Launch48, round 2. This time, it’s different.

This time, I know what to expect. I’m not pitching. I’m not project managing. I’m coding, and this time, I want to finish something.

Friday Evening

I’m stuck in traffic on the Putney Bridge, while somewhere in the depths of Kingston University, Ian is tutting and wondering why I haven’t arrived yet. Hours later, it seems, I nearly give up after wandering the empty halls fruitlessly trying to find a group of would-be entrepreneurs. Finally, a couple of lecturers point me in the direction of voices and I breathe a sigh of relief that I have just about managed to catch the last of the pitches.

None of the ideas scream out to me, but some spark an interest: a diet and exercise website, a specialist food store building on the Tesco API, and fashion website Look Book.

Second round: Joe jumps up to present mobile spy game Espionage, which is one of the winners alongside Look Book and group travel planning site Trips Together. He’s energetic and fun, and despite not being a gamer I am drawn to work with his team. We’re going to allow people to create secret agencies with their friends, and score hits for targeting their enemies. Good old passive aggressive fun.

Our team includes developer Michael, designer Bruno and front-end developer Richard as well as the usual marketing and business junkies – in this case: Joe, James, Jonny and Nick. We have a good mix of skills, and to my delight the team are in eager agreement to keep things small and simple.

We discuss technologies, and Joe’s eyes glaze over slightly, but he’s excited that we have something resembling a plan.

I go home inspired, and spend a few hours tinkering with Appcelerator and PhoneGap to get a basic Android application running. It’s way past bedtime, but sleep seems far away as the ideas keep flittering through my head … need … to … code …

Saturday morning

Junk food, it seems, is the theme for today: our team have a stack of chocolate biscuits and Haribo which Trips Together put to shame with their crisp mountain.

My first task for Saturday morning is to get the map up and running, but despite being from the same company, Google maps doesn’t want to run on the Android emulator. iOS seems happier with it, so I switch to iPhone, and by the time the first board meeting comes around I’m happily in the zone. I skip the opportunity to be distracted and hounded by the mean mentors (no offence, Ian) and remain at my laptop.

By lunchtime on Saturday, I have a working map with some fake friendlies and enemies appearing on it, and I can tap a target to make a hit. Bruno is producing slick designs and Richard is working on the styling. It’s like a dream come true, all I need to do is the fun stuff of making it work, and they make it look amazing.

Mentors stop by occasionally, I ignore them. I’m not here to start a business, I want to hack something together and I’m loving this team atmosphere.

By mid-afternoon, we’re in a position to pick a few features to focus on for Sunday. The app is working but isn’t very inspiring, so we decide to make improvements to the game play, including a revolving target area on the map.

I go back to my laptop and realise I have no idea how to calculate points on a circle, a quick google search reveals it involves some kind of trigonometry … I dredge my mind to recall lessons from secondary school maths, but it’s too deeply buried. Thank God for the interwebs though: I find that somebody has already done it and we’re moving forward again.

One topic for the second board meeting is technical strategy, so I reluctantly tag along. I should have known better: this is of course the point where the mentors flex their muscle, and we are no exception. Angry Bird Julien Fourgeaud questions why we have chosen the technically difficult route of creating a location based app rather than a website, and lectures us on building a decent user base.

I’m not too concerned since the app is built using web technologies anyway, but Julien is on a roll and declares that with the Rovio user base, he could easily take us out. Joe stands his ground, that could be true of any start up.

I’m mildly disappointed that I don’t even get a chance to talk about the technical architecture: Ian brushes this aside as he’s seen our app running, so we limp back to the team area. Feeling slightly battered and randomized, the team fall into debate over the game purpose and name while Bruno, Richard and I work on tidying up the game play and user interface.

Tired and growing irritiable from overdosing on sugar, we began to tail off around eight o’clock. I spent the evening playing with Ruby on Rails and Heroku, trying to build a simple back end for the app.

Sunday

Sunday morning, I threw myself out of bed with the consolation that Monday was a day off work, and therefore, a lie-in. Launch 48 is truly exhausting if you give it your all, but it is only one weekend, and it didn’t take long to shake off the tiredness and start planning for the day.

We arrived to find Joe grinning and acting mysteriously. He declared that he’d cracked it, and it was amazing, and he would tell us everything shortly, but first we had to write down why we decided to join his team. I debated what to write, finally deciding on, “Passionate and energetic pitch, it sounded like it would be fun”.

Turns out the great idea was a strapline and mantra: Spontaneous Disruptive Gaming.

For the presentation, he said, we’ll go in there and tell them we don’t have a business plan, we don’t need one. We’re about fun and spontaneity, we’re being disruptive! It was a good way to avoid spending all day working on boring stuff, and I was intrigued to see what the mentors would make of it. After all, this is really a weekend people choose to attend, if we don’t produce a business plan, so what?

The day progresses and the code progresses. I’m having a lovely time. In the early afternoon, we have real users and Joe, James and Nick see the app working for the first time in a mobile browser. They are delighted, which in turn lifts the energy even further. We’re on fire!

With nearly three hours to go, a simple working app and lots of ideas, I hand Joe and James a pile of stickies with features on to prioritise. Joe immediately ditches over half of them, leaving us with a few tweaks that look pretty achievable within the time, including an array of guns with different ranges.

So the app is slowly coming together, but with no business plan to prepare, the group is meandering a bit. Where’s our facebook group, I demand, our twitter account, our domain name? They shift up a gear, and I bury myself in my laptop again.

The afternoon flies by and suddenly we’re being rounded up for the presentation. Typically, I break the app trying to adjust the web page in the last few minutes before the presentation, which I haven’t even seen until I’m standing at the front of the room, craning my neck to see the slides. It was slick and well put together, although I am hoping for a bit more attitude and disruption. I think that I would definitely have liked to see the boys in suits and shades or something. ;)

The demo is a bit rocky, and I make a quick fix during the mentor’s questions, but there is no denying that what we’ve achieved within two days is impressive and looking pretty damn good.

Finally the reason for writing down why we joined became clear when James reads all of our slips of paper out to the group: every single person had thought it sounded fun. We don’t have a plan for the future, but we’ve had a damn good time.

The other teams present: Trips Together still looks hopelessly ambitious to me as a project, but Look Book have a working website with commission based links and of all the teams, I think this is the one that may actually go far with it.

In our case, we’ve been in it for the fun, it’s been amazing, but I’m done, and I achieved my objective. I have no desire to be part of a game start up; it doesn’t fit in with my nomadic lifestyle. All I want now is a nice glass of wine and to go home and collapse.

But something’s not right: I go home but I can’t put my laptop down, I’m proud of it and I don’t want to let it go. I try to get the facebook integration working, when that becomes impossible I lose myself writing a blog post. I wonder to myself how I will think back on this weekend in a week, a month, a year; will it change my trajectory?

Monday is spontaneous and disruptive: maybe it’s not over after all. Over the following week, the six remaining team members (Joe, James, Bruno, Richard, Nick and I) exchange over a hundred emails, grab a domain name and a basecamp project, and make plans for another hack weekend. Apparently there’s still a lot of excitement and energy.

It may never become anything, but whatever happens … it’s definitely, definitely been fun.

The “finished” app: Espionage!
The in progress website: Espionage GPS
We did finally get a Twitter account

Launch 48

Launch48: inspiring, frustrating, mind boggling, fun, stressful, knackering, rewarding, and probably life changing one way or another. It’d better be anyway, since I’m missing the ThoughtWorks Christmas Party to attend.

Friday

The Conference

I check in at the PayPal offices and receive possibly the largest ID badge ever, for which somebody had the brilliant idea to print the agenda on the back. In the main room, small clusters of men sit amongst empty seats, discussing what I can only imagine are the next big thing in mobile. I’m terrified: I have no ideas, I’m here for the hackathon, where are the geeks and the girls?

Then Cathy sits down and says hello: she’s friendly and smart, and I’m inspired by how confidently she’s networking already. At last, things kick off with keynote speaker Darren. He’s engaging and insightful and I’m soon tweeting the highlights, but, as @otaku_coder comments: “Interesting how it seems to be only me, @ecobela and @jocranford tweeting at #launch48, this is a mobile event!”

@ecobela turns out to be Bela: the girls may be small in number this weekend but we are loud all right. I debate whether to STFU, but nobody’s complaining yet and I’m enjoying myself.

The presentations continue: 15 minutes each, which is the perfect length. John Lunn (Head Wizard at PayPal) is entertaining and I can’t wait to try Appcelerator; the VouChaCha founders give us an insight of what life can be like if we take our newly hatched business forward after the weekend; and Andy Munarriz of Hullomail gives me a new favourite word: featuritis.

Microsoft and Adobe have speakers at the event, which is great, but they can’t quite follow Ian’s countdown timer and overrun.

(Note: for a summary of the talks, Ben Wirtz published a great Launch 48 Conference Summary)

The messages I take away are that it’s hard to make money from mobile, and we will need to market our apps. Targeting more than three platforms is very tough, and the same UI doesn’t work for different platforms.

Pitching

At some point during the day, I decide I’m going to pitch, mostly because I find the whole idea terrifying. Ian draws out the anticipation for as long as possible with a Q&A panel before pitches start, with advice that is spot on although leaves me still with no real warning of what I’m in for.

Once I’ve pitched, I’m desperate to win, and I anxiously try to count the raised voting hands. Competition is fierce with some brilliantly entertaining ideas including “PeePal” and “Flitr”. There’s a tense silence as Tom grapples with Excel, then the results are in; and so am I! YES!

Forming Teams

My team members are a well mixed group, and I’m grinning like an idiot because it’s such a buzz that they chose me, and probably also because the beer has started to flow. We try to Clarify The Idea (as directed by The Launch48 Booklet).

There’s a lot of energy but I feel like creativity is stifled as we debate whether the app should work offline for users abroad, and where to get data. I grab a flip chart and attempt to find something we can agree to focus on, but it’s a struggle, and although we eventually agree on the user scenario, the same issues and questions continue to rear their head all weekend.

Saturday

Getting Started

At Tesco on Saturday morning I stock up on sweets and post-its, and on arriving I decorate a corner of the office with flip chart sheets. Scope control is going to be tough so I dedicate one sheet to Featuritis in the hope that if the ideas are captured they will not derail us. I scrawl “Build the simplest thing that could possibly work, then iterate!”, a mantra which the Launch 48 blog pokes fun at when we can’t agree scope.

The team have been hard at work already: we have a rough PhoneGap prototype, contact list, elevator pitches and a business plan. I write it all on flip charts and ask the team to underline the parts of the elevator pitch that they think form the heart of the app, this turns out to be “Simple” and “Custom Itineraries”. Despite my frequent and sometimes desperate references to this throughout the day, we battle to find a level of simplicity that we can run with.

I take the lead by default, and at first it’s fun. We create personas: Waldo and Susan are immortalised on the wall, but almost immediately we lose traction when we try to figure out how Susan will find our application: is it per city, or one app? The team seems unable to put an issue aside for later, so our first board meeting is a welcome distraction.

First board meeting

We sit in a row in front of the mentors. Ian grins at us like a child hiding something unpleasant behind his back, and I worry that a grilling is coming. It’s not as bad as I’d anticipated though, and we survive the gentle questioning. We admit that we have a data issue. The mentors suggest Yelp, Wikitravel, YQL. We need to sort it, and fast.

Ian gives us a to-do list. Blog post, marketing plan, business plan, technical architecture, UX designs. I’m slightly baffled; it’s a lot of businessy stuff, when do I get to hack a cool app together?

We divide and start to conquer the to-dos, and we make some serious progress on the business and marketing plan, at the cost of fragmenting the team.  The business team come up with an awesome name, Itiner8, and Patrick grabs the .com.

Progress on the UI sketches stalls: we can’t agree on how many buttons the initial screen should have. I want to JFDI, the others want an optimal UI now, and time slips away. Mentors stop by to lend their experiences, but even with this incredible expertise we struggle to reach a conclusion.

I’m tired of wading through mud; I want to code. We watch the Appcelerator demo, but Patrick seems pretty set on using PhoneGap, which he’s already familiar with. Data is still an issue, nothing seems to meet our requirements, perhaps because nobody really knows what they are.

Mentoring

Mentor Dan Moon visits our sofas and delivers a solid kick in the backside: choose a project manager and get going with building something, fake the data, just get it done. He doesn’t understand why everything is such an issue. Most teams are already halfway through their app.

Mark asks if I want to project manage, but I firmly decline and point out that he’s doing a far better job at the moment. Blatant flattery maybe but it releases me from the responsibility.

Coding doesn’t get far before I am distracted by the UI designers, who are sitting around a table producing pages of beautifully drawn iPhone screens. They are discussing aspects of the application that I don’t feel form the meat of it. I bluster in and announce that we need to keep it simple, and they are overcomplicating it. This is not what we discussed this morning. I succeed only in convincing them to dig their heels in further, and I want to tear my hair out.

I seek out Dan, who advises that we should get together, sort it out and move forward. Feeling like I’ve just grassed someone up to the teacher, I return and ask Mark to call the team together. My emotions and frustration are running high, and things get sticky when we try to discuss scope – neither side is giving an inch. With only ten minutes until our next board meeting, voting is 5-5, and we head in to get our mentors’ advice.

They’re not impressed either, the app should be mostly done by now. We file out and get back to work: I struggle with the back end while Patrick tries to get the PhoneGap app working.

The business guys have an excellent idea: write a short survey to gauge a price point, so we tweet the link.

Finally I head home to continue working on the back end and source some Yelp data, which turns out to be pretty good. I wish we’d tried it earlier.

Sunday

Prototyping

I’m early and take advantage of the quiet to indulge in playing with Appcelerator. After trying to keep the team focussed, I really shouldn’t be wasting time when we have half a PhoneGap app already, so it’s a guilty pleasure.

Overnight the results to the survey have poured in, and Rafael has produced an impressive looking HTML prototype overnight. I suggest that we take it to Starbucks and try it with real people. Later on, they do, and it goes down well.

We sail through the board meeting, although our actual app development is sorely behind schedule. I discover that Ernesto is a Ruby wiz, and suddenly we are rubbing along a whole lot better. He introduces me to Mechanize and soon we are pulling wiki data for our descriptions.

When Patrick has to leave unexpectedly, I opt to try and build something simple in Appcelerator for the demo on Sunday evening. This backfires when I run into an awkward bug, and the final offering for our demo is fairly pathetic. I had a lovely time coding it though.

Final Presentation

The final presentation has been written by Mark and the others so as we line up at the front I’ve only a vague idea what they’re going to say. Mark dodges the awkward questions about our finances, as investment banker Zuza put them together and she’s left already. We have to swap laptops halfway through to demo, and we can’t get the slides back up afterwards, so we’re not looking too smooth here. In our defence the presentations had been brought forward due to the tube strike. Ultimately, Mark does us proud, and Rafael’s prototype looks slick.

With the presentation over, the emotional blackmail begins: are we going to carry it on? There’s a weak desire to meet up and see what happens, but by the end of the evening Mark admits that he’s not going to drive it any further. Caught up with everybody’s enthusiasm it’s difficult to say that this is it, but my heart’s not in it either.

They think it’s all over …

I tidy up the flipcharts and post-its and pack my computer away. Finally it’s over. I find a beer and mingle with the people I’ve met this weekend, and make sure I’ve handed out my business cards. I chat to some of the mentors and marvel at the quality of people I’ve met.

For all the frustration and craziness, I can’t wait for the next Launch48.  This weekend has already changed my life. Monday morning: I steam into work, ready to go, with more energy and drive than I’ve had in weeks. I’ve already got another mobile app idea turning over in my mind, and this one, I will finish. Maybe.