How long does it take to form a team, turn down funding, and launch a product? The answer could be many months or never for most people. For Ernestine Fu and her team, the answer is less than two and half weeks, of which only 24 hours involve coding the product.
Fu and her team created and launched a new app named “HelloWorld” at a recent hackathon event hosted by Y Combinator, YC Hacks. The app allows users to share fun and simple proximity status updates. It was built for both iOS and Android within a day. HelloWorld became an instant hit, with multiple downloads and a few thousand people on the wait list. This is probably a new record in the history of hackathons.
The core idea of the app is a simple way of answering “Where are you? What are you doing?” Posts contain text, a picture, and your approximate location. They last for 24 hours.
We recently spoke to the HelloWorld team to find out how they achieved this feat.
The Dream Hackathon Team
Y Combinator first sent invitations to participate in their hackathon early last month. Ernestine Fu, Michael Carter, Max Goodman, Jeff Himmelman, and David Li quickly came together after then to form the HelloWorld team.
Team leader Ernestine Fu is already a well-known venture capitalist and Kauffman Fellow in Silicon Valley. She has graced the cover of Forbes Magazine, completed two degrees with multiple academic honors, and is currently finishing her PhD in engineering at Stanford University.
Michael Carter was recognized by the W3C for designing the first WebSocket protocol, and championing its acceptance and implementation. He was also an early contributor to nodejs, and has spoken at technical conferences such as Pycon, OSCON, and QCon.
Max Goodman wrote reddit’s first browser pluggin and was a front-end developer at reddit for three years. He also has years of experience developing open source software.
Jeff Himmelman is a former artist at Warner Brother Games. He worked for clients such as Wizards of the Coast, Rio Grande Games, and Fantasy Flight. He also founded multiple popular podcasts on art and games.
How did the team form?
Carter: We all knew each other for a while, either from industry or from Stanford, but had not worked together as a team before. We always randomly pitched ideas within our social group. For the five of us, our discussions consistently gravitated towards how people communicate and share. Our team is just naturally interested in this topic. But, we were not sure if we were going to do a project together until this hackathon came about. It became a platform for us to start working together; we decided to come together as a team, align on the product and go with it. Everything clicked all at once.
Fu: We’ve all seen our social networks grow up and be more of a reflection of your public persona than true personality. It’s gotten to a point where today, you can’t just post something for fun on Facebook or Twitter. You have to stop and think about the context, the audience, your image, the world’s perception — all kinds of things. And, with YC Hacks, it was all the right time and too good of an opportunity to pass up. So we decided to jump on it and go as fast as possible.
How and when did you know that you had a winning team?
Carter: For me, it became clear that we had a winning team during the week preceding the hackathon. At first, we were not sure how the team dynamic was going to play out. But once we started working together, it became clear to us that we were very compatible. Also, the hackathon rules state that you’re not allowed to code or build any software before the start of the hackathon. At first, it was frustrating as we had a team ready to go. We were all not used to putting off on starting things; we were used to doing things as soon and fast as we could. But because of the rules, all we could do was design the product in terms of mockups and UI. Everything seemed to be working well with the mockups, friends we spoke with loved them, and that got us really excited. So, that was all before the hackathon even started. We knew that the team and product was going to be great.
Turning Down Funding
A number of investors wanted to fund HelloWorld before the product was even built. One investor we spoke to shared, “It’s all about the team, and this team clearly knows how to execute quickly. That’s why I offered to fund them.” The HelloWorld team considered signing term sheets, and even sent emails to mentors and friends to add to their fundraising round one week before the event. They ultimately decided to hold off on taking investment dollars however.
Why did you turn down funding?
Fu: A huge benefit with taking money is that you have someone who believes you have what it takes and is there to help you. But venture capital is about smart money, not just any money. For me, it’s really important to choose investors carefully. Because once you choose an investor and raise funds from them, you’re stuck with that person for good. Our team was moving very quickly with product development, and we weren’t ready to decide who we did and didn’t want on board. While we did have some offers for a pre-seed round and we seriously considered including some close mentors to add to the round, we ultimately decided to not take funding. I also think too many startups prioritize raising capital over building a valuable product and usually end up asking for too much money too soon.
Do you regret this decision?
Fu: Regret? Well, I guess we had to swipe our personal credit cards during the hackathon. For example, we had to refill our Twilio credits multiple times after we launched an initial version, to deal with capacity. But I think we made the right decision. We’re really focused on the consumer experience first.
Building HelloWorld in Under 24 Hours
The team released an initial version of HelloWorld a few hours after the hackathon started. A more polished beta version was then completed in just under 24 hours. They built a cross-platform app, for both iOS and Android.
How did you build HelloWorld within 24 hours? What was your secret to achieving that?
Himmelman: In the weeks leading up to the event, our team had numerous design meetings to hash out what exactly we wanted to build. My role was to try and translate our discussions into wireframes and mockups. We went through lots of versions and wanted to see what various different features would look like, so fast iteration was essential. It helped immensely in determining what we liked and didn’t like. By the time the hackathon arrived, we all had a crystal clear picture of what we were making.
Carter: So when the hackathon started, we were very coordinated. We knew exactly what everyone had to do. Fortunately, we didn’t have any merge conflicts. A merge conflict is when different people work on the code, and when you try to merge the codes together, it doesn’t fit quite right. For our team, we all knew exactly what we are doing, and we divided our roles in a way that our code sat well together.
Fu: The hackathon also set the time frame of 24 hours. We looked at that time frame and asked ourselves what we could do. We started looking into each of the pieces that everyone had to build. We initially tried to simplify the product, but quickly decided that we could not take anything away from it without making it less fun and interesting. So instead, we focused on how we could coordinate better to move faster. I think that if our team was any less ambitious, we would have tried to ship a smaller product or allow ourselves more time to finish.
Li: The end goal of having a fully launched product by the end of a hackathon forces a level of discipline in building the product. Often, hackday projects can devolve into proof of concepts as the deadline draws closer. By knowing that our product would be delivered in a fully public, production environment, we had to maintain a level of product polish at every stage of the development.
How did the team stay motivated?
Fu: At first, it was easy to stay motivated, because there were so many teams working hard around us. The environment felt like it was exactly where we needed to be in order to stay motivated and be innovative. There were different people and teams from around the world, and we were all at the heart of Silicon Valley. The energy was in the air. But at the toughest hours, the team supported the team.
Carter: The team members definitely kept each other motivated. Max and David were coding on the frontend, and I was running the server. In order for them to test the feature, they needed something from me on the backend. There were times I wanted to take a break, but they really needed me to keep working so that they could complete their work. This motivated me to push on and deliver. Ernestine also had unlimited energy and optimism. She went around and talked to each of us to find out how we were doing and what we needed to keep going. And finally, Jeff had a consistent can-do attitude that transpired to the entire team. When we approached him for help, he never turned us down and was always there.
Li: The motivation also came from the thoroughly outlined product spec and design we came up with before the hackathon started. By knowing the bullet points well in advance, we consistently had actionable, tangible things to build, giving us very few opportunities for doubt or demoralization.
Goodman: It was very motivating when progress was going full speed ahead — which is what must happen to hit a tight 24-hour deadline. Seeing the product improve and new features emerge by the hour made the next ones seem close at hand.
Secrets for Success
HelloWorld has clearly set a standard and demonstrated what is possible within 24 hours. They have shown the design and quality a product built in a day can have.
Do you think others can duplicate your success at future hackathon events?
Fu: Yes, definitely. A lot of times, people are surprised by what they can achieve. Their ambitions are bound by what they believe to be possible. I’m obviously really proud of our team, but would not be surprised if another team builds a better product in less than a day. In fact, we also intend to achieve other ambitious goals within this team.
Any final words of advice for future hackathon attendees?
Himmelman: Make sure the scope of your project is achievable. It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time it takes to build anything, especially as everyone starts getting tired. A simpler project that works is better than a complex project that doesn’t.
Fu: Balance quality with speed. Besides finishing quickly, you have to ensure that you have a quality product. Our team was coding and building things up very quickly, but also constantly checking to ensure the quality was good.
Goodman: Choose people whose values you share, whom you trust to work on big parts of the project independently, yet when put together produce more than the sum of their parts. Build things you love, with people you love.