This is by far the longest post in BIC history. It's a story recapping my experience this past weekend at Chicago's Startup Weekend. I wanted to decribe what my team and I were able to build in ~56 hours along with the aftermath from the event. Hopefully it's a good read, and if you stick through until the end I sincerly hope you extract some value from it. Enjoy!
Over the weekend I lead a team which, thanks to Chicago's Startup Weekend crew, was able to build the beginnings of a really cool algorithm which is capable of challenging the current television ratings and ranking system. As a result of this my team and I will be presenting it in front of 15 of the largest brands in America this coming Tuesday.
I’ve always heard the saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, and for whatever reason that saying has always stuck with me. I’ve always been fond of sayings, proverbs and analogies, but unlike most of them this particular one is pretty straightforward. The thought that anything with depth and intricacy simply can’t be built in a short span of time is somewhat of a misconception. Due to the advent of web development and the democratization of technological infrastructures, time is no longer the anchor that it once was; and over the weekend there were at least nine other Chicagoans who seemed to agree with me.
This past weekend, I along with 96 other hungry entrepreneurs, hackers, and designers all attended Chicago’s Startup Weekend. This was my first Startup Weekend and thanks to the awesome organizers, Adam Haun, Chris Campbell, Mark Bertrand, Kit Mueller, and the many other mentors and judges, it certainly won’t be my last. For those unfamiliar with Startup Weekend it’s an intense 54 hour event that brings complete strangers together with the intent to build credible web or mobile application businesses over the course of one weekend.
The event began on Friday night around 6:00pm with registration, and a bit of networking followed thereafter. I arrived early, as I always do to events, and found myself engaged straightaway. The very first person I came across was Kandace Barker, a brilliant digital strategist whose passionate personality was instantly recognizable. Within a few minutes of walking the room I became aware of something that I had always known but wasn’t confirmed until that very moment. Our city has an amazingly abundant resource pool of tech related talent. I was glad to have made the decision to attend the event because if you were interested in creating a startup and needed a team to do it, this was clearly the place to be.
After a bit networking we had the opportunity to hear some words of encouragement from a few beacons within our community. Matt Moog, who if you are reading this post you certainly know, provided some of the most inspiring words from the event. We also had an opportunity to hear an inspiring story from GiveForward’s co-founder Ethan Austin regarding his startup’s success and how we should possibly view the opportunities before us. In my eyes those two gentlemen truly set the stage for the pitches that came next.
Overall it was difficult for me to keep up with the total amount in attendance and how many actually pitched that night. Don’t quote me on these numbers, but I believe, nearly 96 participants were in attendance, some coming as far away as Seattle. Nearly 65 attendees pitched a startup idea in one minute, and I was one of them. The idea I pitched had been in my head for nearly 7 months prior to attending Startup Weekend, but I hadn’t had a team capable of pulling it off. However after networking I felt this was the time to give the idea a shot. It was a pretty ambitious project, which is how I tend to live my life. As I said before, I’m a man who loves sayings and have really modeled my actions around a credo which seems to echo my personality; Go Big or Go Home. I’m sure all of my fellow Code Academy alumni would agree that I am ambitious with my startup ideas, and I always have been. I believe that if you’re not willing to reach for the stars and possibly fail, you’ll never really live. It’s only when we push ourselves to the point of possibly failing wherein we discover what we are made of.
Nearly 16 teams were formed following those pitches and I was amazed that, not only was my idea one of those selected to form a team, but those who decided to join me were brilliant people. We named the company RatingsKick, which I already held the .com domain for so we were already ahead. During our first all-hands we decided that we were really going to push the envelope of what could be accomplished within that 54 hours, and were optimistic that we could see it through.
The team was comprised of ten Chicagoans, all with background complementing the vision for the product. RatingsKick ended up with one PhD in Electrical Engineering, another in the fourth year of his pursuit for his PhD in Computer Science, through the program at the University of Chicago, three developers with myself being the fourth, two advertisers, a stellar designer, a MBA student, and a developer Greg Krumm who turned out to be our Swiss Army knife. I wish that I could say that I was intentional in hand picking this team, and construct this story to sound as if this was all part of some brilliant Bobby Fisher style master plan in composing a team, but that's just not the case. We all came together because we were drawn together and united by passion. Each heard the pitch and approached me desiring to work diligently in order to make RatingsKick a reality. I was humbled by the support and grateful that we ended up with the people and skills that we did.
When I pitched RatingsKick, I was pretty sure most had experienced the pain points as I had. So in order to make sure my assumptions were correct I phrased my pitch as a question, “How many of you have watched a show and thought it was awesome. You get attached to it, you fall in love with the characters, but weeks before the story is about to take off you hear that it the show gets canceled by the studio who produces it?”. Practically everyone raised their hand, and so I knew I was onto something and brought it home; “Well I HATE that,” I said, “and I want to stop this from happening; and I believe I know how to do it.” So that’s what we set out to build, a way to stop shows that had loyal followings from getting canceled prematurely. Also there may or may not have been a name drop in the pitch ;) Something about me meeting Ashton Kutcher at Stanford University’s Startup school last fall, and how the initial inspiration for the idea actually came from his and other actors and actresses frustration with the Nielsen ratings (Actually a TRUE story). Now that may or may not have helped inspire my team convincing them to join my ranks but either way we were off.
Immediately after all of the groups broke off and began building we found a nice quiet section of cubicles in Tech Nexus that had a Whiteboard and claimed it as our space. Taking an inventory of the teams skills we introduced ourselves to one another. I then pitched the idea again except this time I took a bit more than 1 minute to explain the idea. I went into great depth and why I saw the current television ratings system as broken and in need of assistance. Having Kandace on the team, who I mentioned earlier, who was directly involved with this space turned out to be the best thing to happen to us because she had direct industry knowledge that completed the picture for us. The way she saw it, I was correct in my assertion that there clearly was room for improvement, but the system wasn’t broken, it just was incomplete.
I won’t spend a ton of time going into how Nielsen runs its business, since this blog post isn’t about them as much as it is about my experience during Chicago's Startup Weekend. Although you should know that Nielsen's interpretation of total viewers and ratings is based off of a sample set of data, which is then extrapolated across the entire U.S. population. Therefore, it is an incomplete picture of the number of viewers, as well as their "ratings." Because viewers today have very different ways that we access content, so too should the way our viewing habits are measured, along with a user's engagement around that particular show. Our team threw together the foundations of a pretty sophisticated algorithm which over the weekend aiming to prove we truly knew how to solve this problem.
Although we weren’t able to fully implement our detailed algorithm in its entirety by the end of Sunday, however we were able to lay the groundwork for what will soon become a new measurement tool for determining a shows overall worth for advertiser agencies and their brands. We intend for what we’ve built to be a new metric for brands which we coined its KickValue™.
The team and I constructed all of our application’s data to be viewed in real time, which we determined could add additional value to advertising agents. Having the ability to see the impact of a giver show in real time was something that we couldn’t pass up, so we made that feature a non-negotiable. We embedded the ability for and advertisers, brands, or even an actor to sift through all of the data collected from the social graph about a particular television show and determine its intrinsic value.
What we were doing had never before been done, and here we were a group of strangers building a business which we saw as an opportunity to revolutionize modern day media and entertainment; and we did it all under 54 hours. Now I would like to clarify that I’m not proposing that within that period of time we were able to build an algorithm that is as sophisticated as Google's PageRank. However,I am saying that what we did manage to build does in fact work, and after we‘ve spent some time to further implement additional features, that we just didn’t have the time to build, we see ourselves as an extremely useful tool. Allowing advertising agencies, the brands that they represent, and the studios who produce the content, the ability to have a more holistic outlook on a particular show’s overall performance just might be enough to keep our Jericho's, Black Donnellys, Fireflys, and the many other short lived series on the air if they are able to spend their ad dollars more effectively. Because when we look at the landscape around the current ratings system it’s hard to see how it won’t when we offer so much more.
RatingsKick ended up taking home the Perfomics Most Innovative Company Award at Chicago's StartUp Weekend along with an invitation to present in front over a dozen of the world's largest brands at an upcoming event they will be hosting. So in less than a week's time we’ll be demonstrating our product hoping that those brands find value in our new outlook on social consumer engagement, and its overall impact on Television shows and the brands which choose to advertise on them.
Digital web technologies seem to be the only place where, within less time than it took Apollo 11 to get to the moon, you can not only build an awesome team, but have that team actually build an awesome product, ripe for disrupting a several hundred billion dollar industry. During this past weekend the Chicago teams all built applications of great value for many users. We happen to have the opportunity to present our product, even in this early stage, to some of the largest brands in the world, and that was all thanks to the the Startup Weekend.
So sure, Rome may not have been built in a day but you sure can build a heck of a lot in 54 hours; so go out there and build something.