. Our initiator, Roger, built a slide deck with a ton of information in it. We did a pitch rehearsal, and the coaches told us to cut it down, streamline it, to use one person instead of two. So I took the deck, and I took their advice, and I did one of the things I’m good at: I edited. I cut the fat, I cut the meat. I pared down to the bone, I combined slides, I moved elements to make the visual presentation work.
And then I rehearsed. By 4:30 I’d pitched at least 4 times, twice on my own, and twice to my team. One of the great things about having a little theatre in your background is that you learn the value of knowing your lines. There’s nothing quite like having a solid grip on the words you’re saying to give you and your audience confidence in those words. Rehearsal is a deep process, and maybe I’ll get into it here another day, but the key is always to get to the point where you can believe what you’re saying with your whole self. You have to drink the Kool Aid.
I pitched to a room full of business leaders, friends, and startup participants, and I felt good about my performance. The applause seemed marginally louder for mine than for the preceding pitch, despite our shakier business case. But each idea that was pitched struck me on a deep level with its insights into the things that mattered to the proposed clientele. I was amazed and grateful just to be present to see the creative energy on display.
When we were announced as the second place finishers, I was thrilled – the competition was incredible, and I had no illusions that we were a slam dunk. I was surprised – obviously we’d all worked hard, and we undeniably had identified a major business opportunity, but I didn’t feel like I’d contributed all that much.
But then one of my team members said “Your pitch was the reason we got that!” And I heard that again and again. Blair Winsor told me he was deeply impressed with my ability to pitch someone else’s idea with the same passion that backed my own. Everyone I spoke to commented on how good my pitch was. And Gordon Freedman told me I was wasting my life sitting at a desk, because if I could do that with an idea he hated, then I belonged in a totally different realm, a sales role or a public speaker. Someplace where that passion and engagement could show up on a regular basis.
It’s something to think about.