Startup Weekend: ReDesign Seattle

I don't run marathons, but I'd imagine Startup Weekend is a lot like one- it's long, it's arduous, you don't pee enough, halfway through you're wondering why you even bothered, and by the time you're finished, you're ready to do it all over again. 

A couple of weeks ago, I walked into the beautiful wework co-working space for my eighth Startup Weekend. I always enjoy these events, because for a designer like myself, who's constantly looking to improve his skill set, it's a great way to do a lot of work in a short period of time, and come out the other end, if you're lucky, with a finished product. It's a great mental exercise. I always go in with a goal of self-improvement, not necessarily to win, place, or show at the end of the event.

Currently, I'm at the stage of my career where I'm at a senior level, and I'm looking to take the next step. I've led the design on a few shipped products, and I've definitely found the direction I want to take my career, which was a long process in itself. My goal is to get to a creative director level by the time I'm 40, and speaking to recruiters and mentors, the biggest hole in my experience is my lack of managing teams on a project. Most of my projects, I've either been the lone designer, or the lead designer with one or two subcontractors. I've never led junior designers, or had to delegate and manage creative responsibilities. So coming into this weekend, I really wanted to tackle managing a project as a creative lead. Luckily, I had a team willing to put up with me.

The title of this Startup Weekend was ReDesign Seattle, a concept that was never fully explained, but as I quickly learned, it was another design-focused startup, and there was a lot of talent in the room. Some of you might remember my first SW event, Rise of the Designer, which was also another design focused event. I took a moment to think back to that event, and how hilariously bad everything went, and yet, we turned out something good enough to win Best User Experience

I landed on a team with the idea of an faster way to get drinks at bars and events. It sounded very intriguing, and I saw the potential growth opportunities immediately. Our team leader is an experienced event planner, and he noticed that a common pain point for his attendees is that getting drinks at the bar at events and nightclubs usually a terrible experience. Usually because of the bottleneck of the bartender having to juggle credit cards, cash, drink tickets, and whatever else is going on up there. FastBar's solution would be an RFID-enabled wristband that was tied to a user's account, so that when they got to the bar, they could swipe a sensor, and be on your way.

We had a loaded team-two software developers, including an iOS developer, two project managers, both who wanted to learn more about design, a UX Designer, and two guys who were the business leads. Two of our team members had specific experience with point-of-sale systems, expertise that would theoretically come in handy when discussing how to improve the point-of-sale experience. All the pieces were there to not only build a working product, but maybe even "win" Startup Weekend.

So what happened? I learned that when you pitch an idea at Startup Weekend, you have to dance a fine line between being too open to feedback that there's no direction, and being so married to an idea that you don't take any feedback, and your teammates feel like employees. Our team leader, unfortunately, fell closer to the latter. He was so passionate about his idea that he spent more time defending it than he did exploring how his idea could be better. To me, being a good team leader, especially within the confines of a Startup Weekend, means being willing to see your idea grow and flourish with the shared experiences and expertise that come into contact with it.

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We eventually found a common ground, and everyone got to work. And suddenly, I found myself in an office with three ladies who were looking to me to creatively direct them. Gulp. We started out by story boarding the user experience of one specific case; the purchase of an RFID wristband, the purchase of a drink from the bar, and the closing of the tab at the end of the evening. Since we were creating both the registration and the point-of-sale system, we storyboarded both the customer and the vendor experience. After a quick meeting with the team, I split my team up into teams to work on the registration website, the branding, and graphics for the final presentation, while I got busy working on the point-of-sale iPad app. 

One of our designers, Monica, is a program manager at Microsoft. She wanted to learn about design, and really wanted to design the logo. So after a quick discussion and review of our goals, I sent her off to work. Little did I know, the first time she had ever opened Illustrator was that evening. Monica worked on that logo until they kicked her out of the building, and was back bright and early to work on it. I gave her some feedback and direction in the morning, and we worked on it some more, but she kept nitpicking every little piece of her work. I thought it looked great, but she wasn't happy. Finally, I had to make the call.

"We've got to get this to the developers. It's time to call it done," I said. 

"But let me change just one more thing!" Monica protested. 

"There's no time. We've got to ship it!" I insisted. 

"But I hate it! It's terrible! It's not right!"

"Congratulations," I said. "You're officially a designer." 

Helping Monica work through the process of designing her very first logo, including tackling Illustrator for the very first time, was probably my proudest moment of the weekend. I wish we'd had more time to work on it, but I'm happy with what she created, and I hope she is too. Real talk: her first logo blows my first logo completely out of the water. People kept coming up to me after the event to tell me how great a job I did on the logo, and every time I could, I grabbed Monica, so she could receive her well-deserved congratulations. 

On Sunday, we set up our demo, which was registering people through our app, and scanning everyone's wristbands whenever they got a drink. It was very well received. Lots of people asking us about what we were building, and how we got here. And during our presentation, when our presenters asked for a show of hands of people who had used FastBar, almost every single hand in the room went up. I thought that was a great, great moment. I looked at the judges, and they looked impressed.

Our team finished third. Given where we started on Friday, what we delivered on Sunday, and the fact that we didn't really stray from the original idea, I couldn't help but be a little disappointed, but the two teams that finished in front of us did amazing as well, so I really have no complaints. 

Team FastBar, from left to right: David Altmayer, Ishita Kapur, David Goecke, me, Bri Suffety, Monica Czarny, Michael Elliott, and Chris Li.

Team FastBar, from left to right: David Altmayer, Ishita Kapur, David Goecke, me, Bri Suffety, Monica Czarny, Michael Elliott, and Chris Li.

I love Startup Weekend. I'll keep participating in them as long as they keep organizing them. Every one is different, and great in their own way. I traveled to Los Angeles for one last year, and it was much more laid back and casual than the some of the ones I've done here, which can be super competitive and intense. I can only imagine what one in Silicon Valley must be like. As a creative, Startup Weekends allow me to creatively stretch in ways I don't always get to do in my normal life, which is why I tell any designers that will listen that they should jump into them. I've done Startup Weekends as a participant, and I've done them as a mentor to a great group of kids, and this weekend, I'll be coaching for the very first time, and I can't wait. 

The next Startup Weekend takes place this weekend, April 11-13, at WeWork in South Lake Union. For more information, and to register, visit the Startup Weekend website