Focus and Execution

by Johan. Average Reading Time: almost 7 minutes.

Focus and execution is everything when demonstrating a startup idea. Two weeks ago I participated in Startup Weekend Copenhagen, and to spoil the plot, our team won 1st prize for our project Quick Inspect - professional site inspection on iPad. Looking back we made 3 key decisions that helped us tremendously.

1. Keep it simple
2. Be a painkiller
3. Rob a bank

Startup Weekend is basically a 72 hours circus where you can pitch a business idea and win cash and prestige. My friends Daniel and Søren and I didn’t find any obvious ideas to join, so we teamed up with Andreas and Kacper, both Rails hackers, and formed a small team to work on our own idea.

The Problem

I had toyed with the idea of building an iPad app for the construction industry, and had talked to the guys about the concept previously. It seemed promising for a weekend project – primarily because it was a simple idea with a clear business case. We estimated we could build an actual working demo in a weekend

The Quick Inspect concept was born. Our problem; solve the archaic process of inspecting construction sites. Today, inspectors walk around with pen and paper, cameras, and even big print-outs of blueprints. It typically takes 2-3 hours for a small site (apartment-sized) inspection and 1 hour for the rapport. The workflow is awkward and clunky because the notes and the pictures from the field have to be combined in a rapport back at the office often by a secretary, introducing errors and costing valuable time. The construction industry spends millions on government-mandated site inspections each year, so it seems like an industry ripe for disruption.

The iPad offers a solid platform to mitigate the before-mentioned issues. It has a camera, a microphone, a touch-keyboard and a big hi-res screen to display blueprints and complex issue-lists.

Before midnight on Friday we had a clearly defined problem, a limited scope of our product, and had even set our individual roles for the weekend.

Day 2. Divide and Concur. We’re all working on various parts of the product. 

1. Keep it simple

Our first insight hit us early on. Keep it simple! We wanted to work on actual code, and hopefully present a working prototype on Sunday. We knew there were all sorts of interesting perspectives to analyze, but we had to focus hard. Confine yourself to a simple problem and execute well. Our headline – save time and money by using an iPad and a clever cloud solution. At the end of the weekend all it comes down to is a high-octane 3 minute pitch in front of the judges and the crowd. Over-analyzing the problem only dilutes the message and weakens the pitch.

Personally, I think there are too many teams that get lost in abstract academic details of a given problem. Stop circling the issue. Sometimes you just got to peel some potatoes to sell your idea. Startup Weekend is a discipline in raw execution. Show us your team can execute and everything will follow. It’s pretty much how startup life is anyway.

 Daniel and Søren testing iPad app.

Focus on the showing part. If your idea involves an iPad app then spend the time to show us how. It doesn’t have to be a polished final version, but make it as easy as possible for your audience to grasp your vision. Go through the different stages of interaction. If your product solves a specific problem through interaction with the app, please show us how this interaction is facilitated. If you claim it’s easy to use, prove it. It adds enormous weight to your pitch if you can show actual working code and a mature design.

2. Be a Painkiller

Don Dodger of Google wrote how there are two types of businesses; the vitamins and the painkillers. The vitamin businesses add value to your life or your business. They provide services that make life easier and more enjoyable. They are nice-to-haves – yet, if you were hard-pressed for time or money, you could probably live without. Painkillers on the other hand are need-to-haves. Without them your business would not function. Going out on a limb here, I’d say email is a Painkiller, Twitter is a Vitamin (though arguably a painkiller for some people).

We aligned everything in the product to be a painkiller. Primarily because it makes business sense. The product may be less sexy than a fancy geo-location photo-sharing app, but if it relieves a pain big enough, we could strike gold.

A painkiller business also helps focus your pitch. Everything you do has to solve your initial pain point. If it doesn’t, forget it. It’s your best defense against feature creep. Our pain point was the time consumption involved in tracking issues and navigating big construction sites. If we could save 60 min. with every inspection, we could save the consultancies and ultimately their clients serious money. Nothing beats hard cold facts.

3. Rob a Bank

According to legend a journalist once asked notorious bank robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. His answer was both obvious and insightful, “Cause that’s where the money is.” When building a business meant to scale, ideally you want to solve a real problem for a huge market. You want to rob a bank. Construction accounts for 20% of GDP in most western countries. And every time a building is constructed, sold, or renovated it undergoes multiple time-consuming inspections. That’s a huge market with a nasty problem.

If we can grab a tiny percentile of the industry we have a very healthy business. A back-of-the-envelope estimate pointed in the direction of $60 million yearly revenue for a 1% EU market share. Sure, it might take years to reach that goal, but the point is the business opportunity exists.

Live pitch from Sunday. The audio cuts out in the middle unfortunately. 

Hindsight Lessons

We designed and built everything during the weekend. We honestly didn’t think we’d win when we came in Friday, we just set out to have fun and experiment with the tablet format. Afterwards we talked to several people who knew of people at large construction consultancies who’d been wrestling with this exact problem, but hadn’t succeeded deploying a product yet. A recent YC backed startup is actually trying to solve the related problem of handling blueprints on the iPad, called PlanGrid. Looks promising.

Startup Weekend really is an exercise in focus and execution. With a disclaimer of having participated just twice, I offer these personal hindsight lessons:

Stay small and agile. We were a team of 5 developers and designers. Tightly-knit groups move exponentially faster than teams with 10 business developers. Build something and show you can execute.

Forget the deep business logic. Everything changes – especially your business plan. Spend 3-4 hours analyzing market size, competitors, and estimated revenue. Where’s the money coming from? Ballpark figures will do for a weekend. Just demonstrate you understand your market potential.

Solve a real problem. Social-mobile-gaming-apps are all the hype. Yet, all but a few fail miserably at generating interest and money. Find a real pain and try to solve it – the money will follow.

Make a simple product. Startup Weekend isn’t geared for overly complex problems or solutions. Fusion reactor startups need not apply. The judges and crowd want instant payoff and easily comprehensible solutions. (I personally have deep admiration for the ambitious change-the-world startups like SpaceX or Transatomic Power and think they’re incredibly important and valuable. But these businesses face a very hard pitch for a Startup Weekend.)

Listen and don’t give up. Startup competitions can be ruthless and rarely leave room for delicate or complex issues (see above). Yet, they also offer amble opportunity to test your idea and get honest feedback. And if you fail, pick yourself up and try again.

We won 10.000 DKK and the last Nokia Lumia 800 developed in Denmark. 

I recommend all aspiring entrepreneurs to get your hands dirty at a startup event like Startup Weekend. Quick Inspect is still on the drawing board, but it looks promising and we’ve gotten amazing feedback so far. The lessons learned at such an event are precious compared to the time and energy involved in building a real business. Don’t waste them.

Further reading: Podcast Interview in Danish at TrendsOnline