Reviewing applications for SpringBoard Media/Tech 2012

I’ve been reviewing applications for the SpringBoard Media/Tech 2012 program and then conducting interviews for those that made it to the next round. If you haven’t heard of it, SpringBoard is an eleven-year-old startup acceleration program for women-led companies. It has helped over 480 businesses raise over $5.5 billion in capital, so it’s certainly a great opportunity and big deal for the applicants.

SpringBoard Tech/Media 2012 Logo

In reviewing their proposals I have seen a wide mix in the quality of ideas and levels of preparation. Some have been really amazing, others not as much. When reviewing startup companies (something I did a lot of in my Sprint days) I am always surprised how much work it sometimes takes to ferret out their key goals and strengths. Companies don’t always make them clear enough themselves. I really try to do this for every company, but startups really can’t count on that since reviewers have to sift through hundreds if not thousands of applicants. You need to put your awesomeness on a platter and hand it to the reviewer.

With that in mind here are a few tips:

  • Identify the main strengths that you want to communicate and then make sure you hit them hard and often. Reinforce those strengths throughout your application and you attached documents, and prep your team members on these points before the interview.
  • Really spell out what you are going to do, why it’s special and unique, and why you are the right team to do it. Assume that we don’t understand your business area or technologies, and then use that as an excuse to demonstrate the depth of your own understanding. We are investing in the team and their ability to tap a market, the current product and business plan is really just an indicator of your ability to do so.
  • Keep in mind every applicant will have market pie charts, growth projections, and hopefully customer testimonials. These are not differentiators; they are table stakes (and let’s be honest, they’re not that rooted in reality anyway).
  • Explain what you are going to do with the money and how you will use it efficiently. For most early stage companies that means using it to learn from your customers and build your product. It does not mean hiring sales people or launching marketing campaigns, that is what big companies do after they already have a winning product. It’s true that enterprise plays do need some sales, but even then your main goal should be to get the product right before you get more customers.
  • Explain why you are right for the program/accelerator/incubator/VC. This is more important than you think. Programs want to show success, and not just in follow-on investment dollars. They want to be able to show how they help their participants. Different programs are good at accelerating different kinds of startups. Make it clear why your team will flourish in the program (the Springboard reviewers discussed this a lot among ourselves).

Many of these feel like “soft” aspects of the process, but they are just as critical as your demo going successfully or your team’s credentials. With a little planning and practice you can ensure that reviewers really understand what makes you great and how you will be a good fit for their goals.

A more detailed Meteor and Derby overview for NoVa Node.js

I gave a lightning talk last May for the Node.js DC meetup on Derby and Meteor. It led to a good discussion, which isn’t surprising since both frameworks are great demonstrations that Node is functionally capable of much more than just cloning Ruby libraries.

The guys running the Northern Virginia Node meetup felt there was more to cover and asked me to do a longer overview at the July Nova Node meetup. Apparently the subject is popular since we had a “sold out” room last night.

Overview of Derby.js and Meteor.js

Full slide deck below…

I was a little worried about taking the whole hour, but got a lot positive feedback afterwards. Free pizza, beer and sodas from the meetup host SpanishDict.com probably didn’t hurt either :).

SpanishDict.com is running on Node now, and handling tons of customers successfully at much lower loads than they were seeing with their previous environment. Several folks (including me) asked for an overview of the production lessons they’ve learned for the next NoVa Node event.

Here is the deck I presented on Derby and Meteor. My goal was to get the core concepts across for discussion, not to teach them. That said, if you do have questions feel free to tweet me or leave a comment. If its guts stuff though, I suggest you go to experts in the relevant Google groups or hit StackOverflow.

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Mentoring at StartupWeekend Virginia for Education

Well, I’m coming off another StartupWeekend high. This one was StartupWeekend Virginia for Education – sponsored/organized by the excellent Virginia Center for Innovative Technology (including DC Tech pillar Jen O’Daniel).

Image representing Startup Weekend as depicted...

I really love being a part of StartupWeekends. Watching people turn raw ideas into prototypes and a strong pitch in just 54 hours is awesome. Even better is watching folks learn what it means to be an entrepreneur – not to mention how much fun it is. Of course, being a coach/mentor is great because I get to talk to so many folks about their ideas, and then see those ideas get fleshed out and come to fruition. Giving up a weekend seems like a small price compared to the feeling that you’ve helped these amazing, hardworking teams get closer to achieving their goals.

And it’s hard to describe how good it feels to get an email like the one below. It’s good to get some confirmation that I, and everyone at StartupWeekend, really did have an impact. I trimmed the email a bit, but it still does a great job capturing the StartupWeekend experience. Let me add that while I appreciate the thanks – Christine and the WishBooks team had things well in hand when I came to visit. I think I just helped them realize it :)

Our path to Startup Weekend began with a comment that became an action and resulted in a meaningful outcome all in the space of 4 weeks.  And while many of you who were interested in supporting our effort couldn’t attend, I wanted to include you in this email because you are a part of our community, because you are passionate about education, and because your interest and genuine desire to make a difference matters and was a source of inspiration and insight to our effort throughout the weekend and I wanted to acknowledge that.

Our team pitched two ideas and both were selected to be worked on and refined over the course of the Startup Weekend.  We went with one idea, had the biggest team, and went to work on the biggest problem at the event.  Our group was the first team in and the last team to leave each day and this did not go unnoticed by the dedicated coaches and mentors who were there.  Of the 40 or so coaches and mentors there, over half of them spent significant time with our team and made pivotal impacts that helped us put the legs to what had been a personal story and a few words scribbled on a half torn piece of paper on Friday night.  It was clear that what we were tackling resonated and that we needed to really craft the message so that we could get it out.  I am in awe and humbled by the difference their feedback made on our team and our effort.  They are truly amazing people with a generosity of spirit that is mind blowing.

The outcome of all of that committed and focused effort was an Honorable Mention at an event sponsored by a globally active organization.

Not too shabby a showing for a first time team with lots of mixed skills, no real prep ahead of time, and whose pitch deck got finished with only 9 minutes to spare before the final pitch round started!!

We should all be proud! I could not have spent 54 hours with a better group of people.

I want to send a sincere thank you to Paul McGowan (CIT), Hap Connors(CIT), Brooke Bell (CIT), Carole Ottenheimer (CIT), Mary Garber (FredTech Council/Fred Chamber of Commerce), and George Hughes (SIMVentions) for their outreach, support, and continued engagement.  This milestone would not have happened without your passion for entrepreneurship and Fredericksburg.

I want to send a special shout out to Ann Emerson whose show of support made all the difference and Mary Garber again for”getting outside the building” and getting us important data for customer validation.

Heartfelt thanks to the Mikes (McVicker and Wellman) for putting a view to this big idea we had in the nick of time and David Tuell for finding the tag line that pulled it into view and said it all and Brian for doing research at a moment’s notice and getting good results quickly each time.

Thank you to Simona and Vlad for throwing in with us and making critical contributions to the prototyping, customer validation, and development of the pitch deck.  We couldn’t have done it without you.

And finally, I want to acknowledge David Rees – a mentor who spent 40 of the last 41 minutes we had making magic happen for us.  It was his coaching and mentorship that brought the vision that we had scattered across the whiteboard and screenshots and collective heads in the room into view.  Dave, you are a genius and your passion for our story was the breath of life that helped us bring it into view for others to see.  We are eternally grateful for the difference you made and when you made it.  It felt like nothing short of serendipity just in the nick of time.  Can’t wait to return the favor.

NOVA EDU Startup Weekend was an amazing and impactful experience for all the right reasons.

Can’t wait to bring one to Fredericksburg!

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Meteor and Derby Lighting Talk for Node.js DC

I gave a lightning talk last night at the Node DC meetup on Derby.js and Meteor.js, or at least that was the plan. I was given permission to “go over” a little bit, and my five minute talk stretched out to twenty.

A Quick Overview of Derby and Meteor

Full slide deck below…

I got plenty of compliments afterwards, so  hope that means the extra time was worthwhile, but I suspect sharing my Sweet Potato Tater Tots had at least as much to do with people’s good attitudes as anything I said. If you couldn’t make it but you want to get the gist of what I was talking about, the slides are available on slideshare.

I was asked by NoVa Node Meetup to do a more lengthy overview on Derby and Meteor. More info and the updated slide deck at  A More Detailed Overview of Derby.js and Meteor.js.

A new variable for Knockout.js bindings – the DOM element

When writing knockout bindings it can sometimes be handy to reference the DOM element you are writing the element for. As an example, you may want information on a DOM property or for development reasons simply want to show the id.

I tweaked Knockout to support using an $element special variable last year, but hadn’t decided to submit it yet.  Based on the discussion in knockout issue 176 I decided to clean it up and submit it as knockout pull request 474. Mbest also updated it to work with the latest knockout changes.

Usage is simple:

<div data-bind='text: $element.tagName'></div>

Enjoy!

As an aside, I’m going to be presenting on Derby and Meteor at the NodeDC Meetup on 5/16. If you are interested in Node or just want to connect with some cool DC coders stop by!

Two new QUnit Test Types – Skipped and Interactive

I love unit testing, and the confident feeling I get from my code being “all green”. But sometimes there are tests that need to be skipped for a bit, perhaps due to a failing backend service or an in-progress refactoring. The easiest solution is to comment them out, but then it’s easy to forget they are being skipped. Instead, I simply added a new test type – testSkip – to QUnit using the following code. Now when the test is skipped we see it marked as SKIPPED in the QUnit results.


QUnit.testSkip = function() {
   q.test(arguments[0] + &quot; (SKIPPED)&quot;, function() {});
};

I use a similar approach for QUnit tests that involve user interaction. I run lots of tests when coding, but the interactive ones get in the way of my flow. So I have added the test type testManual which allows me to run them explicitly by simply adding testmanual to the URL parameters. A similar approach can be used for other test categories or to target tests to a particular browser.


QUnit.testManual = function() {
   if(/(\?|&amp;)testmanual($|&amp;|=)/.test(window.location.href)) {
      q.test.apply(q, arguments);
   } else {
      q.testSkip.apply(q, arguments);
   }
};

Connecting with the DC startup scene

I am asked often about where to find out about DC startup/tech events and groups, so I thought it would be useful to have an online list to point them to, instead of emailing whatever groups are fresh in my mind when they happen to ask me. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I will update the list from time to time, but it’s a good starting point for someone new to the city or the world of startups.

First of all, get used to hashing and following #dctech on Twitter. Its the go to hashtag for sharing #dctsartuplove.

For events, these are good sites to watch/follow.

Meetup.com is also very active here in DC. Despite how the name sounds, it isn’t a dating service. It’s also not strictly for tech. There are all kinds of social activities, but you can use group tags to quickly narrow your search to biz/tech meetups (or crocheting clubs – your call :).  These four are a good start. You can also see the ones I am in at I’m in at http://www.meetup.com/DC-Tech-Meetup/members/29001302, and the site does a good job of recommending groups as well.

And there are two main Facebook groups depending which side of your brain you want tickled.

  • DC Tech – The main forum for discussing DC startups (after Twitter of course :).
  • Refresh DC – “web designers, developers, and other new media professionals”
And here are just some great DC organizations/sites that are definitely worth watching to see what coolness they will think up next…
  • http://techcocktail.com Holding startup presentations at happy hour is a stroke of genius, because even if the presentation doesn’t interest you, you will probably still have a good time and meet some interesting people. They do stuff in lots of cities, but DC is one of their main hubs.

Talking at the StartupAmerica DC Ideas Summit

Cool beans. I’ve been selected to talk at the upcoming StartupAmerica DC Ideas Summit along with Aneesh Paul Chopra (US CTO) and a bunch of great DCTech folks. I’ll be talking about “Ties and T-Shirts; Together” – how the DC startup and government/business communities should be working together and leveraging our collectives advantages as a region.

There’s been a lot of excitement around the Startup America intiative in general, but we’re really going to hone in on the specifics of the DC startup community. If you’re in the area I hope you’ll come to the talk. Don’t be afraid to say hello afterwards (and mention that you read the blog!).

Update 2/1/12

The summit was a great success. People came with lots of great ideas, and the incredible energy that I’ve come to associate with the DC startup scene was on full display. A few people even made some polite compliments about my talk J

I don’t know what happened to the video, but my slides/prezi is available here. And I added a blurry shot of me evangelizing t-shirt/tie togetherness above.

Mentoring at inaugural Startup Weekend DC

I’m still recovering from mentoring for the first Startup Weekend DC. It was an amazing weekend, so many ideas and so much energy. It felt like I was mainlining startups :).

I guess my enjoyment showed because I was awarded “most helpful mentor” and given a very snazzy USB Power Pack for keeping my phone and tablet juiced.

Image representing Startup Weekend as depicted...

Now I’m lead mentor helping the winners of Startup Weekend DC, Weekly Eats, compete in the Global Startup Battle. It’s a worldwide competition pitting the winning StartupWeekend teams from sixty cities against each other for a cool set of prizes including the chance to present at Demo Asia and the Launch Conference.

Update 11/29/11

Thanks to great work by the WeeklyEats team and the DCTech community we came in 3rd! The team started with an awesome video submission and then we drove a non-stop SMO campaign to get the word out. It was an amazing amount of work to keep the energy up and votes coming, but we did it! Congrats WeeklyEats and DCTech :).

A bindOnce event listener for Backbone.js

I’m going to guess you are familiar with Backbone, the MVC framework of choice for many web developers. I use Backbone a fair amount for its Model and Event aspects both because it works and it’s often what others expect.

But there is one feature I miss with Backbone event handling – the ability to listen for an event once (like jQuery’s once). You can write your own code to simply ignore later events, but the event handling code is still there.  It would be better to unbind, but with Backbone that means holding on to the callback function so you can unbind it on the first callback, and to do that you have to assign your callback to a variable which can clutter up simple event handling code.

Or you can just write a bindOnce function that does that for you which is what I did. I feel like this should be a standard feature, so I’ve packaged it up with some tests and submitted it to the Backbone folks in pull request 663. Usage is simple and looks like this:

obj.bindOnce('event', function(){
   obj.counterA += 1;
});

Update 10/29/11

Wow, that was quick. My bindOnce is now part of Backbone with the updated name of once (which makes sense since it matches jQuery). It always speeds things up when you include the tests :)

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