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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single startup wannabee, in possession of only some grand ideas and a sub-set of the necessary skills, must be in want of a co-founder.

(apologies … many and very humble apologies, indeed .. to Jane Austen).

As an aspiring startup founder, possessing only some of the skills needed to make any of my ideas fly, not even sure if one of my own ideas should be the first one I work on (see earlier post), I need to find a co-founder or two – or five.

How do I do this? Well, as far as I can see, I’m already going along the accepted pathway. Attending tech networking events, talking to people, putting myself about, writing to people, trying to be as noticeably helpful and interesting as is consistent with not seeming creepy. And it’s great – I am consistently impressed by how positive my experience at each event is, by how interesting/interested the people and their ideas are (posts passim).

But is it enough?

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Have I met my dream team yet? Been offered a role? Well no, of course not – I’ve only been at this 6 weeks. I’ve just been to my fifth event (I broke my commitment to myself to attend at least one event a week last week. Ho hum).

But I have a feeling, and when I’ve shared it with others, it seems not to be mine alone, that the available mechanisms and social structures available don’t perhaps support all modalities to the same degree.

Of course, people already working within IT, or who have been around the startup block one or more times may have established networks, but the nature of an expanding sector is that it is continually drawing in new people, some of them people like myself who arrive from more or less tangential paths. The collisions between these outsiders and tech insiders seem likely to provide one of the more fertile areas from which innovation will spring (noise=information), and it is these people that seem least well served by the admittedly wide array of events and initiatives. [The contrast between the condition of founders from inside the tech sector with those whose path is tangential was perfectly illustrated by the two presentations given at this event last week].

Casting about in my mind for parallels, I realised that the situation has a great deal in common with looking for a band to be part of as an ambitious youth. In that sphere, there are well-worn and fairly effective ways of finding people you want to play with. You look at various types of noticeboard and see thrilling things like this:

drummer4

Or this:

drummer5

Or even this:

drummer1

(that’s enough drummer wanted ads – ed)

 – none of which would really and truly appeal. Nevertheless, you would call the least obviously awful ones and arrange to meet up. Why? Why go to spend an evening with some people who probably aren’t who you want to be in a band with?

Because you can’t lose, that’s why. All you’re going to do is jam. Make music with some strangers. At worst, you’ll get a funny story to tell your mates. The typical, median experience will perhaps result in some embarrassment, but you’ll likely learn something –  about your own playing, about band dynamics, about different approaches to music – something. And, of course, you have a chance to meet another musician that you think has possibilities, or get noticed yourself.

Repeat the process several times, and, almost without noticing, you are ‘in play’. You know a few people, you have an idea of your own place in the local musical landscape, other people have an idea of your capacities and interests, and you’ll have an idea of a few other people you’d like to play with.

If you’re serious, you’re on your way.

So, I hear someone saying, that’s what a hackathon is about – same thing. The word jamming is often used to describe them. Well, okay; I’ve yet to attend a real one, so I’ll reserve judgement. I fully expect to be amazed all over again when I do, but I will make 3 observations. One, as the name suggests, hackathons seem primarily focused on .. hacking; actual coding that is, and therefore, actual coders, somewhat to the exclusion of other skills/roles. Second observation, they are often large, targeted at a defined topic area – one which may not encompass your own ideas. Third observation – a corollary of the second – is that they are relatively infrequent, and relatively inflexible.

This screencap from hackathon.io illustrates the point.

hackathonio

Or perhaps not – the text is tiny – so I’ll elucidate: the next two events offered are 6 days and 55 days into the future. They focus respectively on Google glass and MacDonalds (who have yet to upload further details, but I somehow doubt the vegan drummer will get a look in…).

Now, I have no problem with these characteristics. That’s a hackathon – that’s what it is, with a long history (for the digital era) dating back to 1999. Going back to my music analogy, it would seem to have more in common with another phenomenon called the ‘battle of the bands’, where a large number of unsigned acts would play short sets at a gig, each striving to strut their stuff to maximum effect.

By contrast, what I’m imagining is a setup with the right conditions to enable a fairly intimately sized group of potential co-founders/early contributors to come together around a fairly well-defined initial idea (usually proposed by one or a couple of them), and work together over a couple of days (or more), to move the idea forward – not just as code, but in terms of business model, marketing, design – toward a real launch. [Another contrast with hackathons, where it seems that the outcome is more about a demonstration of skill/creativity than a push toward a launchable project].

Of course, startups are not bands – the analogy shouldn’t be taken further than is useful, and about here is probably where we need to start taking more notice of the startup world, and letting notions about the music business slip into the background.

So, what might these conditions be? Some are obvious;

  • comfortable venue with a range of work areas,
  • decent wifi,
  • reduced need to spend time on distractions (so food, drink, available),
  • access to support materials (whitebords, flipcharts, layout spaces).

Equally important, I would suggest, but less obvious (and needing more occasion-specific tailoring);

  • Experienced moderator / facilitator: you might argue that if this role can’t be fulfilled from within the group, then the team is by definition not up to the task of getting a startup going. I would respond that, just as with a jam session, there is no a-priori expectation that a fully-functional combo will emerge, that the point is for everyone to have a good chance of coming away with something positive. So a facilitator role should be fairly reticent, leaving space for emergent leadership / group dynamics to flourish, but able to interject if needed to move things forward.
  • Availability of group digital workspace (some sort of cloud-based collaborative tool like Hall  which has github and other integrations, for example [edit: Hall has been bought by Atlassian, and folded into HipChat, but everyone’s using slack now, in any case]). This should be set up in advance of the sessions, so that as little time as possible is taken away from the work at hand. It could even go live in advance, so that some groundwork is in place before the session(s). The particular technology / tool set isn’t important, and may of course be different for different projects, but something of the sort is essential for the next category of conditions, which are the most delicate…

Finally, but most crucially, support in determining appropriate sign-up documentation, to be agreed to by all participants prior to any participation. These need to provide the desired level of confidence to the people proposing the initial idea, and equally, make clear the rights, if any, to any use of their work that will accrue to participants. The agreement needs to cover;

  • NDA (definition) requirements (what participants are allowed to say about the project, and to whom).
  • IP protection (to whom the ideas and material produced belong and how they are allowed to benefit from them)
  • Equity issues (clarity about ownership/shareholding rights in any entity that may be created or deemed to exist as a result of the process).

None of these issues need be contentious at the start, but obviously, everybody in the tech / startup arena is infected by the prevalent meme of insane, runaway success, so this sort of issue is best nailed down early, while the approximate market value of everything involved is zero. Not insignificantly, these T&Cs will need to make it clear that the organisers / facilitators of the process carry no legal liability whatsoever as regards the choice of any of these conditions.

Well. I think that will do for a first statement of the idea. I’d really appreciate comment and feedback on this one. It’s not something that, I’d see as a long-term project that I would commit to (and probably not a significant prospect for income generation either), but I’d be interested to see if it can go anywhere.