Turning hackathon ideas into startups

It’s been a few weeks since my team and I attended LA Hacks, the Hackathon of the West Coast. This is the story of how we turned a 24 hour project into the Next Big Thing.

 Deciding to attend

I’ll be honest—it was a difficult decision. Should I really walk all the way to Pauley from my apartment? and other such questions filled my head. Eventually, three friends and I decided to bite the bullet and go for it, even if we wouldn’t get any travel reimbursement (like, seriously?). We were set on building the Next Big Thing without any idea of what that would be, but other than that, the only thing that mattered to us was having fun and getting bought out by a larger company eventually as we hacked away.

The team consisted of four CS students from UCLA: Calvin Chan, Daniel Duan, Aman Agarwal, and myself. Little did we know that after this weekend, the four of us would never be more in sync about wanting to turn our weekend idea into a startup.

 A plan of action

We arrived at UCLA a few months ahead of time, just to be sure (around September 2013). Calvin, a native to the area, took us to a Westwood classic: Starbucks. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend it—you can’t get this kind of coffee anywhere else!

Today, I came across a Medium article with a list in it, and lists are cool (especially the linked variety). But let’s pretend we used this list to plan out MongoFB.

  1. Simplify your idea.
  2. Put together a well-rounded team.
  3. Get a communication tool other than e-mail. (I recommend Snapchat)
  4. Use frameworks.
  5. Divide, conquer, and trust. (It’s basically MapReduce)
  6. Don’t waste time thinking. (It’s too difficult)

 Begin hacking

We were confident that following a list from the internet would help us on our path to success. We walked back from Starbucks to Pauley Pavilion and waited in the line for about fifteen hours to enter the hackathon.

Upon being granted entry into Pauley Pavilion, we immediately searched for a place to call our own. We were lucky enough to be one of the first few teams in there, which allowed us to pick our favorite minuscule table to set up on. We opted for the one nearest the food.

What followed was an opening ceremony almost as long as the wait in line to get in, some hours of hacking interspersed with dicking around on Twitter, great opportunities to #network and build our #brand, an opportunity to show off our hack to the world, and the best closing ceremony ever.

 Building a product in 24 hours

We knew we were going to win this hackathon, because our idea was webscale and used fifteen different APIs. We made a landing page that answered all the important questions, along with a working implementation of an account system.

We knew our idea had value, and sought validation from both professionals and students alike at LA Hacks. We needed to know if people were interested in a new form of NoSQL data store that used the most simple yet powerful schema of all time: Facebook statuses.

 YCombinator and you

It was difficult, but after browsing the LA Hacks Facebook page for five hours I figured out that Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit, would be attending. I love Reddit (my favorite subreddits are r/atheism, r/fedoras, and r/euphoria), and thought it’d be cool to meet the guy so I could brag about it on Reddit later.

When the panel ended, my team decided we would wait for the crowd of plebs to leave so that we could get a chance to talk to him about our idea. We never did it, but here’s what I think he’d say about MongoFB:

My thoughts don’t matter. Listen to your fucking users.

So true, right?

 Hacker expo

Sunday came, and so did we. To Pauley Pavilion. To demo our app.

Every student that I spoke with was stoked about the idea of being able to store data using Facebook. I received words of glowing praise such as “that’s cool, I guess” and “why would you do that ever” and “I’m gonna sue the shit out of whoever made this.”

The feedback we received validated us so we knew our idea had value.

 Closing ceremony

I’ll never forget the closing ceremony at LA Hacks. Highlights included a bunch of people telling me to drop out of school and an incredibly misogynistic hack making it to the top 7! It was rounded off by a presentation by Y Combinator’s Sam Altman.

At the end of Sam’s presentation, he suggested hackers in the audience e-mail him if they wanted to apply to YC, so he shared his e-mail with everyone there. It’s a big secret, so I can’t tell anyone. Anyway, we knew immediately this was the perfect opportunity for MongoFB to make it big, just like it deserved. While his responses to our inquiries were short, they were nonetheless meaningful.

 The Altman emails

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 8.44.08 PM.png

Clearly, we have to build the product first but he believes in us, too, as long as we believe in our users.

 The road ahead

This got us all excited about our futures; we truly believe we’re onto something here. I envision a future where startups sing the praises of MongoFB, where Hacker News commenters pounce on you if you don’t use it. A fun weekend turned into the best startup idea ever.

All four of us will have free time whenever to work on MongoFB. Since we already have a minimum viable product, we’re now working on the other MVP: the maximum viable product. It’ll be a thing; we already have the hashtag down. These next few years will test us to see how much we truly believe in the future of data storage.

Fortunately, we’ve worked together before and don’t completely hate each other, I think!

If a startup doesn’t have tshirts and stickers, is it really a startup? — Teenage Coder, 2014

I’m happy to say that I’ve found a team that believes in cool laptop stickers and t-shirts as strongly as I do.

We’re launching today, and if we gain traction in the next five months (which we will), we’re applying to Y Combinator and several other VCs and try to #scale and #growthhack.

Speaking of which, you should start using it now.


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