About six months ago, we started doing something called Fire Starter. It's a collaborative way for startups to get make substantial traction in a small amount of time. The idea is simple, and it's been working really well, so I thought I would share how it works.

We hold a Fire Starter session about once a month. Each session has between 6-8 people in it, all of whom have a startup that is in various stages of development. Our group has been pretty interdisciplinary; we've had developers, designers, writers, and even a nutritionist join us. The specific roles aren't important. What's important is that everyone has their own project that they are passionate about and diligently working on.

One of the startups is selected as being the focus of the session. They present a problem they are having to the group. There are no constraints on the problem—it's whatever is top of mind. Some problems we've tackled have included:

  • I'm having trouble promoting my product
  • I'm having difficulty getting visitors to convert
  • I'm having trouble designing a new feature or capability
  • I'm having trouble planning all of the things that have to happen when I launch a new substantial feature

Once the problem is articulated, we spend an hour discussing it. This discussion is visualized in real time; someone takes visual notes (on a big sheet of paper) of everything that's said. The goal is to ensure everyone at the table understands the problem. It's inevitable that people come up with potential design ideas or solutions to the problems—"what if you did this?"—and those are written on post-it notes.

When an hour is up, the real fun begins. Everyone in the group identifies what they intend to do for the remainder of the day. There are only two rules:

  1. Whatever you do has to directly address the problem that's been articulated
  2. Whatever you produce has to be completed by the end of the day

And then, we work, for about seven hours. We don't break for lunch; whichever startup has the focus will also pay for lunch, delivered.

People who know how to code typically decide to code something—a new feature, a landing page, a proof of concept. People who know how to write typically write something—a press release, a blog post, a series of promotional emails. People who design, design; and so on. It's natural that people fall back on their core competency, and because the group is interdisciplinary, the output is extremely varied.

After seven hours, we call time, and we discuss what's been produced. Because of Rule 2, the focus is on artifact production, and because of the time constraint and the emphasis on completion, these artifacts are immediately actionable.

Some of the things that have been produced in our Fire Starter sessions have included:

  • A functional prototype of a twitter scraper and visualization for a particular set of hash tags and regular expressions
  • A press release, a cover letter template, and a list of fifty appropriate media contacts and email addresses
  • A landing page, optimized for search and analytics
  • A series of blog posts on a number of different topics, queued up and ready to post over a few weeks
  • The creation of an .epub and .mobi, based on an original print book

We make the session fun. We play music, and drink beer, and joke a lot. And so it becomes a social event as much as a work activity. Because of the public nature of the session, there's a positive peer pressure quality to the work, too: no one wants to be empty handed when the day is over.

If you do the math (as a few people have done when they hear about this), it may not be worth your time. You'll volunteer to work on four projects—that's 32 hours of your time—before you get your day in the spotlight. If you think of yourself like a machine, and calculate 32 hours of lost productivity at $100/hour, that's $3200 you could just go spend on a PR campaign. I suppose that's objectively true.

But you aren't a machine, and there are a few unique benefits to the Fire Starter approach. First, running a startup can be really, really lonely. It's extremely exciting to have eight people focused on your problem, to be the center of attention, and to have substantial artifacts produced at the end of the day. It makes you feel productive, and that feeling can literally fuel weeks of additional personal productivity.

Next, it's a way to tap into insights and ideas that you and your team might not have or even fully appreciate. As an example, most of the startups I mentor don't have a team member with a marketing background, and so they don't do much marketing—and they don't think about things in terms of marketing. A Fire Starter session with a few marketing participants will provide a way to augment your skillset, if even for just a day, and to try things out without a large financial investment. More importantly, it will provide a new intellectual frame for the work you are doing. It's a way of looking at your startup in a new way.

Finally, and I wasn't exactly expecting this, I've found a huge amount of personal satisfaction in putting aside my own problems for a day and focusing on a brand new topic. I thought it would feel like a waste of time; it's actually been personally gratifying to work on new ideas in a time-boxed, creative, and fun environment. It's refreshing; even though I'm brain-dead when I'm done with a Fire Starter session, I find myself wanting to go work another eight hours on my own projects.

Give it a shot, and let me know how it goes.

Originally posted on Wed, 02 May 2012 12:33:52