The strange case of Mr Hyde

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On July 7 this year a 23-year-old part-time cameraman started a venture known as StartupWeekend where he planned to create, with others, a startup in one weekend. Since then he has begun a global odyssey to create a startup in many cities, and next month he lands in London and Dublin. But for this Web 2.0 version of Phileas Fogg, the sailing around the world has not been all plain.

The protagonist in this story is one Andrew Hyde from Boulder, Colorado, USA. Hyde is now on a journey to co-found 23 web companies in 23 cities ranging from Boston to San Fransciso, and taking in London and Dublin. The idea seemed straight forward enough: a kind of digital barn raising:

“Startup Weekend is an idea, an experiment, a chance to gather the tech community and create a company over one jam packed weekend.. A unique three-day experience, StartupWeekend brings the best and brightest people together in a local office space to select the concept, break into teams, and develop the product, marketing and revenue model.”

So far so crazy. Few people in their right minds would attempt such a feat. But then, this is the Web, where stranger things have happened. Should we care if someone wants to fly around some cities founding companies with willing individuals? In fact, the overall principles of StartupWeekend seemed to be quite egalitarian. Everyone who attends is considered a founder, with equal equity. An idea for the startup is formed after debate and voted on democratically.

Hyde told me via email that the idea came to him after having dinner with some entrepreneurs “who wanted to be able to collaborate with other folks, but didn’t have much more than a weekend to do it.” Duly, the URL for StartupWeekend.com was created on June 4 this year, a month before the first StartupWeekend event on July 6 event in Colorado, USA.

According to Techcrunch, that first Boulder weekend was run by “some of the guys from TechStars (a Y Combinator-like incubator), as well as others, but it is not one of the TechStars startups.” In other words it was not an official TechStars event. But something did come out of it: a company called Vosnap, a group voting application where you get answers to questions fast via text messages and emails. The ‘company’ of VoSnap, Inc. does appear to have been created. Perhaps this idea wasn’t so crazy after all?

I asked Hyde about this informal connection with TechStars. This is what he emailed: “I worked with TechStars this summer running a camera as an excuse to hang out with some brilliant entrepreneurs. A lot of my friends were in the program, and I work out of a coop office space with 5 of the teams, but I’m not a team or affiliated.”

Here was a clue to how this idea got started. A young guy gets inspired by the excitement surrounding a startup and decides to re-create it in a kind’ve ‘startup roadtrip’.

But as with most roadtrips, there are flat tyres. The wheels came off the magic startup bus when Hyde hit Toronto for the weekend starting September 14. Having heard about the idea from TechCrunch, Toronto developers had contacted Hyde, and started getting organised well ahead of time.

The site that emerged from the weekend was LobbyThem a “site where you can browse, create and support issues affecting you and your community” – a site not dissimilar to PledgeBank in the UK. But LobbyThem clearly had a difficult birth.

I have spoken by phone or email to several sources involved with Startup Weekend Toronto. What emerges is a picture of Hyde walking in to an already well-organised group and indicating that he wanted to lead the project. This did not go down very well and Hyde spent the rest of the weekend largely uninvolved, say my sources. In fact, he did more than that, he later attacked the organisers.

One commenter reacted to Hyde’s post thus: “As one of the participants of SW Toronto I am certainly surprised to find out that we were supposed to be working for you and according to your expectations. To that end I found your lack of participation and poor attitude disruptive to the overall spirit of OUR weekend. Like it or not you were there to PARTICIPATE as our guest. Despite your lack of effort, regardless of your ’structure’ fears, you shall still receive shares for your time spent.”

Hyde argues that he was effectively locked out of the process. His conclusion after Toronto was “to form a ‘Bill of Rights’ (PDF) to protect any founder of a future weekend from dishonest organizers.”

It seems Toronto was not happy.

Brill Pappin, one of those heavily involved in organising in the Toronto event later went to the lengths of writing a dedicated rebuttal to Hyde. In turn Hyde was defended by a fellow traveller in Steve Poland, in turn rebutted again by Brill. Other partcipants in seemed to think Toronto suffered from not being as unstructured as the first Boulder event.

But amid all these recriminations one thing seems clear. There was a lack of communication in either direction that the Toronto Startup was going to be run by Toronto, not Hyde. So whatever happens in London and Dublin next will hinge on how the participants view their role.

Over email Pappin commented to me on the record that that Hyde is “really a regular fellow trying to make a business out of the Startup Weekend idea, but it’s clear he is not used to running a business and doesn’t have the management skills (yet)…. I think people wanting to do a ‘Startup Weekend’ need to be clear on what the deal actually is before they go for it. The idea is workable after a fashion but I don’t think he has the ‘final formula’ for doing it.” He added that “The biggest issue that I don’t think has been resolved yet is the issue of IP rights to the ideas submitted.”

Indeed. Speaking off the record one of the organisers of the BirminghamStartup – inspired by Hyde but not officially linked to him – said they were ‘struck by Hyde’s “immaturity. He doesn’t understand business, IMHO. He helped birth a great idea, didn’t know what he wanted to do with it moving forward, and is now fumbling his way through.” Needless to say Birmingham (Alabama) has not invited Hyde to their Startup weekend (November 2-9).

I put the bulk of these claims to Hyde who reacted in an email to me (reprinted in full, un-edited):

Hey Mike,

The event you are referring to is the Toronto event, which was an unfortunate series of events that left a lot of us not happy with each other. After the event happened the Founders Bill of Rights was formed so that everyone participating knows exactly what they are signing up for and getting. Every weekend since has been nothing from stellar.

Upon exit surveys of every other weekend we have found that:
94% would do the event again
90% would recommend the event to a friend
76% met someone they would like to work or co-found a company with

so I can conclude myself and Startup Weekend are not bad apples at all, just had a bad event.

The organizer of the event had some excited members of the community help organize, and the basic ‘rules’ of the weekend, such as equal founders spilt of the 50% and which results in comments such as “He thought he’d be walking in and running the show under his Startup Weekend branding.” Well, yes, it is a startup in its own right, and I need to make sure all the weekends are of the high expectations of the founders.

I have moved on to making sure the events run extremely well. I have been about transparency and honesty since the first Startup Weekend, and I plan for that to stay! I would much prefer if information on the other 4 weekends were used when explaining and defining what it is.

Another thing to note is there are about 20 people who have been talked into flying into the Boston event this weekend. That wouldn’t happen if people were not extremely happy with how the weekends are run.

Brad Feld wrote about it here. Seth Levine wrote about it here. (Two highly respected VC’s that attended the Boulder weekend.)

Any other questions?

Andrew

After the fallout over Toronto most people might take some time out to re-group and rethink the idea. Hyde was unbowed. He moved on to New York.

Unfortunately by this time Hyde was finding his idea was spreading without his control. In fact, it was taking on a life of its own and had now crossed the Atlantic.

During September 21-23 in Hamburg, Germany, entrepreneur Cem Basman took the ‘create a startup in a weekend’ idea to a new level with a highly organised event – at least from what one can gather from the blog, and this youtube video. The Hamburg results certainly sound impressive. Edelbild is now a British limited company with 82 equal shareholders, funded with 250 Euros, and it has even had offers of venture money. Edelbild will be an online marketplace for image editing where pros or semi-pro can upload pictures and get them edited or re-touched for a low cost.

With Hamburg’s event rumbling on without him (though acknowledging him), Hyde flew into New York that same weekend. The group that assembled there created a site called Favoreats which allows you to say where you like to eat in your city (in the US). But when I checked, the site is still in beta and has scant information about its next moves other than “Sign up to get an announcement when we launch.”

Next up was Houston (September 28-30 ). Having looked at the blog, it appears participants enjoyed their time creating TipDish.com (still in beta) a site to connects PRs with influencer blogs. TipDish has no information on the company behind it on the site.

Most recently Hyde has gone on to do the weekend in West Lafayette, Indiana (October 12-14) which produced ScrollTalk, a “dynamic chat space, ranking conversation relevance” which, to be frank, really does look like it was only made in a weekend. And this weekend Hyde starts in earnest in Boston (October 19-21), followed by Washington, Chapel Hill, Atlanta, San Francisco, London and Dublin. After that no less than 10 more cities in the US await the Hyde Startup Weekend experience.

What are we to make of all this? Perhaps I have gone over the top in detailing the Startup Weekend’s activities to date. But with startup events proliferating like wild-fire across the UK, Ireland and Europe, it’s important to keep one’s feet on the ground. Any event needs to be clear about what the participants are getting into before they get into it – especially where equity, shares, intellectual property and new companies are involved. If Startup Weekend can address those, all well and good. But if it can’t, then alarm bells should be ringing.

How the formation of these weekend-built companies will play out in the jurisdictions of the UK and Ireland is also something to consider. It is one thing bringing together developers to create a cool new application out of nothing. It is another to make it a company.

But let’s allow Andrew Hyde, our latter day Phileas Fogg, have the final word in some video shot during NYC Startup Weekend:

StartupWeekend.com CEO Andrew Hyde’s Introduction from startupweekend on Vimeo.

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