I recently helped manage the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) FinTech/RetailTech Hackathon sponsored by Worldpay and Google. While there were several hackathon veterans in attendance, I was the newbie and was not quite sure to expect. As the weekend progressed, my thoughts crystallized that this type of event, while compressed into roughly 3 days, provides a slice of startup life for those that have ever thought about it or are currently taking that step.
Hackathons are designed around a challenge or challenges that can be solved in a limited amount of time — usually over a weekend or a few days. While many factors contribute to a winning idea, the combination of teamwork, execution, and intestinal fortitude is typically what sets them apart. It’s possible that the ideas and solutions that come out of a hackathon can lay the foundation for viable businesses, but there is a difference between a good idea and a startup.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Many entrepreneurs have been lured to startup life by the allure of the Three Comma Club (that’s a $1,000,000,000 valuation, for those less Silicon Valley-minded). Richard Hendricks, Dinesh, and Guilfoyle have glamorized a life of hacker hostels, launch parties, and disastrous pivots that may seem like the carefree norm for would-be founders. While these are a part of startup life, there is plenty of hard work that goes into building a truly durable business. The hackathon is over, but the emotional high lingers. Do you have what it takes to take the next step? How do you channel that energy into a successful endeavor?
Teamwork makes the dream work
If you’ve ever come up with what you think is a world-changing idea, you brim with excitement — until you realize the enormity of the task at hand. Hackers use their finite time to solve a challenge and come up with a winning solution. Successful founders quickly realize they must build a solid team to actually stand a chance of pulling off this feat.
During the course of the weekend, it’s not uncommon for hackers to break away from their original teams to join others. Creative and strategic differences can drive dissension and cause friction that slows down the machine. Because all parties knows the whole thing will end on Sunday night, people make decisions quickly about whether they can work with a team. In startup world, there is no set deadline per se, but founders constantly manage their startup’s capital runway to accomplish their goals. Establishing (and maintaining) a winning team is perhaps even more important because of the increased stakes.
In some instances, the crucible of a hackathon can bring together a group of people that do go on to build a winning startup. If you’re looking to explore this avenue, ask the hard questions early on. Do your teammates skills’ complement your own (and vice versa)? Do you have good team chemistry? Can you have objective arguments while staying focused on the mission?
The real world: Startup season
Whether your team wins or not, it’s a pretty big accomplishment to pull together a solution with people you may have just met 48 hours ago. As the euphoria wears off and your team thinks your idea has legs, it’s time to plot out the strategy moving forward. The real world presents challenges that can’t be simulated over a weekend. The importance of sketching out a plan of attack becomes that much more relevant
What is your business model? Can we sell that business model to strategic partners? Is the business plan investable? Do you have the resources (time, capital, mentors, and advisors) to prove out the thesis? Is everyone committed to the business?
Far and away, the biggest issues I see with startups begin with execution. Whether it’s sales, marketing, operations or technology, set your plan and execute.
Step back, gut check
When you think about how much fun the hackathon was (despite the whiteboard session that would never end and the endless pitch practice), you may think that startup life is really for you. But remember, startups are not all hoodies and Silicon Valley. Imagine 180 consecutive hackathons. That’s quite possibly your first year.
As Sunday evening drew nigh, the stress in the different rooms and among the teams was palpable. Imagine the stress if this was your livelihood, and not just a nice-to-have prize.
What happens when your tech just isn’t coming together? When your co-founder is driving you crazy? Can you manage your emotions (read: sanity) and your team when you see the end of the runway and your investor pipeline has gone cold?
This is not to say that startup life is miserable. In fact, for many, it’s the only way to work. As you evaluate your options post-hackathon, know that while the weekend is a good cross-section of startup life, it is just the beginning. But perhaps, it’s the beginning of something pretty wonderful.
Jeff Gapusan is the FinTech catalyst at Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), the state of Georgia’s technology incubator.