By Renee DiResta (Associate, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures)
Now that I’ve slept a bit, I thought I’d post about the Mega Startup Weekend held at Microsoft this past Friday through Sunday. This one was a bit different than others I’ve been to because the organizers pre-selected three verticals: Health, Education, and Gaming.

The weekend started off with a Mega-wide speech by Reid Hoffman, who encouraged everyone to “think big — it takes the same amount of work and pain as thinking small.”

He gave best advice of the weekend in a comment he made during the Q&A — develop with the seven deadly sins in mind. When you address one of those, you’re addressing a deep-seated motivator. He mentioned Facebook as pride, LinkedIn for greed, and Zynga was sloth. You could plausibly argue that something like 40% of the internet is lust, in mb terms. The point is, know what makes your users tick.

I spent the weekend working in the Health space. One of the recurring themes shared by doctors was that the existing model of healthcare is broken. It focuses too much on treating symptoms with pharmaceuticals and not enough on behavioral change. Changing behavior is extremely difficult, but it’s often a necessity when a patient is diagnosed with a lifestyle-related illness. The smartphone has great potential as a behavior-changing device — it’s with us everywhere we go, and apps turn it into a lifestyle tracker, record keeper, and habit-reinforcer.

My team started out building an app to help ADHD patients develop habits that would improve their focus, but ultimately decided to address a broader set of problems: patient accountability and doctor visibility. It is difficult for a doctor to know if a patient is doing their “homework” — exercising more, eating better, or doing their cognitive behavioral therapy.

So we started talking to both doctors and patients and came up with the idea of a platform: what if doctors could “prescribe” apps that would facilitate behavior modification? They could then monitor patient behavior though a dashboard that tracked app usage, and provide feedback or encouragement to the patient through a reminder/notification system.

We came up with Focusful

Building Focusful really drove home Reid’s message that knowing what makes your user tick is the key to success. Just as you can’t design an effective app without understanding what will make someone want to use it, you can’t change a behavior without addressing the underlying cause.

This kind of experience is what makes Startup Weekends so valuable; in all likelihood, you won’t come out with a functional business plan or practical, working app, but you’ll get to try out cool things (for me, that was Sencha), meet fantastic people, and learn something new that will change the way you approach future endeavors.

If you haven’t been to one yet, I highly recommend you try it out.

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

This post was originally posted at

Photo credit: Erica Kawamoto Hsu of Kuishimbo

pic_biggerAbout the guest blogger: Renee DiResta is currently an Associate at O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, where she researches emerging technology trends and supports portfolio companies. Prior to OATV, she spent six and a half years as a trader at Jane Street Capital, a quantitative proprietary trading firm in New York. Renee holds a B.S. in Computer Science and Political Science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Follow her on Twitter at @noupside and her VC firm at @oatv.