For 30 straight hours this weekend, my co-founder, Matt, and I competed in AngelHack (the biggest hackathon in the nation) for $75,000 in prizes, and the potential for recognition of our startup, Rummage.
The product we built, SnapStore.me, placed first on the West Coast, and second overall:
We wanted to share our experience with other hackers/entrepreneurs, and offer some advice on how to make the most of your next hackathon.
Why do a hackthon?
First of all, why would you subject yourself to a grueling 30 hrs of work to do a hackathon? For us, there were three big reasons:
- Get our names out – placing in a competition like AngelHack gives you instant credibility and makes it much easier to start conversations with people who can help your startup/career (which in our case is Rummage). For example, it made it much easier for Jason Calacanis to hook us up with tickets to Launch Festival :)
- Network and learn – these events draw people from the whole spectrum of the startup world: from the talented and creative hackers and hustlers who compete, to the savvy, experienced investors who judge and give office hours. You will learn a lot from everyone you talk to. If the only thing we walked away with was the connections we made, we would have still considered the effort a success.
- Have fun – win or lose, we wanted to work on something interesting that would complement our startup’s main product, Rummage, and let us play with cool technologies we’ve wanted to try.
Preparation is Key
Hackathon rules vary, but AngelHack encouraged teams to plan their ideas beforehand. We thought of our idea about a week before the competition, and drew up several important screens/flows the day before the competition. Here’s a sketch we did of our homepage:
Figuring out the nuances of what you want to build before you’re on the clock is an enormous advantage.
Bring sharp tools
UI – Twitter’s Bootstrap library makes it a snap to build very clean UIs without being a designer, and we’ve used it for almost every project we’ve built since it was released. But Bootstrap’s not a secret any more, and we knew that many other teams would be using it too. To stand apart, we tweaked several of the default styles including the default black of the nav bar. We’d recommend becoming familiar with Bootstrap, and learning how to use Chrome’s web inspector or the Firebug inspector to let you quickly determine which styles to override.
Deployment – it’s much more impressive if the hack you do is live and accessible to anyone on the web. Heroku is an incredible service that makes this very simple. Whenever we start a project, SnapStore.me included, one of the very first things we do is deploy it to Heroku. Getting through that first release cycle sets you up for fast feedback, less uncertainty, and more productivity. Heroku is known for being a Rails provider, but they also support other Ruby frameworks, Node.js, Clojure, Java, Python, and Scala. We definitely recommend getting familiar with Heroku, even if you’re already comfortable with sysadmin work.
Framework – if you want to build a web app quickly, then using a web framework is a no-brainer. Play to the framework’s strengths and don’t be afraid to cut corners. What you’re building at a hackathon is an MVP – the smallest possible representation of your product in a fully-functional form. The code doesn’t need to be elegant, and it doesn’t need to scale – it just has to work. One cool feature of Rails that we took advantage of was ActiveRecord::Store, which was released with Rails 3.2. This feature made us practically schemaless – we ran one migration per model, and just changed the store’s attributes whenever we needed to add/remove/tweak something.
Bring a team
Hackathons can be a great way to meet new people and have a good time, but if you want to win, it helps to have the team chemistry and a known division of labor in place when you arrive. If you don’t know anyone, go anyway, and try to meet people who you’d want work with in the future.
Hacking’s a lot more fun when you’re comfortable. Here are a few practical/hygienic tips:
- Eat smart – avoid the candy and carbs, and stay hydrated. Energy drinks are your friend.
- Bring a toothbrush & floss – brushing my teeth (even just once) made me feel fresh. It was also a good way to signal to my brain that it was time for a new day of productivity.
- Nap – there’s no shame in grabbing some shuteye. We found some couches and snuck in an hour nap each which definitely energized us. If we’d lived closer, we might have gone home for a few hours instead.
- Bring earbuds – this one’s a must, and pays off in spades when the DJ running the Turntable.fm room kicks off a dub step marathon at 2am.
Take Time to Network
Talk to as many people as you can, and try to make introductions for others. The more friends you have cheering for you when you pitch, the better :) We learned a lot of very useful stuff when we were there, both on the technical and business sides of things.
- Thomas Korte, one of the judges, walked the floor on the first day of the hackathon, and held an office hours on the second day. We took the advice he gave us, and it made SnapStore.me a much better, more realistic product. He also mentioned us to an AngelHack attendee who then introduced us to someone very familiar with the space that Rummage is in. This connection alone made it worth our attending.
- Firebase was a sponsor, and their employees, including the founders, were out in full-force for the entire event. They cheered all the teams on as we worked, supplied all the beer, and were generally just very cool to have hanging out. Andrew told us about his startup’s early days, told us some dos-and-don’ts on how to grow Rummage, and live demoed Firebase’s upcoming API on our laptops. Chris kindly supplied us with an awesome photo of the Firebase t-shirt for us to use in our demo :)
There are LOTS more people we met who we’ll be keeping touch with, and look forward to seeing again at other events.
Understand how you’ll be judged
If you understand the structure of the competition and the audience you’re pitching, you’ll have a good sense of how to prioritize your features. AngelHack’s judges were mostly angels and VCs, so we tried to build something that we could see turning into a real business when the competition was over.
The pitch is everything
The competition really comes down to how you present your product. For better or worse, the judges probably won’t see the sweat and tears behind the code you wrote. And 90 seconds to demo any product doesn’t leave much room for error. The demo has to look good on-screen, and you have to make sure it’s easy for the judges to see what’s unique and valuable about it. There’s little time for mic handoffs, and there’s no time for the demo to break.
What you should do depends on who your judges are, but we tried to give a clear and concise explanation of what we built, why it’s impressive, and why it’ll turn into a good company.
AngelHack was judged in three rounds
The twenty regional finalists were decided with a 90-second narrated video demo. The most important thing to do with the video is prove you built something interesting, and make the judges want to learn more. Before filming it, we polished the design, made sure it was functional, and wrote a script to clearly articulate the value of a SnapStore. You can see the video here:
The ten regional finalists and overall regional winners were decided with a 90-second live pitch to judges, followed by 2-minutes of Q&A. To prepare for Round 2, we practiced reiterating the most important points from our video, queued up the main features we wanted to demo in different browser tabs, and worked through some Q&A. After the winners were announced, we made sure to talk to the judges, and understand what they liked and disliked about our pitch.
The five national grand prize winners were decided with a 90-second live pitch to a new set of judges on the next day (thankfully after a whole night’s sleep!), followed by 2-minutes of Q&A. We spent the day preparing by revising our pitch based on feedback from Round 2, and fixing some bugs and design issues.
AngelHack was an awesome experience. We’re stoked that we could execute on our plan, build a product that we’re proud of, and open up opportunities for our company, Rummage. We also scored some sweet prizes – much thanks to Neil Mansilla from Mashery for the Jambox, Heroku for all the credits, and the investors who will be taking the time to meet with us over the next few weeks.
We also have to thank Greg Gopman, Nick Frost, and the rest of the team behind AngelHack for putting on such a great event, as well as the sponsors, and all the participants for making it a super time.
We hope this post encourages all hackers/entrepreneurs to compete in and win a hackathon.
eBay has struggled with poor-quality product images for years. Despite many sellers who take great care to upload professional photos, small, low resolution photos (sometimes covered with text), litter search results pages far too often. Fortunately, it finally looks like eBay is taking aggressive steps to turn that around.
Today eBay announced that starting on July 2nd, eBay hosted-photos will be free for sellers on all listing types (up to 12 per listing). Previously sellers paid between $0.15 and $1.00 to post multiple pictures. These pricing changes mean that there will no longer be a financial barrier to include as many images as possible, especially since images play a large role in increasing sell-through rates and selling price.
In addition, this Fall sellers will be required to adhere to much stricter photo guidelines. These aggressive guidelines should raise the quality of images on eBay dramatically. It looks like eBay taking a two step approach: (1) encourage sellers to post more photos, and (2) require those photos to be of high-quality. Here are the four main changes:
1. All listings must have a picture
No more listings with the all-to-familiar gray polaroids. Every listing must have an accompanying photo.
Image: an auction listing without a photo. One can only guess what the “Bird” brooch looks like.
2. Photos will have minimum sizing requirements
Under the new guidelines, photos must be at least 500 pixels on the longest side of the image. Previously, many sellers uploaded small photos that obscured product details and made judging true product quality difficult. This new requirement will ensure that product photos contain details that buyers would have otherwise missed.
3. No borders or “image graffiti”
Many sellers resorted to modifying images to make them stand out more on search result pages. Popular modifications have included adding colored borders to images and overlaying text on top of images. Although in some cases, “image graffiti” helped sellers to brand their listings, it generally resulted in listings that degraded the search experience for buyers.
Image: Sample search results for “USA USA USA!”, I mean…”usb cable”
4. Stock photos will not be allowed for used items (with certain exceptions)
For all used items, stock photos cannot serve as the primary listing image, except for listings in the Books, Movies, Music, and Video Game categories. This means that many more listings will have original pictures. Sellers can no longer simply upload a stock product photo—they must take the time to photograph each used item. Many sellers already adhere to this practice, but it will certainly impact listings in many different categories.
Image: Under the new guidelines, this used bike auction would need to have an original product image.
We’re very excited for these changes and the renewed focus on image quality. By the end of the year, eBay will host one of the largest collections of original high-quality product photography. Listings will be displayed with greater detail, from more angles and views, and without being obscured by gimmicky image manipulations. We feel strongly that product discovery in many categories is best done visually. As these changes roll out, we’ll be able to do an even better job of building beautiful new ways to browse and search eBay listings.
When you use a well-designed product, almost everything about it seems obvious: of course your Dropbox account would live under one folder on your hard drive! A Facebook without a newsfeed wouldn’t be Facebook. You mean Twitter didn’t always have trending topics? Today, we take these features for granted, but they were once non-obvious bets on some combination of the company’s vision of the future and feedback from actual users.
We’re striving for Rummage to bring the same kind of intuitive experience to eBay, and as a small team with limited resources, we have to be very strategic about where we put our energy. So we’ve taken an approach similar to the companies mentioned above, relying heavily on user feedback to guide our design decisions.
We’ve been very happy with the results so far, and want to highlight a recent user-guided improvement to our seller profile cards as an example.
Our First Attempt at Seller Profile Cards
Our seller profile pages feature all of a seller’s listings along with a card summarizing the seller’s reputation on eBay. When Rummage launched, seller profile cards looked like this:
You’ll notice that despite mark-and-roxanne’s highly positive feedback ratio, the card emphasizes the most recent positive and negative reviews equally. We reasoned that since many shoppers scroll through pages of feedback just to read the one or two rare and potentially undeserved negative reviews, we might as well make it easy.
We knew this design would be controversial, but we decided to release it anyway for three reasons:
- It aligned with our vision of giving shoppers quick access to information about eBay sellers, including both positive and negative feedback
- We expected shoppers to get used to seeing sellers’ feedback presented this way, and understand that negative experiences are a possibility when shopping on eBay
- And most importantly: we didn’t want to spend too much time designing the seller profile cards when we were uncertain whether people would actually look at them
We deployed the feature, and promoted the update through our normal channels. We quickly learned some very interesting things:
- The seller profile page turned out to be extremely popular with eBay sellers because it gives them a nice way to present all of their inventory in an attractive, modern interface.
- But the only sellers who shared their profiles were the ones who didn’t have any visible negative feedback.
We reached out to some sellers and confirmed our initial concerns with the feedback card: it presented an unfair, imbalanced representation of the seller’s reputation. Given the popularity of this page and the justifiable reticence of a core part of our user base, we had to do better.
Seller Profile Cards Redesigned
The redesigned seller cards look like this:
See it on Rummage at this URL: http://rumma.ge/sellers/mark-and-roxanne
We’re much happier with this design because it still gives fast access to sellers’ recent positive and negative feedback (just hover your mouse over the feedback meter on any seller profile page), and also communicates the ratio of negative to positive feedback in a compact visual meter. Best of all, our sellers are happier too!
We know from experience that features rarely survive first contact with customers. The lean product development cycle we’ve adopted allows us to go into feature design sessions fully expecting that things will change. This imperfectionist mindset is liberating, and enables us to release rapidly, and learn about our users and business much faster.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this peek at how we do things here. None of this would be possible without our awesome users – so a huge thanks to all of you! As always, please email us any time with whatever feedback you have: email@example.com – we can’t wait to hear from you :)
One of the biggest challenges with using eBay is deciding how to setup your search. With over 20,000 categories and millions of sellers, an un-targeted search will return lots of listings that just aren’t relevant to what you’re looking for.
We thought about what would make things really simple and came up our newest feature: search dropdowns!
With search dropdowns, when you are browsing a category or seller page, you’ll have the option to constrain your search to that sub-category or seller. In the example above, I can chose to search across all eBay categories for “lamps”, or just the Antiques > Periods & Styles > Art Deco sub-category. The two searches return very different results:
Image: Search for “lamps” across eBay
Image: Search for “lamps” in the Antiques > Periods & Styles > Art Deco sub-category
Searching a specific seller’s inventory is just as easy as a category search. Some sellers list thousands of items, making it difficult to manually scroll through everything. Now, on a seller page you’ll have to option to search only that sellers inventory:
Image: Searching on a seller’s page
We hope the new category search dropdowns are useful. As always, we’d love to hear your feedback and comments!
- Matt & Eugene
Rummage has a simple mission: to be the best way to browse eBay. eBay is one of the most vibrant marketplaces in the world, but browsing it can be really tough. With tens of millions of listings from sellers in dozens of countries, it can be really easy to overlook great finds, and to barely scratch the surface of a category you’re interested in. Whether you’re looking for unique, one-of-a-kind items or great deals on everyday products, we built Rummage to help you save time and discover great items.
eBay search is very text-heavy. This can be good for certain types of searches, but for browsing, scanning tiny thumbnails can make it really tough to evaluate quality.
Image: An eBay search for “les paul guitar”—not very visual :(
We decided to take a different approach and really focus on the images that are uploaded with eBay listings. Compare the screenshot of the search results page on Rummage below, to the standard eBay search above—images are much larger, flow across and down the page, and additional listing details are available on mouseover. And we added infinite scroll, so no more clicking ‘next page’ endlessly.
We wanted to make more listing details available very quickly. From the search results page, you can activate a pop-up that displays listing details, similar items, and additional items from the same seller—all without loading a new page. You can also quickly share the listing via Pinterest or Facebook, or email it to yourself or a friend.
Easily Explore Sellers
There are millions of sellers on eBay, each with their own tastes and categories of interest. If you like one item from a seller, chances are good you might be interested in other items they’re selling. To help buyers more easily browse sellers, we built out individual seller pages. Seller pages have detailed information on the seller including feedback counts, and recent positive and negative feedback left. Seller pages also display a seller’s listings in the same easily browsable format you saw on the search pages.
Additional features to come
We hope Rummage will continue to take shape as we receive feedback and suggestions. We know there are about as many ways to search as there are users, but our goal is to raise the bar on discovery and make eBay browsing both painless and even fun again.
- Eugene and Matt