Spring Is In The Air And Something New Is Upon Us

This post is part wind-down announcement and part new product news.

We started Seconds (back then called Order SM) in September 2011 with the goal to experiment around mobile – text ordering at local restaurants.   Our assumption was people would want to simply text “burrito” to their local mexican restaurant and then be able to swing by and grab it without having to wait in line for their food pay with a physical credit card.  Everything would be taken care of in the background on the web.

We learned a ton, but the biggest thing was both merchants and customers really liked being able to just pay for something by sending at text and not mess with all the other communication crap, so we ended up moving towards specifically focusing on a mobile payment system.   We changed the name to Seconds and rolled it out in Jan 201n2.   We saw a dramatic market interest in our unique take on payments, receiving inbound request from almost every continent in the world.   Unfortunately, we weren’t able to secure capital it required to scale our team and out product and so we basically stalled out at the end of the year.

Rather than being a Zombie-startup, I decided it was best we make better use of each members skill set (go get paying gigs) and wind down the operations on Seconds, as a mobile payment startup.  This means we are not taking new customers or putting in new work around the product.  It also means we are retaining the IP and tech, placing it on the shelf for a while as we determine the next phase for our ideas.  As I said to the team when we made this decision, “with each passing day, people will only get more comfortable with mobile payments and we’ll make more and more mobile payments as the months and years go on.  I don’t think this is the end of the line for our ideas, just not the right time and place for Seconds as it is today.”

This was definitely a tough decision and one I probably put off for a few months not wanting to accept the reality of the situation.

For all you who know me personally you will be quite familiar with my challenges as I built Seconds.  It is not easy to be a founder, no matter how “rock star” it may be described nowadays.  It’s lonely.  It’s stressful.  It stretches you in ways you will never imagine.  It mentally challenges you to the point where you actually think you are crazy (and probably could be) yet just normal enough to not be committed.

Frequent readers will recall my many posts on what it’s like to be a founder.  Rollercoaster is an understatement, mainly because when you get off the ride you say to yourself “wow, that was crazy fun” and then simply go back to your normal, unaffected life.  No so when you jump head first into your life as an entrepreneur.  There are scars from this journey that will take years for me to fully recover from.

With that said, we are not finished.  Strangely, I am scarred yet more excited and more prepared for future success.  A backstory will help you understand what is about to transpire from here on out.

About 7 weeks ago the Seconds team took the Super Bowl Weekend and entered Sports Hack Day, a 3-day hackathon to see who can build to coolest thing using sports oriented data.  What a weekend.  It was full of late nights, massive brainstorming and beer infested hacking.  Although we didn’t end up winning any prizes or awards, we emerged from the weekend with a kernel of a cool idea that as sports fans we just wanted to use as we went about our life.

“What if you predict – or make a call – on any stat, play or outcome of a sporting event, and in Twitter fashion simply be able to shoot it out into the social sphere telling the world you think ‘X’ will happen in this game.  If correct, your score would go up.  If wrong, it would go down.  You could then challenge friends with a simple finger swipe on your phone and then go back to watching the game.  And what if we could then determine who knew the most about sports by this running number, similar to a Klout score but for sports.”

We liked the idea so much we decided to continue to work on the concept after the weekend concluded.  I couldn’t get it out of my head and as a sports fan I wanted to use it – like really bad.  I don’t normally play fantasy sports leagues because it feels like such a commitment of time and mental energy.  But if I could simply make a few predictive calls on my mobile as to what I think will happen in the Bulls vs Knicks game tonight, and show my friend I know more about sports than he does, I’m into that.  It’s addictive.

So the 3 of us wondered what it would look like and continued to build it out.  It ended up more of an undertaking than we realized and has required many late nights over the last month.  We are now almost ready to release it to the world and see what happens.  That is all I will be saying until we announce the release very shortly, but needless to say we are interested to see what the world thinks.

As for me, I will be hired here soon and will have new daily responsibilities with another company.  Am I excited to join another company?  Yes.  Do I wish I was full time (and paid) in my own company, not having to work for someone else?  Yes indeed.  Will it just take a little more time until that happens?  For sure.  Will I give up on pursuing my creative side as an entrepreneur?  Hell no.  Do I realize my time building Seconds is pretty much the only reason I will be hired into this next position?  Yep.  It’s not lost on me all this has been worth it no matter the financial outcome or the pain associated.

Spring is in the air; no better time to emerge towards a new direction and pursue an exciting new opportunity.

3 Reasons Why Non-Technical CEO’s Need To Go To Hackathons

SHDI am not the typical person you would find at a hackathon.  I don’t code and would be described in the industry as a “non-technical” cofounder.

As a non-technical CEO I tend to focus on things like marketing, branding, positioning, investors, and customers.  I do it because it’s my job and during the early stages of a startup no one else on the team is responsible for those things.

This is all nice and good but it doesn’t build a product.  And if you don’t have a product you can’t actually have marketing, branding, positioning, investors, and customers.

So if you are a non-technical CEO what you need is a techie bootcamp of sorts, short but intense periods of learning and doing so you can start to understand what its like to be a developer.  And trust me, if your devs don’t feel like you understand the hows and why’s of their work you will soon find yourself standing alone at the alter.

So what is a Hackathon?  It’s a room full of developers focused on building the coolest product they can in a 54 hour period.  It’s a self-inflicted bootcamp, challenging you and your team to execute on a new idea with little time, resources or sleep.

Crazy huh?

My team and I participated in the recent Sports Hack Day at the Hub over SuperBowl weekend in Seattle.  It was a great experience.  Obviously, the focus was building something oriented around technology and sports – two of my favorite topics.  While we didn’t take home any of the prizes, we did take home a kernel of an idea we think might actually be something substantial.  More on that later.

I want to review some lessons learned over the weekend and possibly help other non-techical CEO’s who are serious about building a startup realize how important the time spent at a Hackathon can be.

Lessons 1. Become part of the community

There is a strange brotherhood between technical people – developers, hackers, coders, designers – anyone who considers themselves one with the terminal.   It’s like they just have look at each other, head nod without saying anything and instantly know each is in the club.  I have to admit this was quite foreign to me as I began my entrepreneurial journey (uh, what’s that say on your screen?)   I credit the few CTO’s I have worked with for their patience and understanding with me being a non-technical person.  Yet weekends like the last one spent at a hackathon do A LOT to not only further educate me on technical aspects of software/web development but also include me into the community.

The quote “showing up is half of the battle” comes to mind here.  By simply showing up and intuitively saying to others “What’s up?  I’m right here on the front lines with you!” goes a long way to gain respect and inclusion from the community.  Also, asking questions – lots of questions – about various languages, platforms and API’s tells your fellow technical team-members you are interested in learning about their world.  THIS IS HUGE.  You will learn a lot and gain respect from them just based on the fact you are taking the time to know what’s going on.

And the coolest thing is I am actually starting to retain this stuff!

Lesson 2. Execute under pressure

A weekend is barely enough time to take an idea and deploy a working product around.  In fact, it’s not really much time at all since our code deadline was at noon Sunday and Demos started about 12:30pm.  This means you learn to make quick decisions.  There is no time to battle back and forth about a specific feature or naming structure.  You must decide and JFDI.  With less than 54 hours available, Hackathons are all about execution and swift decision making.

You know what?  Swift decision making is incredibly valuable in the real startup world as well.  Hackathons help you to become agile, testing what works and what doesn’t and quickly make corrections if needed.  This is arguably the top advantage of being a startup so being able to polish the diamond during the weekend has tremendous benefits in the long run.  Also, it can be crazy stressful as you get down to the deadline.  The team learns to work in a “crucible” where intense pressure hangs over you as people work tirelessly to get something “respectable” completed and deployed.

Hackathons are not for the faint of heart.

Lesson 3. Find the value proposition

I’ve written previously about the value of pitch competitions, so I will talk more about the process of how you get there than the actual pitch.  During the weekend as you are building out your product you still have to keep in mind what value your product brings to the world.  Remember, after the deadline you will be standing in front of the group and a field of judges describing your product and why it should be used.  There really is not much use for a product that doesn’t solve a problem or pique someones interest in one way or another.  Don’t be the guy/gal who doesn’t even understand how or why their product would be used.

So in addition to building really cool tech you are challenged to figure out the value proposition – both are required to winning a Demo competition.   The condensed timeframe places increased pressure on you to figure out what problem you are actually solving.   Quickly evaluating the market, determining if there are existing players and what problem they are solving.  Finding holes in the market and quickly determining how to meet them.  Evaluating potential business models, although not fully required during a hackath0n, will stretch the creative mind farther than anticipated and lead to interesting business developments.

The benefits can be compared to exercise:  the more ‘reps’ you accomplish at a higher stress level the better (stronger) you become at that particular activity.   Especially for non-technical founders, hackathons provide a great training ground to hone value proposition skills.

Whew, what a weekend!

For all the non-technical founder/CEO’s out there: Don’t shy away from hackathons.  Trust me, you need them more than they need you.