Communications tools for Startup Weekend: some recommendations

startup weekendIf we didn’t have a 54-hour time limit, of course a core team should define the problem, specify roles, set milestones, and designate team members to take on various tasks. But we did have a 54-hour time limit, and the entire team was not going to spend all of Friday night (the equivalent of three months’ time!) waiting for direction. Instead, they leaped into action, which is exactly what they should have done.

Startup Weekend Uncensored, Marina Martin on Marina’s Musings

With Seattle Startup Weekend only a week away, I’ve been thinking about a lot about ways I can get the most value from it — as well as set myself up for what my brother Greg calls a happy accident, where everything just magically aligns.  How cool would it be if I wind up as a part of a team of amazing people coming together around a great idea and functions like a well-oiled machine almost from the get-go?  So it’s worth spending a little time up front thinking about how to make that more likely — making my own luck, as Isaac Elias might say.

One thing I’m doing is roughing out a pitch, keeping the suggestions in What makes a good 1-minute Startup Weekend pitch? in mind, and thinking about how to make it appealing.  A consistent theme in the dozens of posts I’ve read about Startup Weekend experiences and lessons learned is that you get a lot more out if it if you pitch an idea … so I will.   Aaron K Whyte has more in Why I’m pitching at Startup Weekend.

Tools are the other area I’m putting time into.  What can I say: I’m a tools kind of guy.  The right communications tools make teams much more effective and pleasant; the wrong tools increase miscommunications and tensions.  With a team of people who haven’t worked together before, there will be plenty of challenges.  And with only 54 hours, every minute counts.  So time spent in advance can make the weekend much more productive.

Sticky Notes (by Jennifer Cabala via Seattle 2.0)

As for just what tools to use, I almost always find that sticky notes are a good place to start.   And in fact this is exactly what Michal Glomba suggests on Hacker News:

I think the key aim in such environment is to facilitate information exchange, not to structure & store the conversation as there is no time really – that makes notepad, post-its and just on-going verbal conversation ideal as everything is due to change many times during these 54 hours.The only technical tools that can help might be google docs to polish marketing docs on sales and strategy, and dropbox/github to exchange files. Everything else is just you and them – staying focused on getting things done, working together hard.

Danielle Morrill has some very complementary suggestions on Startup Weekend’s site:

Use WordPress. Unless your website is your service (and even if it is) use a self-hosted WordPress install (Dreamhostdoes a great one-click installation) to get something out there as early as possible with information about your team, your project, etc.  Get a Twitter account and start talking.  This is going to keep your team focused – and will also increase your chances of launching at the end of the weekend.

Use Google Apps to host your email and calendar and actually USE these things.  Having a separate email address and calendar for your team means they won’t be distracted by being in their person inbox.

On Stack Exchange, kodvavi also recommends Google Apps, and suggests looking at the Marketplace as well for solutions like TeamBox and MavenLink.  TeamBox looks pretty cool, actually; maybe I’ll play with it next week.  On Hacker News, imjonathanlee suggested, which seems to fill a similar collaboration/project management role and also looks worth checking out.

Filippo Diotalevi has some very good perspectives, also on StackExchange:

you have to consider that you’ll be all in the same room, and for a short amount of time. What works

  • Dropbox to share documents, code, images
  • Google Docs for writing documents collaboratively
  • source control (github, for instance) for source code

To collect user feedback and conduct surveys we used Wufoo and I recommend it.

Good advice all around.  One thing I’d add to this is a chat room for a project.  And of course there are plenty of good alternatives for any of these tools.  Your mileage may vary, and for that matter so could mine: if most of the developers on the team prefer svn to github, then svn it will be.

That said, my guess is that teams that agrees on the basics on Friday night — source code management, file sharing, group email, collaborative editing, user feedback, external-facing web site, and of course chat — will be a lot more successful over the course of the weekend.   Hopefully that will include whatever team I’m a part of!


PS: if you’ve got recommendations for Startup Weekend tools, please leave them in the comments or on StackExchange or Quora

Image credit: Sticky Notes, by Jennifer Cabala, from Seattle 2.0