Curious to experience the creation of a startup in 54 hours first-hand, I decided to join a team for the third edition of Startup Weekend Montreal. After a busy week at the International Startup Festival and FounderFuel Demo Day, I jumped into my adventure headfirst on Friday, July 12 at 4:00pm. I have attended the event’s closing presentations in previous years, but had no idea what to expect. I was prepared give up sleep to experience an accelerated version of the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. What follows is an hourly report of my less-than- relaxing weekend.
4:30 p.m.: I arrive at Concordia University after spending the day at Startup Festival; the closing ceremony has just ended. The cocktails room is full and bursting with lively discussions. I’m not sure how the event works, so I try to connect with participants since I have to convince a team to let me document their every move during the weekend.
4:40 p.m.: After meeting a number of people who didn’t have ideas to present, I enter into a three-way conversation. They are discussing a social network project for people 50 years and older. I’m not sold on the idea. Then I cross paths with Wolf Pierre Kohlberg, a Masters student whose thesis focuses on creative tourism. His project is very simple to implement on a technical level and seems relatively easy to monetize.
Wolf Pierre’s idea is a Groupon-type website for bus trips, where the customers create offers. For example, if there is a show in Montreal that a Torontonian wants to attend, he can charter a bus in a few clicks. If enough Toronto fans reserve seats, the bus will make the requested trip. The idea seems hard to beat, but I still want to hear about other projects before making a decision.
6:09 p.m.: After a round table led by Ian Jeffrey from FounderFuel, Dave McClure takes the stage. He talks about his many failures, peppering his speech liberally with swearwords. He has, after all, made public speaking his trademark.
7:43 p.m.: “Is there anyone in the room who has an idea, but is still hesitating to come to the microphone?” asks Adam Stelle. “It’s now or never. Anyone? Once, twice… Sold.” No less than 42 participants have pitched their ideas. They had 60 seconds to make their pitch, and not a second more. The projects were at the concept stage. A number of presenters forgot to mention the name of their project, despite Adam’s constant reminders. There were a few crazy ideas, a number of boring ones and several ideas that were interesting. In my opinion, though, none could compete with a group purchasing website for bus trips.
8:04 p.m.: Rami Sayar, an enthusiastic developer, tries to promote his idea of a content-sharing site amid the chaos. “Over here, vote for Wrdbox, this way,” he exclaims enthusiastically. Meanwhile, I am looking for Wolf Pierre Kohlberg among the crowd of participants that are busily voting by placing stickers on their favorite projects. Only the most popular projects will be selected. I finally find the German, off to the side. I tell him that if his project is selected, I would like to join his team as an observer, and he agrees. I then encourage him to dive into the crowd to convince some developers to join his project.
8:40 p.m.: The selected projects are announced and I eagerly wait to hear the name of my favourite project. The 15th and final project is announced and, unfortunately, no sign of the one that I thought had the most potential. It is decidedly difficult to attract attention to a project in just 60 seconds, even with a good idea.
9:00 p.m.: I speak with Daniel Mireault, whose idea for a travel photography website was chosen. I don’t fully understand his vision, but he is a very smart guy who convinced proven developers to join his team. It is the same team that Wolf Pierre chose to join. I’m not convinced; the project is so complex that it seems to be on the same scale as Google. I head towards the initiator of the Bottle Bookings project, Angelo Esposito, whose idea of OpenTable nightclubs seems promising. He explains that in Montreal and in other North American cities, clubbers buy full bottles of alcohol in nightclubs. His idea will let them reserve online and share the bill with their friends. His idea seems logical, and there is definitely a market for it, but I feel that this product has more potential in New York than in Montreal.
Finally, I chat with Chantale Streeting, a Franco-Ontarian from Ottawa whose idea seems the most promising. She wants to develop a mobile app that uses geolocation to display events taking place in the area. She training in computer science and the small team that has joined her seems to be a good combination of talents. She readily accepts my proposal to document the creation of her start-up over the next 54 hours.
10:10 p.m.: Team members from “Today in the City” (the name of Chantale’s project) agree on the general structure of the product. A number of business models based on different advertising products are suggested, but for now, the priority is the development of a minimum viable product (MVP ).
10:36 p.m.: The tasks are distributed.
Benjamin Lourtau, who is finishing up his Master’s degree in neurophysiology at McGill, will use the API of different websites to extract event data. He has an undergraduate degree in mining engineering and learned to program on the job. Victor Parmar will work with Benjamin. He holds a degree in computer science and is a programmer at Morgan Stanley in Montreal.
Michael Lakhia, who also has a diploma in computer science, is charged with the critical responsibility of developing the app’s user interface. He is self-taught and can do both programming and design. Richard Mutezintare, who has a Bachelor of Computer Science, will be in charge of the database.
Sarah Moumne, a marketing student at Concordia University, will take care of the marketing plan. Jason Janes, a businessman from St. John’s, Newfoundland who has launched several start- ups, will manage business development and marketing. He is currently setting up a coworking space in St. John’s (Common Ground) and hopes to organize a Startup Weekend there. His main motivation for attending this weekend is to learn more about how the event operates. Chantale will work on the design and the interface, as well as overall project management.
12:16 a.m.: Chantale reclaims the todayinthecity.com domain name. She had registered it two years ago when she first had the idea. She hadn’t followed up at that time, so much so that she couldn’t remember the name of the domain registration service she used. Now, the real work can start.
01:01 a.m.: Victor, Chantale and I are the only ones still here. The domain host was linked to the domain name but we still can’t access the web site. According to Victor, it’s a cache problem.
01:36 a.m.: I spent the last few minutes with Jamie Klinger, discussing his virtual money project, Joatu.com. For him, it’s more than a start-up idea; it’s a way to change the world. He believes that one day these platforms could replace municipal governments. These types of discussions are the true strength of Startup Weekend. I feel like I will be filled with new ideas during this weekend, but for now I am dead tired. Chantale and I are the only ones left. I throw in the towel. I decide to take a break, but first I ask her if she intends on sleeping tonight. She tells me that she is also tired and will sleep in a friend’s truck parked nearby.
06:55 a.m.: I arrive to an empty room. There aren’t even stray participants sleeping under the tables. Some had brought their sleeping bags but the University reserved a room where they can sleep. If I got here early, it’s because I was awakened by a “Today in the City” tweet at 6:00 a.m. I mistakenly concluded that the team whose every move I am supposed to follow had already started their day.
08:51 a.m.: After a breakfast conference on business plans, I find the team members. Chantale seems very tired. When I ask her if she had slept, she confesses she hadn’t slept more than 45 minutes. Among other things, she created the “Today in the City” logo. She also had posted a certain Tweet at 6:00 a.m.…
11:22 a.m.: The mentors go from table to table, sharing their advice. Mathieu Perreault from Google speaks with Chantale. He seems to think that her concept is unoriginal, and tells her, “If there is already an app that does almost the same thing the judges will quickly discard your idea, saying it’s been already done. You need to add a twist to your app. For example, there’s an app that allows user to find bars where there are more women than men.”
1:07 p.m.: “Today in the City” is at a crossroads. Marcus Daniels, executive director of Toronto’s Extreme Startups incubator, advises Chantale to target a niche that will seduce an existing community. “Your product needs to reach a critical mass of users to attract investors. It’s still a sector without a leader, but you have to set yourself apart to have a chance,” he explains. Chantale realizes he’s right. The team considers targeting musical events; Jason is fully behind the idea. Chantale is not convinced yet; she would like to get feedback from potential users before she decides.
1:22 p.m.: Michael has just finished his interface prototype. It’s simple and efficient; he gets congratulations all around.
2:59 p.m.: Christian Lavoie, formerly from Google, is the third mentor to suggest Chantale targets a niche. “You’re solving a real problem, but it will be difficult to find a way to put it all together,” he admits. “Starting with a niche is a good idea. It worked for Facebook, and it doesn’t stop you from expanding to other segments later.” The prospect of returning to her original vision and developing in stages seems to appeal to Chantale.
3:11 p.m. Chantale makes up her mind. The “Today in the City” prototype that will be presented to judges tomorrow will be an app for independent-music fans. There are a lot of indie groups in Montreal and it should be fairly easy to convince them to enter their shows into the app — if we can convince them that they will get visibility in return. For the developers, retrieving data from Last.fm, Meetup.com and the Web Indie Montreal websites does not seem to be a problem. When Jason asks Victor if it’s possible to scrape the data from the Indie Montreal site, he replies laughing that everything is possible. For him, everything seems simple.
6:53 p.m.: Chantale is exhausted. It’s obvious she can no longer think clearly and needs rest. After being briefed on everyone’s progress, she takes a break to sleep.
6:58 p.m.: Richard, who is developing the backend, is working hard to build a solid system from which the application can evolve. Victor and Michael think he’s going beyond what’s necessary and start to get impatient. Michael reminds him that they need a working product before noon tomorrow, to leave a bit of breathing room. He suggests that Richard changes his approach if he doesn’t finish by 8:30 p.m., saying, “If it does not work by 8:30 tonight, trash it and start again with Azure.” Richard agrees.
8:10 p.m.: Victor and Benjamin play online games. They spent the day extracting data from different APIs and are ready to enter them into Richard’s database.
8:22 p.m.: Sarah is tired. She worked all day on the business and marketing plans. Before leaving, she says, “I have questions for Chantale, but she’s not here, so it will have to wait for tomorrow.”
8:53 p.m.: The three developers and I are the only ones left at the table. I walk around the room to stretch my legs and realize that almost all the other teams are still hard at work. Chantale’s strategy to go sleepless Friday night clearly wasn’t the best idea. If she had slept more, she could have stayed later today which would have encouraged the rest of her team to do the same.
8:58 p.m.: “It works!” Victor cries out with a sense of relief. He is also wiped. There are a few problems to work out, but nothing major.
10:15 p.m.: Richard and I are the only two left at the “Today in the City” table. It’s my turn to go. Richard, who admits to being a perfectionist, does not seem ready to go.
7:59 a.m.: None of the members of “Today in the City” have arrived yet. Very few of the participants are in the hall. There’s a beer can pyramid on the Wrdbox table; Hélène-Sarah Becotte tells me that it is the team’s mascot. There’s a long day ahead; it’s the final stretch and the most important item remains to be done: creating an enticing presentation. After all, the judges will choose a winning team based on the presentations.
8:20 a.m.: Michael arrives. He takes out his laptop and begins working on what appears to be homework. He just completed his DEC, but he’s taking some extra courses this summer. He’s waiting for the other team members to can continue his work on the interface.
9:10 a.m.: There are now four of us at the table, including me. Jason Janes, an eternal optimist, believes Chantale has what it takes to seduce the judges. He explains what he believes to be Chantale’s marketing strategy to the developers. He tells them to only display Indie Montréal events for the presentation, saying that he will still need to check with her. There is still no sign of Chantale.
10:01 a.m.: Chantale arrives.
12:25 p.m.: Ludovic Dumas, a mentor and senior associate at Claridge, explains to Chantale that her publicity-based business model will not convince the judges. “You have to show the judges that you have a clear monetization plan; selling event tickets or related products would be a good strategy”, he argues.
2:20 p.m.: LP Maurice, CEO of BusBud and a Harvard MBA graduate, stops by our table. He could have offered good advice to Chantale, but when he came to our table yesterday she wasn’t there. Unfortunately, she’s not around today either. She has left to work alone for an hour; she finds it hard to work in the noisy Startup Weekend environment. She is not the only one; I’m also finding it very hard to focus on the articles I had planned to write this weekend. I’ve already lost hope of writing anything more than these notes.
I ask LP about the team that is now called TravelTile – the one Wolf Pierre joined. I’ve seen him spend a lot of time at that table. He explains that they have done an about-face; they have re-invented their product. It now serves as a website that helps people discover different things to do in each city, through photos. It’s like a picture-based TripAdvisor, whose business model is based on affiliations. When a visitor clicks on a photo and reserves an activity through a third party like Expedia, the site will receive a commission.
3:43 p.m.: Victor and Benjamin are standing in front of Michael’s computer. They seem very busy. I don’t want to disturb them, but still ask Victor if he thinks the site will be ready on time. “We’ll see”, he replies, with a nervous laugh. Chantale has yet to return.
3:50 p.m.: They’ve just announced that in 45 minutes, we’ll need to leave the building and head to the room where the presentations will take place. The pressure just went up a notch.
3:53 p.m.: Chantal is back. She was working with Jason and Sarah on her presentation.
4:02 p.m.: The web app, todayinthecity.com/app, is finally functional.
5:21 p.m.: We are in the auditorium where the presentations will take place. It’s a good thing Wi-Fi works in the hall, because there is a problem with the app’s function that displays events on a map. Benjamin is working as fast as he can.
5:36 p.m.: The first presentation, TravelTile, has begun. Their team has a number of designers on it, and it shows. The presentation is visually rich and the photos they selected are very appealing.
6:51 p.m.: Chantale has finished her presentation. Her nervousness took over; she screwed up, forgetting the most convincing arguments and, in an attempt to regain control, admitting she is nervous. The audience applauded as a sign of support.
Unable to adequately answer the judges’ questions, Chantale concludes that she would have needed coaching to speak well in public. But she was also missing an eye-catching presentation; with the exception of the slide showing Michael’s interface, Chantale’s presentation consisted of slides with just a few words on a white background.
7:25 p.m.: The three prize winners have been announced. Third prize went to Matagora, a commercial leasing website project; second prize was given to Chooz, a search engine find films to fit your mood. The grand prize went to TravelTile. Daniel Mireault, the project’s initiator, gave a short acceptance speech in which he thanked LP Maurice for his valuable insight.
7:35 p.m.: After the traditional on-stage group shot with all the participants, the auditorium starts to clear out. After 54 hours of intense effort, the participants that are still standing head to McKibbins pub to celebrate. I ask Chantal if she is going, as Victor, Benjamin and Jason are planning to go. She says she is not sure if she will join us.
I ask her a few questions (just in case she decides not to come) to round out my notes. She tells me she’s not disappointed and that as a first-timer she didn’t expect to win. The fact that her idea was selected and that developers made a working prototype is very satisfying. However, if she could do things differently, she confides that would’ve slept more. As for next steps, she plans to contact the other members of the team in the next few days to see if they want to continue. She also has another project in mind, a web site that would allow anyone to publish an online portfolio in just a few clicks. The second project, she says, is closer to heart than “Today in the City”. While the future remains uncertain for Chantale, one thing is sure: she hasn’t lost her entrepreneurial spirit.
7:45 p.m.: On the way to McKibbins Victor expresses his frustration. He and the developers worked hard all weekend and nothing they have done has impressed the judges. He argues that the only thing that mattered in the presentations was an attractive interface. He believes that in order to win, the team should have spent the weekend making a video that demonstrates the app. The app didn’t even need to be functional; they could have focused on the interface.
8:30 p.m.: On the McKibbins terrace the atmosphere is festive. We congratulate each other and promise to keep in touch. Pierre Wolf chats with Victor and Benjamin. They loved his idea of a group buy site for bus trips. At one point in the discussion, both developers offer to start developing his website for free, in their spare time.
Victor and Benjamin each have a number of projects on the go, and are increasingly drawn to the world of startups. They are taking a course together called Startup Engineering through Coursera. They plan to meet regularly to work together on this course. They both loved their experience at Startup Weekend; they learned a lot and made interesting connections. They intend to participate again.
9:00 p.m.: Jason tries to convince Adam Stelle , COO of Startup Weekend, to come host the St. John’s edition he is organizing, just like Adam did in Montreal. He explains that he no longer has time to host events and that he agreed to do it in Montreal because he was there for the Startup Festival. Also, spending a few days in Montreal allowed him to split up his travel between London and Seattle. Jason cheerfully questions Adam, who has attended countless Startup Weekends around the world. Clearly, Jason is eager to relive this magical experience.