WP: Building a Community, Byte by Byte

November 15, 2007

By Kendra Marr

Here’s a recipe for some creative disorder: Combine a room full of Washington techies with laptops and Internet access. Add a handful of start-up ideas. Mix in a dash of stress, plus some competing egos. And let it simmer for a weekend.

The result? An Internet company launched in just 54 hours — the product of an event known as Startup Weekend DC.

About 70 Web developers, designers, marketers and entrepreneurs gathered in Falls Church on a recent Friday night with the goal of establishing an Internet company by midnight Sunday. They didn’t know who they would be working with, or how many people would show up. They didn’t even know what kind of business they would be building.

Despite the chaos that ensued, this group of random strangers created HolaNeighbor, a social networking Web site for neighborhoods, from condominiums to subdivisions or any other type of community.

Granted, the final Web site was a very preliminary form of the grand vision. And it’s premature to predict whether HolaNeighbor will be profitable, let alone make anyone rich.

But the weekend was more about community-building than moneymaking. Within the past year, Washington’s Web community has been steadily growing and collaborating through organizations, such as the new-media professional group Refresh DC and technology forum BarCamp DC. Participants said they hoped the weekend would be the launching pad for further strengthening the local technology scene.

“There’s a growing sense in the D.C. tech community that our time is coming,” said weekend organizer Will Kern, whose day job is senior product manager at AOL. “We need to put in our stake and put our name on map. This proves that we can.”

Part social experiment, part Internet venture, Startup Weekend DC is the eighth event of its kind to be hosted across the country, as well as in parts of Europe. Web consultant Andrew Hyde of Boulder, Colo., dreamed up the idea in July when he decided to bring his friends together for a spontaneous project. Word spread through blogs, bringing in dozens of participants beyond his circle of friends. Since then, techies around the world have asked Hyde to stage the weekend event in their cities.

“It’s a crazy idea, but people want to try to do the impossible,” Hyde said.

Startup Weekend brought Hyde to Houston, New York and Hamburg. He’s helped launch a group voting site that polls via text message and e-mail ( http://vosnap.com), and a chat room that matches people with similar interests ( http://scrolltalk.com).

Chapel Hill, Atlanta and London are next in the weekend lineup. Hyde said he’s trying to get national sponsors, but until then, he’ll continue to pay for his own excursions.

A $20 registration fee buys participants a stake in the venture and a T-shirt, as well as food and drinks for the marathon. Participants are named founders, an entity that controls 50 percent of the future company’s stock, should it ever attract investors. Hyde’s umbrella company will own 5 percent. The rest is saved for future investors.

Weekend warriors from seven of the eight ventures continue working on their fledgling companies. However, the odds are stacked against them.

“A very small percentage succeed,” said Lloyd Shefsky, clinical professor of entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “People start up Web site businesses in the thousands daily.”

So what happens when a bunch of strangers rally to form a start-up?

At 6 p.m. on Friday, people began arriving at Web consulting firm Viget Labs, the weekend’s Falls Church headquarters.

Several wasted no time blogging about their ideas. Ground rule: There will be no use of the word “awesome” — ever.

Soon the office devolved into pandemonium as the participants brainstormed ideas and put them to a vote. Competing factions held secret meetings to strategize how to generate the most votes and voice their opinions.

At 8:51 p.m. the winning idea of a neighborhood social network narrowly beat out a restaurant-matching system and a job board. Supporters imagined a site where neighbors could post updates and meet one another. A condo manager might use such a system to send out a notice that the hot water is being shut off, or a resident could finally learn his neighbor’s name.

One blog entry recounts the response: “Andrew just posed the question ‘How many people are still jazzed about the idea?’ About 26 people raised their hands.”

Clarifying the concept created more debates, so some participants hung around until Viget Labs kicked them out. Others decided to follow rule No. 11 of the weekend: Leave at anytime.

“We understand people have families, they have lives,” Kern said. “Hey, you gotta live.”

Plus, there was a launch party underway for the Leopard operating system at the Tysons Corner, Apple store.

By Saturday morning, the event had lost a few participants. Still, at 9 a.m., people were knocking on the door, ready to work.

Team leaders and the name HolaNeighbor.com emerged in the afternoon (after an initial choice turned out to already be reserved.)

Game 3 of the World Series and malfunctioning wireless Internet access caused some disruption. Yet, at 9 p.m. they had a prototype.

Sunday afternoon, Viget Labs smelled like a fast-food joint. Open bags of chips were scattered around the room, and beer bottles sat in a bucket of melted ice.

The excitement was still high, and people were still tossing around new ideas.

“Hey, remember that Seinfeld episode where Kramer posts Polaroids of all the apartment tenants on the lobby wall? And everyone gets mad at Jerry when he doesn’t want his up there?” said Martin Ringlein, co-founder of Nclud, a D.C. Web design firm.

“We should do a photo wall,” said Brian Williams, co-founder of Viget Labs.

The marketing team put promotional videos on YouTube. Developers writing code sat fixed in the glow of their laptops.

But as the clock ticked toward midnight, some extra features had to be sacrificed.

By the time HolaNeighbor officially launched at 11:57 p.m., about 30 people remained. Participants popped open champagne, as Hyde logged in as the first user.

Error message. A collective groan went around the room. But they laughed it off and toasted the alpha version of the site anyway.

“Heeey! Alpha!” they called, raising their glasses.

Monday, some skipped out on work to take midday naps. Others avoided their computers. Williams cleaned guacamole off his office walls.

“I think this more of a start-up kind of town than people give it credit for,” he said.