Want to Refocus Your Startup? Hack for a Week Somewhere Completely Different

Most people know and understand that startups are a rough ride. You continuously tweak your ideas, iterate and respond to new insights that make you question not only the way you work, but question your entire product. One of the consequences of this is that teams can get lost doing too many things at once, trying to have a response to everything.

Luckily, there are many things one can do and one of those things is what I call a “hack week”. A hack week is a week for your entire team to work under one roof, in a remote setting that is very different from their day-to-day environment. It offers many advantages and if run properly, has the potential to have a massive impact.

Choosing a project

The first thing to do is to choose the right project. You will want to focus on an existing product, not a new one. You do not want your team to come back to the office with “yet another product” to develop / support so think about some specific parts of your products that could use the attention instead (asking the team is a good place to start).

Once you have chosen a product, you should ensure project allows for enough flexibility in both technology and scope for your team to shape it. By maintaining this flexibility, the team will be able to make the project their own, which is crucial if you really want to see what they are capable of.

The last thing you want to look out for is that you choose a project that you can get to “demo” stage within a week's’ worth of work. This is the one part where office politics get involved: show off just how much you got done whilst you were away for people to really understand why you just spent a week outside of the office.

Whatever you choose to work on, it should be done in an isolated manner, enabling the team to choose the technology stack (or other environment tools, for non-technical teams) they would love to work on without being held back too much with what is already in place.

Focus with no distractions

The biggest difference is that people are in an entirely different setting. The usual distractions are no-more, such as colleagues asking questions simply because you are close. There are no meetings and other distractions, creating the perfect environment for a laser focus. You will probably be surprised at just how much your team can accomplish if everyone is focused on the exact same thing without interruption.

Experiment with new technology

During day-to-day operations, people have little time to experiment. Instead of trying out the latest technologies and tools they tend to stick to what they know because of deadlines and the pressure to meet them. Everyone understands that the time they take learning new tools is time they are not spending directly developing and advancing the product. In a startup environment with pressures to ship this can be even more so than anywhere else.

The hack week is there to change that. Let people think about what technologies they always wanted to use and then try them. If everyone in the team tries out different things, you are bound to find a few gems of which you will continue to reap the rewards far beyond that one week, once you are back in the office.

Allow your team to mix it up

Some startups run a tighter ship than others but whichever way your startup is run, a hack week can be used to try things differently. Let your team co-organize, change roles and ask people how they would ideally participate in the project. Would a developer like to design for once? Would a product manager like to develop? Find what people really want to try and then just let them do it without looking over their shoulder. You will be really surprised by the result.

Team chemistry will get tested

When your team spends an entire week under the same roof, connections are made that go far beyond the day-to-day office interactions. When push comes to shove, it might well be those connections that make the difference between keeping the team together or crumbling when the company goes through rough times.

Go to a remote and an affordable location

AirBnB (www.airbnb.com) and other services have made it really affordable to spend a week in a place that feels completely out-of-this-world. It is possible to spend a week with 11 people for under $200 / head in a place with a private pool, less than 10 minutes from the beach (I know, as we just did). If that’s not your thing, try the mountains or something else. The beauty is that it’s all there and possible today. The luxurious resorts that used to cost a lot are now available through the sharing economy at a fraction of the price. The right place can add a lot of inspiration to the team, blurring the lines between work and play.

Convince the boss

Unless you are small enough to take the entire company on a hack week, you are going to have to make this work within an existing structure. Some people can be sceptical of taking a team away for a week, but there is a very simple argument that should tip the scales in your favour: simply guarantee that the whole team will be available during normal office hours on all the usual channels (slack, skype, phone, email, etc.). For the hack week to be really effective, it shouldn’t have to impact the rest of the company.

The last argument that could come up would be that the company thinks it would be an unnecessary expense. Although I think this can be argued (using all the arguments above), there is another solution if that fails: ask your team if they are prepared to foot the bill themselves. On top of being hugely productive, this is a very fun and engaging week for the team. As long as you are able to find a fun location in an interesting context and at an affordable price, people quickly see the value in that and are excited to be a part of it.

Some learnings

Having run these hack weeks a couple of times now, I would say the following are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Focus on a project that you can actually ship at the end of the week

    1. Then cut it in half. As it will always take longer than you initially think.

  2. If you can, go to a place where food and accommodation are affordable. This makes the stay and going out for lunch or dinner a lot more fun.

  3. Make sure to ask for wifi speeds. It is the one thing that can ruin your hack week entirely.

  4. If you can, take either the entire weekend before or after on top of the 5 usual working days. This will enable you to explore some of the surroundings whilst focussing the week on the project you came for.