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By Voxus

An insider’s look at Startup Weekend 2009
Wednesday, Oct 28 2009 | Filed in: business and technology

Entrepreneurs are normally interesting people…but what happens when you get 180 of them in the same room at the same time to create new companies from idea to launch in a single weekend? We asked Dwayne Mercredi, co-founder of Seattle-based software development company Attassa to give us a sneak peek inside the process. He was on the winning development team for “Learn That Name,” an iPhone application, at the Startup Weekend recently held in Redmond, WA.

1) You recently participated in a Startup Weekend, a 54-hour event that helps entrepreneurs go from idea to company launch. Was this your first experience at an event such as this? How did you like the concept? I understand your team had 14 members — who are they, how did your group come up with a concept to pursue, and how did you divide up resources and tasks?

This was the second Startup Weekend that I attended, and the format definitely improved between the first Startup Weekend a couple of years ago and this one. It was a wonderful experience, and I’ll definitely do it again.

My personal goal for Startup Weekend was to get to know people by actually working with them to create something useful over a single weekend. That meant picking a concept that could be prototyped or built within just a couple of days, where I could personally jump in and make a difference.

The product concept came from Eric Koester (ed. note: an attorney with Cooley Godward Kronish LLP). Startup Weekend started with a product pitch session, where over 20 people pitched potential projects to everyone. At the end of the pitch sessions, the entire room voted on the concepts, and the top 12 or so concepts formed into teams as people signed up to work on the projects that resonated with them the most. Eric’s concept was voted at the top, and a relatively large team formed to build the application (see http://www.learnthatname.com/about for the team members). The product pitching process took a few hours; by the time the team got together we only had time to introduce ourselves to each other before they closed the space.

On Saturday morning, we quickly got on the same page about what we were building and how we were going to build it so that we could split up the work. The group split about evenly into a technology team and a business team. The business team spent the weekend working through the nuances of the game play, demoing early versions of the app to other people and getting feedback, building a great demo script and planning the demo, learning how to market apps in the iPhone app store, determining price points and positioning, and building the web site.

Having experience working with both LinkedIn and the iPhone, I led the technology team. I expected that getting 14 people coordinated when we haven’t really worked together before would be a nightmare, but it wasn’t really a problem. We knew exactly what we wanted to build by early Saturday, and everyone on the team signed up to deliver a specific piece of it that morning. Saturday was intense. We were clustered around a couple of large round tables buzzing back and forth as we worked together. Everyone was focused and working on what they needed to deliver, and there was significant energy in the air throughout the day as we kept making progress. By Saturday night, we knew that we would have a working app to demo on Sunday night. By Sunday afternoon we had game play complete and were giving demos around the room. We even had a few hours to polish the app before demos at 6 pm. The business team then pulled off a phenomenal demo – they connected everyone in the room to a Learn That Name LinkedIn account and brought up the Startup Weekend organizers to compete against each other in a public face-off to see who know more people at the event. We’ve since released the app, and it’s available at the iPhone App Store, or from http://www.learnthatname.com.

2) “Learn That Name” is a pretty nifty little product that helps social networkers quickly learn and retain contact names and information. It’s now commercially available, so how did your team take this to market post-Startup Weekend? Did you form a company? How does your team envision broadening its marketing strategy going forward? Are you targeting any niche users?

Much to my surprise going in, we ended the weekend with a working and polished iPhone app as well as a great start on a Palm Pre app. I expected to come out of the weekend with only high-fives all around and a great demo, but we ended up with a nearly saleable product. After a short discussion led by Eric, we decided to form a company around the app as the cleanest way to collect and share revenue amongst the team. None of us had any expectations of making significant money, but it should buy us all lattes every now and then.

The entire process of forming a company, registering the company as an iPhone developer, and going through the Apple app approval took a couple of weeks. There was a lot of initial buzz surrounding Learn That Name stemming from a TechFlash article “iPhone app wins top honors at Microsoft sponsored event”, but the buzz had largely died down by the time we were able to release.

We focused our initial marketing push on getting the word out through business and technology journalists and bloggers. By the end of the first week, we were covered by the Wall Street Journal, TechFlash, Xconomy and many others. That coverage was great, and I was extremely impressed with how well Dustin and the team pulled it off (ed note: Dustin Woodard is a local SEO expert and social media consultant, formerly head of SEO at Wetpaint).

The most interesting thing about the coverage, though, is how little impact it had on sales. The number of purchases in a day during the coverage was only about three times as much as the initial bump for being a “new release” in the app store. This was a bit surprising; we had expected such broad coverage to make more of an impact.

Since the initial push, we’ve largely stepped back and let the revenue passively come in as people find the app in the app store on their own. We’ve since completed the Palm Pre app, which is awaiting Palm approval before it can be added to the app catalog. I’m very curious to see how well it does relative to the iPhone version, since it will be one of the very first paid apps in the Palm app store.

3) Now that you’ve got this experience under your belt, what’s next? Are you expanding your startup, Attassa with new iPhone apps or will you concentrate on expanding the market for your original product, “All My Mail?”

Our key goal has been to help our users improve their online communications by giving them lots of context about their conversations with all their contacts. We learned a lot from our iPhone application, and we’re acting aggressively on that information now.

The main thing we learned is that people use this information for research as much as they do for just-in-time information when communicating. That is, they check in on their close friends, look for reasons to contact acquaintances, and they often need to remind themselves about what’s been communicated earlier even when they’re not about to call or write the person, such as when going into a meeting.

One implication is that other platforms are at least as useful as mobile platforms for these goals. We’re getting ready to go into beta (sometime in November) with an Outlook client that brings all the benefits of our iPhone application onto the desktop, where people often do more research-oriented tasks like meeting preparation. We’re excited about it because the Outlook platform gives us a lot of freedom to integrate very closely with the existing communications workflow, and bring in lots of extra information about a contact like past and future meetings, notes, mentions in other emails and so on.

Another important insight was that email is only part of the picture: our users need to know everything their contacts are saying, whether on Twitter, Facebook, or on the web through blogs or comments. We recently re-released All My Mail as “Whole Contacts” – it now features not only everything your contacts are saying in email but also in Twitter and Facebook, with the ability to respond to your contacts via email, a Facebook comment, or a Twitter reply. The idea that you can always see what the people you know are saying will drive our Outlook client as well as future releases of the iPhone application. Whole Contacts is available now on the iTunes App Store, and more information is available at http://www.attassa.com.