Columbia’s DevFest 2012

Today marked the closing Demos for DevFest 2012, the annual program for hacking and entrepreneurship events hosted by ADI. While the demos are meant to showcase the efforts of the student hackathon that kicked off last Saturday, participants were also encouraged to show off projects that they had been working on before DevFest began. 

This event was even better than the inaugural one I attended last year; there were more demos, more completed hacks, and definitely a larger audience. ADI continues to impress with their long list of well-respected sponsors and illustrious judges. Prizes were a new incentive this year, which promoted specific tech companies (Microsoft, Twilio), as well as inclusivity (best first hack, best business model). I like how the tone of the event was more geared towards creating sustainable applications instead of just cool hacks – this time around, I heard much more about customer development and business model in addition to the tech backend and algorithms. 

There were more than a dozen hacks demo’d today, and here are some that were especially interesting to me: 

  • CampaignStop
    Sid is a frequent campaign volunteer himself, so he built a web-app that enables more efficient canvassing. Campaign organizers often don’t know how many volunteers will show up on a given day, or how many hours each can contribute. This web app stores a list of home addresses, then assigns them in the most geographically efficient way to volunteers based on the number of hours they are able to contribute. I’m not sure how well the algorithm works, but it seems like a nifty way to mobilize large groups of workers, in any context. 
  • BlabSay
    This team built a real-time application that places users into spontaneously created chat rooms based on keywords that they’re interested in. This seems like a play on Twitter’s topic hashtags, but with the goal to connect people in a more intimate way with a limit of 10 to a chat room. While it’s an interesting concept, I have my doubts about their total addressable market – how often do you find yourself looking to chat about a certain topic that none of your friends are interested in? The team seemed to have a good idea of how to monetize this application, but failed to provide a viable method of building their user base. 
  • Beer Battle
    Co-created by my friend Moses, this mobile app allows bars to better organize beer pong matches for their patrons. Have you ever signed yourself up for a game of pong, only to wait around for hours, miss your slot, or get your name wiped off the list? Beer Battle helps take care of all that by creating a virtual waiting list and then notifying players via the Twilio API. Judges asked about whether there’ll be a bartender dashboard to monitor the games and if the team had thought about enabling beer purchase through the app itself. They’re launching a beta soon with Village Pourhouse and Jake’s Dilemma, so stay tuned!
  • Situity
    This was hands down the prettiest demo today and no doubt designed by a team of architects. It take location data from existing social networks, such as Foursquare, Twitter, and Facebook, and creates a heat map of the places you frequent the most. This has a touch of the same social nostalgia that TimeHop has captured, with a very compelling graphical aspect that can compare your heat map with that of your friends’.
  • ParkAlly
    This mobile app enables drivers to monetize the parking spot they’re leaving behind. My friends and I liked this idea because it essentially creates a new market in high-density cities such as NY, Boston, and DC. Some challenges would be enabling users to simplify the logistics of transferring the parking spot and receiving payment in return. For the app to work, they’ll have to grow a large user base and grow it quickly. I couldn’t help but think of how this could also be a goldmine for finding a desk in Butler Library during finals. 
  • Clossit
    This web application allows you to build a virtual “closet” in which you store images of clothes that you like, but not necessarily own. They currently have a database of over 200,000 images scrapped from the web, and users can browse through each others’ closets. I think this project has a lot of potential if it can be positioned at the intersection of e-commerce and social. The market opportunity here is huge and none of the current players (Fab, AHAlife, ShopStyle, Svpply) have gotten it completely right yet. 

After all the demos, there was a short Q&A session with the judges, during which they touched upon two key topics:

  • Talent acquisitions
    Ryan acknowledged that talent acquisitions may be inevitable and on the rise, in a time where everyone believes (for better or worse) that they can build their own company. With the proliferation of startup incubators and accelerators, there will definitely be a fair share of companies that have incredible talented folks but not the right product or idea. For Fred,these kinds of acquisitions are somewhat troubling due to the misalignment of incentives – entrepreneurs do not typically thrive in large corporation, which makes integration a challenge. Chris noted that more often than not, he has noticed that these talent acquisitions are made by Silicon Valley companies for NYC startups, a trend that doesn’t sit well with him. 
  • Value of an idea
    Fred mentioned that some of the more successful entrepreneurs he has backed often come back to the same idea time and time again. Dennis Crowley started off with an ITP project, which turned into Dodgeball, and then became Foursquare. Billy Chasen’s Turntable.fm began as an idea several years ago that he tried to build several times before getting it right. In the fast-paced world of startups, the merits of such a drawn-out trial and error process are often neglected. Fred’s comments hints at a hacker’s wisdom that comes with the germination of an idea and the mastery of technology after years of tinkering. I’ve always disparaged the reporting bias in the media of startups with a meteoric rise, so it’s refreshing to see that patience can still be a virtue. 

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