Profound, Profane, and Perfectly Capable

by Douglas Crets, Developer Evangelist at Microsoft Bizspark

Building Robots for the Blind, and Other Apps for Culture

Whenever you see the name Ahmed Siddiqui, you think good things. He’s part of Startup Weekend, the organizer of the 54-hour non-hackathon startup building non-profit conference series that camped out at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley Headquarters this past weekend.

I wrote about how it kicked off for Fast Company – with a profane and profanity laced mega talk by Dave McClure. Scott Case, CEO of Startup America was also there, with his Xbox Guru son, Ryan.

Photo courtesy of Tim Reha, New Media Synergy

And so were about 300 other entrepreneurs, developers, business development people, and roboticists.

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What I Learned – It Takes Empathy and Cultural Connection to Make a Good Startup

What was common from all these MEGA Weekend winners? Collaboration, assistance, helping others, seeing things through someone else’s eyes and ontology – what do things mean?


  • Robotics: Eyes on Demand - A device utilizing sensors, a server, and website/app to detect objects for the visually impaired.
  • Mobile: Predict Gaze - Helps companies better understand their customers through facial recognition on mobile devices
  • Gaming: Stinky Da Vinci - Competitive photo sharing mobile app game

It takes a pretty strong sense of character and self to be able to listen. In my experience, one has to go through quite a few tests of will and tests of community to know that the radar should always be pointed out, trying to take in the feed of other people’s wants and wishes.

Lunch Break
Photo courtesy of Tim Reha, New Media Synergy

In Startup Land I see this activity and sense of culture writ large. Teams everywhere over the weekend were testing their ideas and asking feedback from other teams. Mobile devs are talking to Gamers and Robot people are playing with robots in front of mobile people. The whole community was inherently mixed up. It was a mash up of people who had never tried robotics, or had never thought about making visual aids for the blind. But someone had a good idea, and it clicked. They started something.

Assumptions Make Great Thought Bubbles, But They Are Better Off Dead

I keep thinking of developing with empathy, every time I walked by a table and sat down with startups to figure out what they were doing.

The central activity – other than hacking out code and soldering circuit pieces was going beyond assumptions and listening to others.

It’s called “seeking validation” in Startuplandia. You have to be very good at that in order to turn your MVP into a solid state rocket booster of an app or a service.

Hanging Out
Photo courtesy of Tim Reha, New Media Synergy

It’s called "putting yourself in someone else’s shoes," in whatever high school or elementary class you learned it. But in Startuplandia it goes a little further, and behaves a little differently. It’s not about assuming you know what another person is feeling because you think you are feeling what they are sensing. It’s certainly not always listening to an investor tell you what he or she knows. It’s really about asking deep, sometimes simple but emotional questions of customers you are trying to develop into "users."

It's kind of a scary proposition, because when you are developing a product and asking for feedback you are marrying the shaping of the product with the question. You could be wrong. You might have to start over. The $400 you spent to fly here might seem immediately worthless (more than a couple teams disbanded after the first 24 hours and a few people went home; someone else gave up on her idea entirely at the end of the 54 hours).

Kind of Like a Marriage, But Different

You are creating a kind of marriage, or a partnership, between your product and the people who will use it.

Make Stuff, Dev. Make Stuff.

It’s Not about You, It’s About Us

Which brings me to an interesting conversation I had with a team of PR people, all women, who talked to me about dating and relationships. One of them told me that when her brother and his wife face a problem in their marriage, they have to look at the marriage like it’s this third entity.

That’s your product. When you are talking with a consumer and getting feedback, the product is held in isolation, in a creative space. What can be done? What is it not doing right? Where can we take it? It’s not about you, or your failure. It’s about US. You and the consumer. The product is your marriage.

Playing Kinect
Photo courtesy of Tim Reha, New Media Synergy

We Are Making a Culture

That’s why I am thinking it’s best to practice active empathy. To not only put yourself in someone’s shoes by imagining them. Put yourself in their shoes by asking them to try on the shoes. Ask really really deep questions. Get to the freakin’ core.

When you think about it, it goes beyond the marriage metaphor. What startups do is create a culture. All the talking and the asking questions is really just like all the pop culture that floats around us every day, but since these dudes and ladies are sitting down and doing it, making things, they really are creating a fundamental backbone for the living, breathing animal that is our global culture.

They are truly cultural heroes.

Teams hammer out plans and operations during the second day of #SWBAYmega at Microsoft's BizSpark hub

If you watch relationships in the movies, they never show you the four years after the marriage or the romance. That’s because that part is not easy. It’s not fun. It is sometimes hard as hell. But if you want that product to work, feel free to feel defeat.

Making a culture is hard. A movement requires constant energy, constant communication. It’s the perpetual running start.

BizSpark saw a lot of genius on display over the weekend. Over the coming weeks, we are going to be highlighting that genius with interviews, videos and podcasts.

Welcome to your culture, Startup Heroes.

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