Monday, August 15, 2011

The Weekend TransitHub Was Born

Every story has a beginning. Every racetrack has a starting line. Every baby... must first be born.

Sit back, relax, and keep some munchies handy, as I tell you a tale. This is an origins story, one that's sure to become a legend passed down from generation to generation. This, my dear friend, is the story of the weekend that TransitHub was born...

Day 1: The Pitch

Our story begins, of course, at the Toronto Edition of Startup Weekend, which was held from June 3 to 5, 2011. It's a three-day Dragon's Den/Apprentice-style competition that is one part development marathon and one part business incubator. It's a veritable who's who of the startup community. But most of all, it's a contest, mortal combat between challengers from every realm imaginable, from business and development to marketing and design. Fight!

At first, TransitHub was just the seed of an idea, a green shoot attempting to push its way through the tough soil of the startup idea slush pile. My original inspiration was a platform called Nike Plus, which the brand created for runners. Originally a tool designed to help people track how far they'd run, it quickly transformed into a social platform - a community - where runners would share their favourite routes, organize running groups, and compete. Hmmm... I'm not a runner. But I am a commuter!

The idea struck me like lightning: TransitHub would be a community for commuters! A place for the denizens of public transit to connect, share insights, and maybe, just maybe, grab a pint or two. I joined the line-up of pitchmen and pitchwomen, waited my turn, and then leapt up onto the stage. In the spotlight for the first time, I froze, waiting for a chorus of boos to rain down on top of me. But they never came. The idea was a hit - helped no doubt by my promise of free Metropasses (!!) to anyone who would join me. The votes came in, TransitHub made it through, and, late into the night, the TransitHub Team began to form.

Roles, To-Do Lists, and Post-it Notes galore... Uh oh, what had I signed up for?

Day 2: D is for Development

The original TransitHub Lean Canvas, in all of its glory. I'm not worthy!!

Day 2 started early (much too early if you ask me!) but the TransitHub Team got off to a fast start. It consisted of several friends of mine - Ian, Cleaver, and Arvind - as well as several newcomers - Igor, Johnny, Neil, and Nicole. Some of us had previous experience with building a lean startup and the principles and processes that are involved, others, not as much. But like the pilgrims and the First Nations, we set aside our differences and came together for one heck of a developmental Thanksgiving feast. It was off to the races!

Synergy, thy name is Johnny, Igor, and Nicole
After mapping out our Lean Canvas - a quasi-business plan for the idea - we set to work. Neil, from the business and marketing side, would pair up with Johnny, a developer, to head out into the wilderness of Queen & Bathurst to interview the local merchants in the area and get feedback from the people who would be TransitHub's customers. At the same time, Cleaver, Igor, and Nicole began work on the idea itself... like how in the world it was going to work. Later in the evening, Neil and I hit the streets for some quick-dip research on our main user base - young, urban explorers. A few "way cools!" later and we new we had something golden.

Who needs sleep when you've got T-shirts coming in the morning?

That night, the dev and design team of Cleaver, Johnny, Igor, and Nicole put down their heads and got to work. I couldn't believe it - the cake was in the oven, and we were actually going to make this thing... or a demo of it, at the very least! Ian, Arvind, and Neil began to prep our business plan and the details of how TransitHub would operate. I decided, with a gaping yawn, to take a nap. Hours later, just as the team was about to pack up for the night, I suddenly awoke - struck by inspiration, like Newton and the apple tree. I stood up and called for attention as I made my most important announcement of the day: we were going to make TransitHub T-shirts.

Day 3: Pray for the Presentation

As I skilfully dodge interview questions, Arvind spends some quality time on Facebook

Yikes! It was the morning of the big presentation and you could cut the tension in the Startup Weekend venue with a knife. The competing teams (including us!) scurried around the venue like ants, looking to either rehydrate with a bottle of water, or find a window to jump out of - which one, I couldn't tell. I did what anyone under such intense pressure would do: I took a break. Justin Kozuch (@jkozuch) of 49 Pixels swung by and, with the promise of a free TransitHub T-shirt and after hours of convincing, I was able to get him to interview me about the startup. And the evidence of the encounter still stands today, as a slick-looking post on his blog.

The Holy Grail of business plans, all wrapped up in that snazzy TransitHub branding

Meanwhile, things were coming down to the wire, with the afternoon presentation creeping up behind us like the Grim Reaper. Neil had been sent out earlier in the day to pick up the TransitHub T-shirts from the printer - but he hadn't returned for hours. Arvind had ran out to print out and bind copies of the gold-plated business plan that he and Ian had been putting together - but with the organizers beginning preparations for the pitches, he hadn't yet reported back. Things were looking bleak, the pressure cooker was set to High, and TransitHub was on the brink of collapse...

Waiting to be called up to the stage. Though nervous, we looked fantastic.

...until things began to turn around. Cleaver, Johnny, Igor, and Nicole finally pulled the cake out of the oven: a freshly-baked prototype that we could demo for the crowd. Neil arrived in a hurry, from a taxi cab no less, with five TransitHub T-shirts in hand, and five more on the way. And just as we were ready to grab our seats and await the presentations, Arvind finally made it back from the printer, out-of-breath, hauling an armful of newly-minted Powerpoint Decks to hand out to the Judges. And then, before I knew what was happening, I was up on stage, in front of the crowd, presenting the idea, the prototype, and our story, to an audience of hundreds. We played it simple: no Powerpoint, no dog and pony show, just the pitch, the prototype, and a prayer. Four minutes later... it was over.

Is this thing on? The presentation and prototype finally revealed...

Thrilled by finally getting the chance to show off our baby to a captive audience, we packed up our things, and began to file out of the venue... to look for some drinks. Yup, it was finally time to kick-back and relax, confident that we had done the best we could, ready to wash down any last worry with the cold, refreshing taste of alcohol. We had done it! It was now time to celebrate....

Johnny and Neil chill out on the rooftop after a gut-wrenching three days

Game Over?

In the end, we didn't win, and the glory of being a Startup Weekend finalist would go to three other equally-excellent teams. A wave of emotions washed over us at the Drake Hotel as we listened to the results - relief, mixed with disappointment, mixed with the feeling of what could have been. After everything that we'd been through, after climbing the Everest that is Startup Weekend, and taming our inner demons to pull the prototype together, we asked ourselves: is this the end?

The night was still young, and the drinks were still going around at the Drake Hotel

No. Never. It couldn't be. This wasn't the end - it was just the beginning. That night, the team formed a circle, looked each other in the eyes, and made a vow: TransitHub would continue. Over the next few months, we said, through hours of hard work, through blood, sweat, and tears, we would make sure that TransitHub prevailed, that it would rise out of the ashes and kick some startup butt.

It was that night that our journey began, and today that journey continues. TransitHub is back, in development, and ready to return bigger and better than ever before. It's a growing baby now, a bundle of opportunity, and only time will tell what it will achieve as it continues to grow. What happens next?

That story is yet to come...



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