MoboTurbo Hack-a-thon: From Idea to Demo (and Second Place!)

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By Nina Gerwin (Founder & CEO, Eye Capture) Editor's note: Join us for Women 2.0 Startup Weekend 2011 in San Francisco on November 18-20, 2011! Get your ticket now.

On Saturday, I went to my first ever hackathon, the MoboTurbo 2011 Mobile Game Hackathon + Conference.  There are plenty of hackathons in Silicon Valley but this was the first hackathon to be organized by women, Shirley Lin and Bess Ho, and staffed with only female volunteers. It was being held at Color.com’s Palo Alto HQ. I’m not a hacker, but an idea person and organizer, so I was comforted that it was only one day rather than a whole weekend.

Because this hackathon was just the one day, the focus was on existing teams and incomplete mobile game apps. At the end of the day, teams would pitch to a great panel of judges that include two women, Holly Liu and Lillie Thompson of Google Games.

I’d, for two years, had an idea for a spelling game and the time had finally come to do something about it, to get a demo and see it in action.  But remember, I’m the idea person, not a coder.  This was a big problem.  Going into the event Shirley, also a co-founder of the Asian Professional Women in Tech (APWT), told me that team formation was not the priority, to just come and listen to some great speakers.  So I thought, “What the heck, sounds like fun!”

At 9am, things were moving slowly, so I introduced myself to everyone I could and pitched my idea.  I knew I needed a front end developer.  At that time of the morning, there weren’t a lot of developers, and the ones I met already had projects to work on.  I met two graphic artists and one UX expert (all women) who agreed to join my team, and we took turns peeling off to find developers.  We found two guys who were interested in the concept.  As back end developers, they had come to learn more about games and mobile apps.  Not a perfect fit but an excellent start.  We had me, Nina the team leader,  Terry on UX, Sue and Melody doing graphics, and Syed and Ryan were the engineers.

Terry jumped right in and started with a paper prototype to test out the concept and basic game mechanics.  She asked whether the idea would be interesting and how was it going to work.  In the meantime, we started talking as a team to figure out what we needed.  We focused on the developers.  Armed with the basic idea, they both dived right in to start researching turnkey programs and talking to other developers.  Sue and Melody worked on a screen theme and elements.  Terry was a roving UX expert and went off to help other teams.  I ventured out to find the roving iOS or Android experts.

Sponsor presentations followed by a fantastic iPad app demo to teach kids how to play the guitar.  Raffle, food, coffee, coffee, coffee, donuts and soda.   Bill Nguyen, co-founder of Colorgave his keynote speech -- totally cool -- followed by Gus Tai General Partner from Trinity Ventures with how he looks at startups.  Did I mention coffee?

As the hours moved on, more people were joining the event.  There must have been 14+ teams working on projects.  But we were still struggling with producing a demo.

Co-organizer, fabulous iOS coder and teacher, Bess Ho, recommended trying Garden Salad, a turn-key game dev platform since Albert Chen, Game Design and Dev college professor and Game Salad expert was coming to speak and help out.  Other developers came by to offer suggestions.  We started preparing for alternate demo methods like poster boards, flipcharts, and powerpoint.  We settled on powerpoint, we needed a pitch overview anyway.

3.5 hours before demo deadline, Sue brought over Rolandas, an iOS developer from Lithuania, part of a delegation who all exhibited at CTIA in San Diego.  He didn’t want to head straight back to Lithuania and came up north to experience a bit of Silicon Valley. He'd gone to a party the night before and been urged at the last minute to attend the hackathon.  We met, I explained the project, he said yes, and we were off.  Serendipity is a wonderful thing.

We were all watching the app development progress and giving various feedback to Rolandas, Melody was feeding graphic updates, and Terry and I were writing the presentation points.  I can’t tell you how exciting it was for me to see this idea that I had in my head actually come alive in a functioning demo.

We were slotted to pitch seventh, which turned out to be last. This was probably a good thing because it gave us time to figure out other details, including what to name our game.  Raining ABCs.  Then it was “pens down” time.

There was another benefit to going later. As the designated presenter, I went up to the floor for a technical test of the projector.  Our deck had been loaded onto Terry’s iPad and the demo onto Rolandas’.  That meant we’d have to switch devices in the middle of a two minute presentation.  After watching the other presenters, I decided to scrap the powerpoint presentation altogether.

The drawback to pitching last was that after over fourteen hours, I was pretty beat.  As I sat down at the start of the pitches, I wasn’t so sure that I could stand up again, much less remember what I was suppose to say.  The event was being streamed live on Justin.TV and there were 3,000 viewers.  No pressure.

All the presenters were guys. There were really great apps by existing teams, unpublished but existing apps, and two too-cute ten year old boys learning to code HTML5 and java script. They definitely won the cuteness factor. There was cool 3D technology with shark graphics, and maybe one other team of two people meeting up for the first time that day, like us.

Our team was seven new people who had only met that day and, I thought, it went swimmingly well. We all were able to come to consensus, each had important contributions, no arguments, no rudeness, people worked hard but also were able to float in and out, meet other people, chat, listen to presenters, and became really close by the end of the evening.  That, by itself, was an amazing feeling.  So it really didn’t matter to me whether we won because I felt we all had experienced something pretty big that day.

It was a good thing I skipped the powerpoint presentation because it took some juggling to get the demo iPad showing through the projector. To cover the technical hiccup, I started talking through the commotion.  Suddenly the screen lit up, I shut up, and Rolandas demoed the app. My eyes just lit up.  I looked over to the judges table and saw their eyes lighting up too because a picture may be worth a thousand words but a working demo is priceless.  After a few questions our time was up.

The judges disappeared. People started to talk about what a great day it had been. I heard someone say, "There was that lady who came in with just an idea this morning, formed a team and produced a demo!”  I couldn't help but smile.

Drum roll, please!  We ranked in second place, the 3D Shark game (cool!) came in third place.  First place, an interactive novel which had been created during the day using their publishing platform. Pictures had been taken that day to create a graphic novel with a branching story-line (like the one from the movie Big starring Tom Hanks).

We were all so excited and tired. I was one and a half hours from home but it hardly mattered. It had been a great day.

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

In the team photo above, from left: Rolandas Razma, Melody Schaeffer, Sue Spaulding, Terry Davis and Nina Gerwin. Not pictured: Ryan McNeely and Syed Rayhan.

About the guest blogger: Nina Gerwin is Founder and CEO of Eye Capture. Previously, she was an Executive-in-Residence (EIR) at Plug & Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale, advising startups in product & business strategy.  She did business development for B2C and B2B software and hardware products and services, and is the former COO of an online video startup. She blogs about virtual worlds, mobile and Internet marketing at Nina Gerwin's blog. Follow her on Twitter at @thenrggroup_net.