Protohack
24 September, 2015
Protohack
Last weekend I went to a hackathon in San Francisco called Protohack. In the former Soviet Union, people tend to think of hacking as stealing money from bank accounts via cleaver use of computers, and hackers are the people who do that. In San Francisco and most of the west, the term has a different meaning. It means somebody who uses computer to make things easier or do things faster in a creative way. A "life hack" is some way to make your life easier or to do something in a new way, it doesn't have to involve computers at all.

People in Georgia sometimes don't trust people they don't know and this whole event is based ion meeting new people and immediately working intensely with them. It requires a great deal of trust and concentration in a way that rarely happens in Georgia.

Traditionally when people want to do something big, particularly start a business, they ask around for advice, they may have to buy some services or other types of help and then try to get a loan. Whoever gives them the loan has a great deal of power in the transaction. Starting a business back then was not easy, and the more wild and innovative the business, the tougher it was. But now the barriers of entry are so low to setting up an app, that many new businesses that aren't even connected with an app, start with an app and then move to the other aspects of the business. An app is cheap to set up and some of them, a very few, are wildly successful and make millions. So for investors, they are much more likely to fund them because they are cheap and there is at least some chance that they will make tons of money.

So not only is business is changing but how people start businesses is changing. Before the basic idea was important because no matter what the idea was, it was equally difficult to start something. People worried about their idea getting "stolen". But now, with technology in general, and apps specifically, the technology is so easy to use even for nontechnical people that the the focus is not on how unique the idea is but how quickly the idea can be realized. The pace of change is such that by the time the idea is realized, the whole
process of information gathering and actual purchasing by consumers will probably have changed anyway.

Protohack worked in the following way: people sign up and pay fifty dollars to participate. The hosting organization is non-profit and gets partial sponsorship from various software vendors but they still need to pay for venue, food and drink, among other things. Any person can sign up, anybody with an idea for an app, a programmer, web designers, marketing people and sales people, or simply anybody who is curious. There is a nonobligatory six to nine pm event on Friday afternoon with pizza and beer. At that event people chat and introduce themselves to the rest of the group for thirty seconds, say their name, what they want to do, if they have an idea or are looking for a team. If they have an idea they say what types of people they are looking for, if they just want to be on a team working on somebody else's idea, they say what they have to offer and a bit about their professional experience. There were about fifty people present.

On Saturday at nine am, about one hundred people show up. They have coffee and chat. Then after an introduction by the organizer, individuals introduce themselves and talk about their skills, interests or if they have one, their idea. After that for about an hour people mingle and groups form informally. The ideal is groups of three to five. But there are some groups of one or two and some of six or seven. A few people with ideas don't get a group because people aren't that interested, so they join another group to work on a different idea, or they simply prototype alone. Then there is some training on how to prototype and the organizers about the criterion of judgement. There are some successful entrepreneurs who act as mentors and during the day each team can meet with the mentors and talk about their pitch or about their idea itself for ten minutes.

In the evening, each team pitches for ninety seconds and the top five get a chance to pitch for five minutes to the panel. The winners are chosen and get some prizes but more importantly if they win, investors take note and there are usually some investors around. But more importantly, people have made very useful contacts, those with ideas have developed them. The official event is finished by ten pm but people will often continue discussing how they can then keep working together or work on other projects.

So would this work in Georgia? It might. I know many people, mainly young people who are interested in starting new businesses and would enjoy the process. But there are some cultural barriers. People in Georgia sometimes don't trust people they don't know and this whole event is based ion meeting new people and immediately working intensely with them. It requires a great deal of trust and concentration in a way that rarely happens in Georgia. Also there is usually an investment aspect of this. I don't know if there are that many investors in Georgia who will invest in new businesses based on prototypes. Some times it seems like people are either protecting or stealing ideas, with not too much sharing. And finally, I am not sure if the government supports this. Western European cities hold these all the time in the hopes of creating new businesses in their cities, but this was not a priority in the previous government or this one. Maybe the government doesn't need to be involved. But if there was a Protohack in Georgia, would people show up and know how to participate? Would anything useful come out of it?

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