Progress Update: April 2023

This will likely be a long update as we had our biggest pair of events to date this past month: our Ideathon and Buildathon in April. That was the main focus of the month along with various platform development to support the events and using the trading platform this time to pick the winning project. I posted 6 pages of hand-written notes from both events in our Discord here and here and I’ll now recap what I thought worked well, what fell short and the platform features, bizdev, content and event format improvements I’m intending to focus on this month.

What Worked Well

  • The team leader orientation lunch served well to get us all on the same page in advance of the event.
  • I had spent a ton of time on various promo strategies testing ads, flyering cowork spaces, posting messages in various Slack communities and trying out the “Street Team” concept of enabling others to use custom QR codes on our full-format posters to get credit for any signups they originated. This worked well and led to us having our biggest event to date with 47 people involved including participants, team leaders, mentors, judges, customer feedback volunteers, build partners and staff.
  • The event format is now fairly well-baked and it felt like an inflection point in terms of having a repeatable, scaleable recipe for running these. There is still much of the grunt work that needs to be automated like the onboarding and followup in advance of the event but it’s much tighter now.
  • The experience itself was not just productive but fun, compelling and it led to groups continuing to meet after the event (which is a great sign). These feedback testimonials from participants say it all.
  • Having the timezone offset for the Buildathon specifically worked really well as it gave us a bigger coverage work window. It made me think it’d be good to get a team in Asia to then keep passing that torch overnight and get 24hr coverage that day…

What Could Be Better

In spite of all the progress there were definitely some flaws:

  • Judges and team leaders found the trading platform unintuitive in spite of the advance training I did on an orientation call before the event. This meant they were giving me their desired offers to make on their behalf and I was furiously typing in everyone’s transactions following the pitches and then trying to followup with teams to counsel them on which ones they should/shouldn’t accept. I need insist that judges each do a “firedrill” in advance proposing a trade so they know how to perform this function self-serve and not be reliant upon me for this.
  • The delay created an unintended emphasis on announcing the winner which was not the main intent of the event. It’s intended to be a livefire collaboration exercise that takes participants through a condensed version of the early days of a startup in a single day. The competitiveness of having judges and a winner makes it exciting but also we need to strike a balance and ensure that’s not the main emphasis of the event- it’s the experience, the collaboration and the learning that I ideally want to emphasize.
  • A few people remarked it would be nicer to have more structured milestones to the day in terms of deliverables and landmarks that teams are steering towards at each juncture. I err’d on the side of taking a laissez faire approach here and instead suggesting goals/deliverables at each step but likely the right move is to make it structured by default and then if teams deviate from the path that’s up to them.
  • 10am - 8pm is a long day. We need some type of pattern interrupt around 4pm to reinvigorate the room. I’m already thinking about cheap options to accomplish this.
  • The audio system failed this time which meant the first divergent portion where we get to hear 1min pitches for every project in the library never happened. This led to…
  • Team sizes were too large. We had 10-12 person teams which is past that magic 5-6 person threshold where there are too many competing ideas, too many tangents and “cooks in the kitchen” leading to overall less participation from each person and less progress as a team. I think we need to cap team sizes at 5 max in the future and if they exceed that number then we cleave into two smaller teams and split them on different facets of the same project.
  • There was some confusion about entitlement to ongoing participation in a team after the event if you contributed during the day. This was my bad for not clarifying that up front but the experience is purely an exercise in collaboration and should carry no expectation of entitlement to ongoing involvement nor equal participation in the token distribution for the project. The team leader is solely responsible for dispensing project tokens commensurate with what they believe the value of participants’ contributions were at the event. And this is all entirely subjective and speculative since we’re talking day 0 projects in many cases with a ton of uncertainty on a number of dimensions.
  • It’s hard to know the balance to strike for trying to educate folks in advance of the event on things like using the bounty system, how to conduct effective user interviews, the elements of an effective pitch. I am a bit torn between wanting to do more education in advance of the event but then that repels prospective attendees and raises the bar making it harder for people to commit. A 10-hr day on a Saturday is already a huge commitment for most.
  • It was a bit disjointed the way we had the customer feedback volunteers rotating around to each group. Productive conversations which were still in flight were cut short and it created this “musical chairs” like environment of constantly uprooting people and stealing them away.
  • In spite of the checkin & followup process we had some no-shows while having to turn away people on the waitlist.
  • Fragmentation with syndicating the events to platforms like Meetup and Eventbrite when their users then RSVP via those platforms but fail to read the instructions and register/onboard via the Problemattic platform to be eligible. Again even despite email followups we had some confused people there.
  • Forgetting to announce the judges and give them a chance to introduce themselves meant that they felt less special and participants didn’t know who they were pitching to. This was an omission on my part and a function of not using a script and trying to maintain all the pieces in my head in running things.

Changes for Next Event

  • I’ve already started a doc I called The Problemattic Way which will serve as a guidebook for the project leaders and as optional reading for participants in advance of the event. This doc has the play-by-play of each milestone before, during and after the events along with an Appendix of key concepts and lessons explained for first-time founders that should help them each step of the way. This is such a firehose of a day that you can’t overwhelm people with all this info in advance but you CAN give them a taste of what it’s like to get customer validation or develop a clickable mockup and then show them the path for delving deeper on how to do it better. That “just in time learning” is what I’m aiming for with this doc.
  • Will bring a backup bluetooth speaker in the event of audio failure for next time. That’s a no-brainer.
  • It’s time to implement a proper “Leviathan-like” automated followup system to usher people through the signup and onboarding process in advance of the event and check-in with them following the event to encourage ongoing collaboration.
  • I’ve already tweaked our events engine to support the coworking session format and we tested that last Thursday. I’m planning to run a month of Thursday coworking to see if this can help with the continuity problem after the event and knit people together into more of a community feel vs. infrequent event attendees.
  • I’m going to add the key communication points on the Google Slides as speaker notes so I don’t make obvious omissions like failing to introduce our judges next time.
  • I’ve already rolled out member profiles so you can look up anyone at the event by clicking on their photo and see what skills they possess. I’ll probably flesh this out a bit and add the ability to register links to social profiles and a bio so people know who they’re talking with. This was a question with the investors is that when they finally did intro themselves it was difficult to hear and would’ve been nice to have a “baseball card” for each to see what their specialties are.
  • Likely going to add a “RSVP reconfirm” step the day before to mitigate the no-shows and turning away eager people on the waitlist issue.
  • Going to insist (or strongly incentivize) teams making a clickable prototype and not worrying about pitch decks for pitching the judges. The pitches end up being a bit of a distraction and I would prefer to see the teams engaging the subject matter experts in the room right up until the point at which they’re on stage pitching the judges. It’s far more important to get the insights from the open-ended user interviews and the input from feedback volunteers interacting with the clickable mockup than it is to make pretty pitch deck slides at the event.
  • I’m likely going to bring in a fresh crop of judges and seek to have current active founders who are “in the arena” with their startup to give feedback at the Ideathon. We can have input from professional investors at a later date when the projects have some traction and numbers but it feels like an expectation mismatch on both sides to present super early-stage teams and ideas to overly-qualified judges. This cuts both ways- I think the feedback of operators in the arena will be more useful to first-time founders and teams as well.
  • Going to use the room mic next time- that was just an omission that led to unnecessary cat herding moments.
  • Going to have structured deliverables at each step and if teams want to deviate from that playbook they do so at their own peril. The overwhelming feedback was that putting more guardrails and a linear process in place would be useful so planning to make the guidebook Gdoc a centerpiece for how we operate vs. a loose suggestion.
  • Going to implement a round of “shout outs” while the offers and counter-offers are flying back and forth after the pitches. We used to do this on Remote Year each month going around the room and just letting anyone acknowledge someone or some moment they’re grateful for that stood out at the event. That should help to mitigate the feel of competition and bring it back to the collaborative/communal vibe.
  • Going to invert how we rotate feedback volunteer and subject matter experts and instead have them stay put at stations and put the choice of who and when to see in the hands of the teams so they’re not interrupted from their flow and can use the resources in the room as they see fit.
  • Will look into livestreaming the pitches and opening up the ability for other individuals outside of the event to make offers and support the teams remotely. There are all kinds of questions around ensuring we designate these as donations with no prospect of future profit and then accounting-wise track the escrow of these funds and allocation to each team. But this will be a huge unlock once the capability exists so I’m aiming for that at the next one.

What I’m Now Focusing On

I’ve got a set of immediate loose end clean-up tasks fixing some brokenness before I can embark on the major feature dev pushes but once I’m through the immediate thicket of DevOps-y fixes I’m intending to go full-bore on four major features:

  1. Making it possible (and easy) for anyone to financially support a project they like in the library. This basically needs to become like Kiva where you can go and research the story of what and why people are working on and then back them to help cover hosting/dev/SaaS costs.
  2. Develop a robust marketing automation system native in the app. I looked into using ActiveCampaign and this realistically (like the message bus and trading platform) needs to be built from scratch natively as part of the Bubble application. This should alleviate the need for my assistant Marko to do a ton of tedious email followup work with people and lead to lower attrition, more highly engaged and educated attendees and be useful fabric that will help not just with events but anything that requires followup.
  3. Auto-syndicate all events to Meetup and Eventbrite platforms as well as make it possible to push to other services. I believe I can leverage the API to push events to Zapier or Make and then from there they have integration hooks to most services so that will help alleviate some of the grunt work not to mention keep the event details in sync across all these platforms when there are changes after publish. Like the automated followup, this makes the platform more valuable when we go to deploy this in other cities.
  4. Lastly, the moonshot here is what I’m calling The Benefactor Model, or applying concepts from retroactive public goods funding to the world of impact projects. This is a massive undertaking but represents the single biggest lever I know how to pull to get this effort to the scale of something like Xprize. I’ve been accepted to Hatch Europe and am tentatively aiming to try and unveil this feature at Hatch.

Project Success
The single best thing we can do at this point is to have one of our incubated projects succeed in creating the intended measurable impact. I’m therefore committing 30% of my energy to supporting the winning team from last event in helping them launch their MVP and get some traction with it. We have some useful connections for getting visibility and early adopters and all the pieces are there for this to work so I see no reason other than time scarcity for pulling this off.

I’m testing casual coworking sessions every Thursday for the rest of May and not worrying about plotting any other big events. The Ideathon is hugely time-consuming to plan and recruit for so I want to wait until I at least have a) some help from the community in promoting it b) some of the automation in place before attempting the next one. I believe between the coworking, Discord and Forums we should have enough interaction to keep things loosely progressing between events. This Wednesday I go back to NovaSBE business school for round two of working with their social impact students. It was a core team of 4 NovaSBE students who won this past event and I believe that business schools could be a really important wellspring of young, entrepreneurial team leaders for us. Lastly, I’m now incubated by Lisbon’s largest social impact incubator so we have access to their amazing space and energy to make the coworking sessions special.

I’m not currently planning any podcasts. I’ve thrown out some invites to incredible entrepreneurial luminaries who, if they go for it I’ll juggle and accommodate, but I’m not seeking to do any problem domain pod episodes. I am fleshing out the Problemattic Way doc because that will be an important centerpiece around which to better align and educate everyone on key concepts. And likely that will evolve to become a self-guided eCourse that anyone can take on their own to progress through each step.

Lastly, I am now more than ever bullish that this movement is on the right path and we have something really important here. Chris Dixon famously said “The next big thing will start out looking like a toy.” This is an ever-evolving social experiment that I believe will prove to become a very important toy for galvanizing strangers to collaborate on creating citizen-led solutions to societal issues.

The technical roadmap as always can be found here.

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