Inception: A Hackday Dream (The Story Of GroupMe)

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Yesterday we wrote about the launch and funding of GroupMe, a new startup that was conceived and built at the TechCrunch Hackday in New York in May. We asked cofounder Jared Hecht to tell us about the experience. His response is below.

Several days before the TC Disrupt Hackathon in May, my fiancé started complaining about an email chain she was on. Her friends were coordinating a trip, and when it came time to mobilize, the chain broke down in real-time. Not everyone had a smartphone, some people experienced lag times between emails, etc. I thought there needed to be an easier way to communicate within groups in real-time. SMS seemed like the most intuitive option. I called up Steve Martocci (who I’ve used as a sounding board for years) who grew very excited by the idea. He slept on it and called me back the next day with what was potentially an 18 month product roadmap for what would eventually become GroupMe.

At its core, we were solving a very simple problem which was a pain point for both of us: how do we manage and stay in touch with our IRL groups of friends?

TechCrunch’s Hackathon was two days away. Steve, having won a hackathon at Gilt Groupe the previous month, was anxious to go strut his stuff at another one. We knew we could prove if the concept was viable in 24 hours. TCDH was the perfect opportunity. When we arrived we were greeted by Danielle Morrill from Twilio who was encouraging hackers to use their API. Our relationship with Twilio started that day and it’s blossomed ever since. We locked ourselves in a room with a seemingly endless supply of pizza and beer. 18 hours later we had a working prototype. We even secured an advertisement for half-priced bowling at Brooklyn Bowl for a Lost Season Finale party that night (it unfortunately broke down in our 90 second presentation)

The best part about the Hackathon was we started using our product Day 1. I went to Kinkos to print out business cards for the panelists and I stayed in touch with our group the entire time I was out. The product worked and we immediately found a useful application for it. I remember Steve and I walking the halls at 3 in the morning telling each other that if all went well we wouldn’t be working at Gilt and Tumblr the next week – this would be our full-time job. We were prepped to win the whole thing, present during TCD, and wow the world with the product.

Well, we didn’t win anything. I think we may have received some Top 10 honorable mention…but it didn’t quite work out as we anticipated.

Luckily, before we started building GroupMe we ran into Charlie O’Donnell of First Round Capital and told him we were going to solve group communications. He gave us an earnest smile and wished us luck.

During TCD proper, Steve’s high school friend and NYC entrepreneur, Edward Kim (simple.pr), started telling everyone about GroupMe (we showed it to all our friends after the Hackathon and they loved it – more importantly, within a matter of days they were using it religiously with their friends, families, co-workers, etc.). He was well connected in the NYC tech scene and started introducing people to Steve. Steve was so overwhelmed with requests for demos that his phone died. He found an empty table on Startup Alley, plugged into an outlet, and whipped out his computer and phone. He was stationed as if he were a contestant at TCD, and for the rest of TCD he had a continuous line of people requesting demos. That day we reconnected with Charlie through a friend – he immediately asked us to come into the First Round New York office and chat.

After TCD GroupMe snowballed. We both showed it to our bosses who encouraged us to pursue GroupMe full-time (John Maloney, Tumblr’s President, is actually an angel investor in GroupMe). For the next month we wound down our various roles at Gilt and Tumblr, started working on GroupMe full-time the first week of July, and raised a round of financing with some amazing people who really believe in the product. Funny story – at one point we saw Ron Conway roaming through the room at Hack Day but we were too busy building out GroupMe to even think about getting up. I remember a TC photographer came into our room and asked how our “hack” was different than all the others there. Steve looked at her in the eye and candidly replied, “We’re building a business.”

Since July, we’ve made some amazing full-time hires. Pat Nakajima and Brandon Keene (two ex-Pivotal Labs employees) are now cranking away, and Cameron Hunt (designer and iPhone dev of Birdhouse) moved out from Portland to join the team as well. We’re thrilled with everything that has happened so far. We’ve got an A+ team, a big vision, and a product that has already changed the way we communicate on a daily basis.

…and that’s how we turned a hack day idea into a full-time business.

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