#SyncTheCity - Norwich's first 54 hour 'Not-Hackathon'

With it being a week and a half since the event, I thought it was about time I actually wrote about SyncTheCity! For those that don't know, it was an event joint hosted by the University of East Anglia and SyncNorwich, in which a startup is formed and a product created in the space of 54 hours.

Arriving at SyncTheCity

The first thing we were told when we got there:

"This is not a hackathon. You have 54 hours to create a business and product, including the branding, advertising and revenue streams. This weekend is not about the code"

For a developer, this was pretty daunting. I had no experience in anything to do with business - I didn't know anything about colour theory, let alone where revenue comes from. Luckily we didn't have to do this alone.

Whilst registering, we were given our name badges, a wristband (Blue for developer, Red for Business and Yellow for Design) and a tiddlywink. There were several theories as to what this was for, but nothing was confirmed until much later. Once everyone had arrived, we were moved upstairs for the pitches. In total, there were 26 pitches with ideas including:

  • An app for the iWatch that tracked your score whilst playing sport,
  • A library service that moves the physical card onto your mobile device,
  • A swarm of Robots looking for disaster victims,
  • A one word feedback system that uses sentiment analysis,
  • A House Sharing app designed to alleviate problems with paying bills and communication,
  • A taxi-sharing service

But only a few ideas could be taken further and so the voting started! This is where the tiddlywink comes into play, you simply placed your token in the cup of one of the pitchers and those with 5 or 4 then continued on. From here it was a mad dash down to the big conference hall to get into teams for the weekend. I was lucky enough to get into the team that I wanted, which was the House Sharing App.

After a few brainstorms and the business people throwing around words that had no meaning to myself or the other devs, we began our journey into creating the best app known to man - Digs.

Bringing Digs to Life

Originally, the plan had been to create a web and iOS app at the same time, however this quickly changed. We only had 48 hours to deliver a product, so we focused on creating the web interface. There were only two developers in the team: myself and a friend of mine whom I graduated with. We decided that I would work backend and he would work on turning the designs into reality.

The backend is completely built in Javascript. This was not only for the limited amount of time that we had to build the site, but also because we were using the Firebase service. There's more about Firebase in a separate blog post.

So we have the beginnings of the site. Our team has been split into developers, business and design and we're all systems go. The business team has left the building to do some market research (As well as to attend lectures. We are a group of students/ex-students after all) as well as talking to the mentors that were floating about. This gave them the knowledge of which markets to focus on, what the best colour scheme to use and where exactly the revenue would be coming from (and how much to expect).

Over the course of Friday and most of Saturday, we all got our heads down, getting the idea that had been formed not 30 hours previous into a reality. I think we did rather well! If you want to see our efforts, they're online at digs.azurewebsite.net (Though this is a work in progress. A complete re-write is needed).

Pitch Time!

And then it was time for everyone to pitch. Every single team had an amazing idea, a fully formed business model and some even had the products being used already! Some notable projects include

  • <a href="http://cotravel.uk/taxi/" target"_blank">CoTravel - A taxi sharing service
  • <a href="https://twitter.com/mylibs" target"_blank">MyLibs - Bringing the library service into the digital age
  • <a href="https://twitter.com/evercare" target"_blank">Evercare - An app to open up communication between carers and families of patients

The Digs team giving their pitch

But only one team could win. Well, in this case it was two, as two prizes were available - a prize for the People's choice, where everyone that had attended as well as the audience that had shown up to see the pitches got to vote on who they thought had the best idea. With the incredibly passionate pitch that the founder gave, as well as the support that was behind them at the event, Evercare quite rightly won the £1000 prize.

£3000 was then up for grabs. Awarded by a panel of 5 judges, which included industry professionals, investors and experts in startup companies, this award went to the group that was deemed the most successful in their quest to create a startup company and launch a product. Unfortunately, this again was not us. However the winners were well deserved. MyLibs did an incredible amount of work over the short period of time, not only creating a fully functioning chrome Extension (albeit without actually being able to rent the book, for now), but also an android app that could read the RFID tag or barcode of a book and automatically search local libraries to see if it was available.

We did, however, get an honorable mention as runner's up (alongside Evercare), which gave us an incredible confidence boost, which is nice for a developer that's only just starting out.

Lessons Learnt

I learnt a lot over that weekend:

  • The importance of time keeping and making sure you and your team are on track with your estimates,
  • How to decide on what technologies are appropriate given the scale and time period in which you have to complete a project,
  • Communication is key!
  • How clean code can easily speed up working (And just how picky I've become on how my code looks)
  • Talking to people that aren't technically minded, and how to get your point across without dumbing down too much,
  • Breaks are key, otherwise you will burn out and spend an hour frantically searching as to why a piece of code isn't working, only to realise that you haven't committed...

I honestly believe it has made me a much better programmer, and if anyone has the opportunity to attend one near them, to definitely go for it. You don't have to be a developer to get something out of it, as long as you have an idea of a product, or some knowledge about business or design, you will be a valuable asset to the team.

And you never know, you might just stumble onto something that will change your life.

If you want to check out some of the photos from the weekend, you can check them out here[]. And if you're about, there's talk of a 2015 event! You can register your interest here.