Sketching with Code

Hacking at Do Startup

I was invited to be a guest hacker at Do Startup, the name for this year’s Do Lectures. If you’ve not heard of it, it’s often referred to as being quite similar to TED, if you could imagine it being held in a teepee in the beautiful Welsh country-side.

I was joined by prolific Javascript developer Remy Sharp. Guest hacking meant making things fast, and with both of us with young kids at home we were adamant that we’d come up with something useful with our time there.

It was 72 hours of talks, conversation, and collaboration, with the aim that there’d be a handful of “startups” come out of the weekend, one with a small amount of cash to take an idea forward.

We made two things together, and I thought I’d share, as well as some thoughts about these kinds of startup-making events.

Hack 1 - Do A Course

Do A Course is a simple way for people who have a passion for something they do, to run a course for those who want to learn about it.

The “teacher” signs up, uses the app to make a simple page to advertise the course (how much it costs, how long it runs for, etc.) and then shares it with their network. People sign up for the course by paying by credit card (thank you Stripe beta). The course starts on a particular date, so that the learners have a network of others that are doing the same course at the same time. They chat on a Facebook group (or similar). Each day/week/month, new content is released via email, and the teacher has designed these pages using a really simple tool - it handles embedded video, slideshows, uploaded files etc.

It’s quite neat and we did it in a day!

It came from a conversation with Jo, who runs Your Darling Blog - a well-known and well-respected course in blog design. What she’d seen was that while she had the skills to set something like this up, others who might have the passion just might not have the tech skills required to set up a wordpress blog, do payment integration, mailchimp emails, and all the rest.

Sadly Jo got ill the next day so we decided to pause once we got this far, but this has a lot of potential.

If you’re interested in edtech, thinking of doing a startup and need an MVP to get investment, get in touch? I’m kind of busy with other things, I’d love to see this developed, and I think there’s a business here.

What I learnt was that I got a bit frustrated with the format of the event at that point - a handful of big groups, and I prefer doing things where there’s a single, passionate person with some domain knowledge and a couple of hacker/designer types. Maybe it’s habit…

Anyway - we didn’t demo this idea in the end, but we did demo what we made the next day.

Hack 2 - Tentoring

Tentoring is ten minute mentoring. Here’s how it works:

  • Attend an event
  • Meet amazing peers
  • The event finishes
  • Sign up to a Tentoring group and state your skills
  • Everyone becomes a potential ten-minute mentor of eachother
  • Ask a question, and say which skill it applies to
  • A random person with that skill gets emailed
  • They go to a page to read the question
  • A countdown timer starts
  • After ten minutes the timer stops and the answer is sent
  • The person who asked the question has had ten minutes of mentoring
  • There’s no further responsibility but they see eachothers email addresses

This was the idea that emerged on the second day. Our “official” group had imploded, disbanded and unravelled, leaving Tom from Swarm floating around unsure what to do. We grabbed a handful of interesting people and sat for a chat.

When you’re doing a hack, your first users are your only users, so we looked around - what could we hack together for the people that were at Do? Could we make something useful for them to do what they do? There were lots of startup people there, and lots of smart people with lots to share, and lots to learn.

A few years ago I heard about “micro-mentoring”. We started chatting about it and quickly came to a funny idea about a chat-roulette clone for mentoring, where you only get ten minutes of time. It’s to counter the problem of not really knowing what you might be getting into in a typical mentoring relationship.

Thus “tentoring”, ten minutes men toring.

It was fun that we came up with the idea for the hack with Dave, one of the founders of Do, and then the name came out of a chat later on with the volunteers who were doing the dishes!

We included a cat in the app, and Remy and I completely flipped round our roles from the previous hack. I was suddenly on front-end, and he was doing business logic stuff. In Node (I’ve never used it before), so that makes two new things I learn - Angular was in the first hack.

We installed ourselves for the rest of the day by the fire, just by the “pub”, and people kept coming up and contributing tiny bits to the app - text, ideas, photos, feedback, testing…

And then we demoed, and we won half of the investment that Do had set aside! Amazing. We’d started the day with a total fail - a disbanded team, but somehow made a lovely little app that seemed to be onto something.

The idea is that after the event has gone, by signing up to Tentoring, everyone who attended could become a micro-mentor for someone else. Sign up, say what you’re good at, ask a question that needs answering, and get ten minutes of time in response.

The “tentor” quite literally only has ten minutes to respond to a question, so there’s a kind of tiny contract - ”I’ll give you ten minutes of my time, no more”, and we hope that could mean for an interesting way for events to allow collaboration afterwards.

Some things I learnt

Hacker is a niche term

I had to explain to a lot of people exactly what it is that I do. “Not that kind of hacker” and all that. The guys at Makeshift were joking afterwards that I’m some kind of travelling hacker. A “hacker at large”, a-la Peter Gregson and Mike Butcher.

There’s an opportunity here

I think this event was an interesting experiment - get people with passion and domain knowledge in a room, and do startups. With a couple of hackers we were able to demonstrate a hack of a product for one of them, but the other pitches were much more future facing. What would happen if we started making a few introductions between the “go to a hackday” and the “change the world” crowd?

I’m impatient when it’s not fast enough

I do lots of hacks, and at a hackday I’d often do two or three things in a day, so it was a bit odd to do these two quite developed apps rather than lots of little things. We didn’t really get asked to do anything, so we just got our heads down on what ideas we had. I guess that I’m used to having an idea and just piling right in and making it, and the format of having lots of discussion and large groups was a bit tricky for me to get a handle on. The thing is, it worked pretty well in the end for a couple of the other groups, so appropriate methods for the appropriate people might apply.

Follow-through takes consideration

Doing Makeshift full-time is like doing a never-ending hackday, and I’m a bit concerned with follow-through on these ideas. With Tentoring there’s an obvious little app there that is low effort to produce, but it needs a “CEO”. A friend asked me today what I learnt from Wrangl and it’s exactly that. It’s great to get a hack out there, but it really needs to be someone’s job to grow it and build it and do the follow through. A tough lesson, hence having the structure of Makeshift around me to ensure that happens.

Hacking close to nature is a great thing

Gosh, FForest is a beautiful location. The food was great. Lovely people. And while I did get a bit frustrated with the lack of internet it was a really memorable experience going and doing what we did there. Seems a bit like a dream now I’m back in London!

Those unfamiliar with hacks really care about IP

There’s no IP in our hack, really. We put it on a public Github repo with an MIT licence attached!

What matters is execution, and that’s a long slog, and is all about deals, and business, and marketing, and investment. Sure - maybe there’s something in the “ten minute mentoring” concept, but none of us were particularly interested in locking the idea down. We’re more interested in seeing if people actually have this behaviour and like the idea.

So a couple of us synced up later and while Remy and I are doing a few tweaks on the app, basically we’re waiting to see if people use this thing (I think they will), and designing out the “groups” feature, which is the way that this could be self-sustaining. Event organisers pay $XXX per year and get a semi-private “Tentoring group” for their attendees. Pretty simple. Could be great, but only if we get validation from the hack in the next few weeks.

So, if you like it, please sign up!

Next hack?

I learnt a lot at Do, and I’ve hardly managed to cram it all in to this post. These are the hacks, that’s the subject of this blog, but there’s tons of others stuff I could talk about - the event, the themes, the people, but those are probably things to think about until the next time I go to something similar!