Good Neighbor – A Hackathon Retrospective

Every year, I try and participate in at least one Hackathon.  As a Product Manager, I find  building and shipping a product as fast as possible is a great way to work on your ability to scope and prioritize features.  This year’s hackathon was Buffalo’s Civic Innovation Challenge.  Which consisted of building an Android App called “Good Neighbor” utilizing Open Data from the City of Buffalo.

Good Neighbor – Pitch Video

Rapid Prototyping Tools

The other benefits of Hackathons is the challenge of learning a new tool or language in a low cost setting. I played around with Monaca and Onsen UI 2 while building this app.  Monaca’s web based IDEA for HTML5 apps was outstanding, I could make an update and instantly see it’s impact on my devices running their Android Debugger App.  Onsen UI allowed me to quickly utilize their Cordoba modules that translate to Android and iOS native UI elements.  I’d recommend both for your mobile prototyping needs.  I built the entire Proof of Concept in about 6-12 hours total.

If you’re hackathon code would pass a peer code review, you probably didn’t push yourself far enough into uncharted territory.

Good Neighbor Features

With Good Neighbor, we wanted to create a multi-lingual app targeted at new immigrants and refugees to the City of Buffalo.  The app acts as a portal in their native language, provide curated links and maps to essential civic services.

Good Neighbor Home Screen
A tappable home screen with easy to identify iconography.
Swipe Menu
A swipeable/tappable menu that uses the same iconography to provide navigation assistance from all views.
Police Precinct Map
A map view showing the different police stations in Buffalo, NY

What was descoped?

“No matter how tightly you try and scope your hackathon app, you’ll always run out of time and have to cut features.”
-Veteran Hackathoner

On the user facing side, we ended up having to bail on the integration with google translate.  It would have been an awesome feature, but we decided that there was more value in adding more content to flesh out the app for the English speaking judges.

On the technical side, we didn’t get to refactoring the app into multiple files, due to a fear that Angular.js might barf and we’d lose a ton of time on a technical “nice-to-have”.  A trade-off we weren’t willing to accept for time that we could have been spending on building out content.  Hackathons breed hacky code, but that’s the point.  They reinforce the “Ship It!” mentality.

Check out the code (Ugly and Hackish)

Fork Good Neighbor on GitHub

Sideload the Good Neighbor App for Android

Violence of Action for Startups

Violence of action means the unrestricted use of speed, strength, surprise, and aggression to achieve total dominance against your enemy.  – Cade Courtley

The Praying Mantis utilizes Speed, Suprise, Strenght, and the Violence of Action.
(c) 2007 Oliver Koemmerling

A Strategy for Startups

Founders, internalize this concept and apply it to your startups’ strategy.  Startups  can operate in ways that established businesses cannot.  Adapt some of the principles of asymmetric warfare to your business.

Speed

Startups can release new features to market before larger competitors could even schedule the initial meetings.  You can adapt to changing market conditions and respond in real-time to current events. In a 5 person company, a change in strategy requires a 15 minute meeting with everyone in attendance.  In a 5,000 person company it takes a quarter of planning and a quarter to execute.

Surprise

Startups by their very nature operate in relative stealth. Most likely you lack the budget for extensive PR and Marketing. Therefore, your competitors have limited information as to your existence, intent, and strategies.  Use this advantage strategically and only come out of stealth when you’ve got your product, marketing, and sales process honed.  You want to gobble up market share before your competitors have time to actively respond to your offerings.

Strength

You’re unable to overpower your competitor in a toe-to-toe slugfest, but you can use a precision assault to overpower their weak links.  Startups can do things that don’t scale, over service your initial accounts, provide concierge support and custom development for your initial customers.  Large companies can’t compete with the level of personalized service a startup give to their customers due to the amount of overhead they have to pay for and their larger customer base. So use the fact that you have lower overhead and a small initial group of customers to wow them into word-of-mouth referrals.

Aggression

“Fight through the objective” by setting challenging weekly goals.  Don’t stop short of whatever you planned, exceed it week to week.  In your first weeks of existence, your objective might be completing a pitch deck or doing a certain amount of market research.  Once you’re building your product, it might involve completing a certain number of story points in a sprint.  As you ship MVP, you should set a challenging cadence for how many leads you call or follow up with each day.   Pick a key performance metric that will drive the success of your business at its current state of maturity and CRUSH IT.

Conclusion

Building something from nothing is a no holds barred fight.  Be relentless and capitalize on any advantage you have over your competition.  Most importantly, don’t quit –  you will fail a thousand times during the creation of your business – but as long as you get up and try again, you’re not out of the fight.