Winning at TechCrunch Disrupt

Last weekend was a weekend full of serendipity and life lessons. I flew out to NYC from San Francisco to visit two of my best friends: Amr Saleh and Motaz Elewa. Both Amr and Motaz were visiting NYC from Egypt to showcase a new product they'd been developing together at TechCrunch Disrupt.

Amr and Motaz were both arriving late Sunday and I arrived Saturday morning. My plan was to catch up with a few friends until they arrive. What actually happened though, was slightly different.

While I was taking a cab from the airport to Queens to meet one of my friends, I was looking up events that are happening in NYC that weekend. I remembered then that TechCrunch Disrupt holds a hackathon the weekend before the conference, and that it's big. I checked out their website and, of course, the hackathon was fully sold out.

The hackathon was going to start in less than an hour, and a voice in me told me to go and try to get in, despite not having a ticket. Another voice told me to not bother, because it's a very popular hackathon and it's sold out - unlikely for me to make it.

As I was grabbing lunch with my friend, I decided to listen to the hustler in me. I quickly a took a cab to the hackathon, a to the hackathon I went. I told them that I took a red eye flight from San Francisco and I thought I had a ticket to the hackathon. With enough begging, they let me in.

Lesson #1: Ignore the inner voice that hold you back!

There was very little risk in going to the hackathon and attempting to get in. Any inner voice that tells me that I shouldn't try is simply afraid of rejection. On that note, there's a quote from Seth Godin that I came across that I really liked:

If the only cost of being rejected is the experience of being rejected, it's a foolish compromise to err on the side of doing only the things that are guaranteed to work.

Seth Godin - What to do when it's your turn

I formed a team with Isma and Christopher. Erica Lee, a friend and former couchsurfer of mine, learned that I was at the hackathon from Facebook and also decided to join.

Lesson #2: Have clear goals.

When Erica joined the team, we were developing an idea around event discovery. The first question Erica posed when she joined the team was, what were our goals? We all mumbled something along the lines of "we're hear to have fun and do something cool." I felt a bit unsatisfied when I said that, and I think that's partially because the answer wasn't immediately obvious to me when I it was asked.

I knew I also wanted to win, but I don't know why I didn't say that. Maybe it's because I have this noble thought that aiming to win shouldn't be a goal, but should be an artifact of you doing what you want to do.

Erica didn't shy away from telling us that her goal was to win, and we didn't disagree. I knew that winning would feel good, and I didn't see why I shouldn't set it as my main goal. Moving forward, I'll be sure to be a lot more clear and more bullish about what my goals are out of an experience.

Lesson #3: Understand what people want.

Erica suggested that we look into the prizes offered by sponsors. A quick scan of the prizes attracted us towards Verizon, who were the only sponsor that offered prizes for the top 3 teams as opposed to the top team. We realized our probability of winning is significantly higher if we were to focus our efforts on their prize.

We went to the Verizon booth and chatted with them to build a personal relationship. We asked them about their APIs, how it's used, and what kind of projects they're looking to see. I was surprised to see the breadth of applications of their APIs to be honest. We ended up building a solution for car insurance agents that help them better understand where the liability in an accident is.

I have to give credit to Erica. She's great at understanding what people want, and that's a very valuable skill. She knew that these sponsors are looking for publicity, and that the winning hacks will need to be "cool" and show to the world that the sponsor's APIs can be used to solve "cool" and interesting problems.

That's exactly what we optimized on delivering, and nothing else.

Lesson #4: It's going to suck.

There were at least 3 moments that night where I would've surely quit if I were working on my own. I remember it being 1am, everyone else on the team had left, and I was working by myself and no code had been written yet. I was super tired given that I took a red eye flight the night before, and I really craved just calling it quits and getting a good night's sleep. It sucked. I pushed myself through, and I need to learn to push myself through things when I am uncomfortable. There's no way around that.

We're capable of creating work that matters only if we're willing to be uncomfortable while we do it.

Seth Godin - What to do when it's your turn

Lesson #5: The end feels amazing.

Getting what you want after pushing through the discomfort felt amazing, and I felt that I became a better person given what I've been through last weekend.

At this point of my life, I am hungry to hustle, hungry to push myself forward, hungry to try new things, and hungry to make a meaningful difference. I am even hungry for rejection. I am genuinely fine with that. What I am no longer ok with is to not try at all and to keep following the inner voice in my head that tells me not to do things.



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