Profound, Profane, and Perfectly Capable

This post was written by Douglas Crets, Developer Evangelist at Microsoft Bizspark, and originally appeared here.

Apps for Culture

Whenever you see the name Ahmed Siddiqui, you think good things. He’s part of Startup Weekend, the organizer of the 54-hour startup-building non-profit conference series that camped out at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley Headquarters this past weekend.

Its non-profit status and its ethos are geared towards doing good for people, something that is at the heart of startups. 

I wrote about how we kicked this party of app building, gaming and robot-building for Fast Company – with a profane and profanity laced mega talk by Dave McClure, but even McClure's talk was about something deeper in us, some kind of passionate human resolve to get things done to better mankind.  

Scott Case, CEO of Startup America was also there, with his Xbox Guru son, Ryan. He made the same case. He called the developers and entrepreneurs in the room "our nation's heroes," because they are kind of like the early NASA astronauts, eager to go anywhere others have not gone. 

The 300 entrepreneurs, developers, business development people, and roboticists got cracking after that. What followed was 54 hours of hacking, scripting, seeking validation, building MVPs, and all the things any good startup would do.  And what was really awesome about it was that most of these people didn't know each other beforehand.

What did all this building bring them? Well, apps, and robots, for one thing. But also culture.

See our Facebook Page for a whole catalog of photos.

Building a Startup is Building a Culture 

What was common from all these MEGA Weekend winners? Collaboration, assistance, helping others, seeing things through someone else’s eyes and ontology – what do things mean?

Winners: 

  • Robotics: Eyes on Demand - A device utilizing sensors, a server, and website/app to detect objects for the visually impaired.
  • Mobile: Predict Gaze - Helps companies better understand their customers through facial recognition on mobile devices
  • Gaming: Stinky Da Vinci - Competitive photo sharing mobile app game

It takes a pretty strong sense of character and self to be able to listen. In my experience, one has to go through quite a few tests of will and tests of community to know that the radar should always be pointed out, trying to take in the feed of other people’s wants and wishes. The focus and dedication of the programmer is synonymous with nation builders, or the signers of new constitutions. They work through anything to get something done. And what they get done, if it's really good, will make life different.  It will be liberating. 

In Startup Land I see this activity writ large. Teams everywhere over the weekend were testing their ideas and asking feedback from other teams. Mobile devs are talking to Gamers and Robot people are playing with robots in front of mobile people. The whole community was inherently mixed up. It was a mash up of people who had never tried robotics, or had never thought about making visual aids for the blind. But someone had a good idea, and it clicked. They started something.

Assumptions Make Great Thought Bubbles, But They Are Better Off Dead

I keep thinking of developing with empathy, every time I walked by a table and sat down with startups to figure out what they were doing.

The central activity – other than hacking out code and soldering circuit pieces was going beyond assumptions and listening to others.

It’s called “seeking validation” in Startuplandia. You have to be very good at that in order to turn your MVP into a solid state rocket booster of an app or a service.

It’s called "putting yourself in someone else’s shoes," in whatever high school or elementary class you learned it. But in Startuplandia it goes a little further, and behaves a little differently. It’s not about assuming you know what another person is feeling because you think you are feeling what they are sensing. It’s certainly not always listening to an investor tell you what he or she knows. It’s really about asking deep, sometimes simple but emotional questions of customers you are trying to develop into "users."

It's kind of a scary proposition, because when you are developing a product and asking for feedback you are marrying the shaping of the product with the question. You could be wrong. You might have to start over. The $400 you spent to fly here might seem immediately worthless (more than a couple teams disbanded after the first 24 hours and a few people went home; someone else gave up on her idea entirely at the end of the 54 hours).

Kind of Like a Marriage, But Different

You are creating a kind of marriage, or a partnership, between your product and the people who will use it.

It’s Not about You, It’s About Us

Which brings me to an interesting conversation I had with a team of PR people, all women, who talked to me about dating and relationships. One of them told me that when her brother and his wife face a problem in their marriage, they have to look at the marriage like it’s this third entity.

That’s your product. When you are talking with a consumer and getting feedback, the product is held in isolation, in a creative space. What can be done? What is it not doing right? Where can we take it? It’s not about you, or your failure. It’s about US. You and the consumer. The product is your marriage.

We Are Making a Culture

That’s why I am thinking it’s best to practice active empathy. To not only put yourself in someone’s shoes by imagining them. Put yourself in their shoes by asking them to try on the shoes. Ask really really deep questions. Get to the freakin’ core.

When you think about it, it goes beyond the marriage metaphor. What startups do is create a culture. All the talking and the asking questions is really just like all the pop culture that floats around us every day, but since these dudes and ladies are sitting down and doing it, making things, they really are creating a fundamental backbone for the living, breathing animal that is our global culture.

They are truly cultural heroes.

If you watch relationships in the movies, they never show you the four years after the marriage or the romance. That’s because that part is not easy. It’s not fun. It is sometimes hard as hell. But if you want that product to work, feel free to feel defeat.

Making a culture is hard. A movement requires constant energy, constant communication. It’s the perpetual running start.

BizSpark saw a lot of genius on display over the weekend. Over the coming weeks, we are going to be highlighting that genius with interviews, videos and podcasts.

Welcome to your culture, Startup Heroes.