Six Lessons For Startups From Comedy Hack Day At MIT
Like any hackathon, this one started with a brainstorming session and 24 hours to make the ideas happen. But unlike others, these projects are jokes.
By: John Brownlee
A social network for flossers. Foursquare for farts. A 3-D printer for dirt.
After an initial brainstorming session in which a number of ideas are pitched, teams form and are given 24 hours to make their ideas into a reality, then show off their prototypes to a panel of judges. It’s a lot of fun, but is it more than that? The answer, perhaps, is maybe. Here are six lessons any startup can learn from Comedy Hack Day.
The grand prizewinner of Comedy Hack Day was Truth About Humanity, an incredible app that generated a foul-mouthed tirade on any subject of your choosing. In a heady swirl of animated GIFs, under construction graphics and Comic Sans, Truth About Humanity is like a search engine inside the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic. Querying the site about germs, for example, a user might find out that the micro-organisms were the secret agent of every government on Earth, while a search for dolphins would reveal the mammals' bottlenosed chattering to be the secret tongue of the Rosicrucian sect.
The idea was undeniably excellent, but the prototype sloppy, featuring a design that would have been more at home on a 1999 GeoCities website than on the modern web. What put Truth About Humanity over the edge was its duo of killer pitchmen, Matt Klinman and Benjamin Apple. The duo stormed up on the stage like the wild-eyed maniacs their app was trying to emulate. Over the course of the next five minutes, they bellowed obscenities and screamed conspiracies until, inevitably, they had won the hearts of both audience and judges alike.
You can try Truth For Humanity for yourself here.
Sometimes putting a cute face on your brand can really pay off.
Consider My Real Puppy, a game which aims to teach children about the nature of mortality and the inexorable approach of Death by giving them their very own virtual puppy. This puppy--an adorable Corgi mix--can be fed and pet, temporarily reversing the slide of the canine's happiness and health metrics as they plunge towards 0%. But keeping your puppy happy and fed isn't enough: just as in real life, calamity can strike at any moment. In My Real Puppy, there's a roughly one in ten chance that when a child checks back on their pet later, the puppy will have mysteriously died, the only clue to what happened being a trail of mysterious muddy bootprints.
Although My Real Puppy didn't win a prize at Comedy Hack Day, the panel of judges all agreed that masking the leering rictus of Death itself behind the fuzzy face of an adorable mascot was an inspired touch that really helped sell the brand to a wider audience.
People are getting bored with apps. The new hotness is wearable tech that integrates hardware and software into a single package. No wonder one of the big hits of the show was FatBit, an anti-activity tracker.
Using an integrated waistband sensor, FatBit tracks activities such as gorging upon pizza, chewing on a pat of butter, amorphously lying on the couch, or just panting and wheezing. Depending on how many "Fattivity points" you rack up, FatBit hands out award badges that can be shared on Facebook (Sweatpants, Sofa Kong, Cake Eater, and so on) as well as Foursquare-style titles, such as Mayor of Dunkin Donuts or Governor of New Jersey.
One of the most well received demos shown at Comedy Hack Day was for the Pizzicato Privvy. A futuristic toilet made by three MIT students, the Pizzicato Privy translated the sound of methane exploding from the pursed lips of the human sphincter into a series of classical "movements" featuring oboes, bassoons, flutes and more.
Pulsing with the glow of some of the best technology that MIT could muster, the hardware itself was cutting-edge, and the on-stage performance (conducted with a handheld fart machine) resulted in roars of laughter. Unfortunately, the judges never could quite get beyond the product's perceived obviousness.
"A bunch of guys hauling a toilet up on stage and making fart noises just seems like the most stereotypical thing anyone could do at a Comedy Hack Day," said Comedy Hack Day judge Josh Gondelman. No matter how good the Pizzicato Privy's demonstration was, no one could quite escape the notion that they had seen and heard it all before.
The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Upworthy... all of these companies have proven that "clickbait" headlines are a fantastic way to drive traffic to the content of your website. But what if you took content out of the equation? That was the idea behind Clistrbait, a website that would generate an infinite number of tantalizingly oblique headlines without a single line of content to back it up.
Unfortunately, Clickstrbait's idea man, Matt Klinman, couldn't code. Luckily, his charisma and confidence in the project allowed Klinman to garner the support of Comedy Hack Day sponsor Squarespace, who tasked one of their own engineers to help make Clickstrbait a reality.
The end result? A website the endlessly generates clickbait-worth headline and image captions: for example, a photo of Paula Deen with the headline "NEW BREASTS?!?," or a picture of Justin Bieber with the headline "HELPING THE POOR... TO DIE." Clickstrbait is, according to Klinman, an "infinite loop of reptilian self-pleasure." You can check it out here.
Anything goes at Comedy Hack Day, but if there is a major lesson to be taken from the event, it's that it is important to stay positive. In fact, it's one of the guiding principles of the Hackathon, according to Cultivated Wit founder and Comedy Hack Day emcee Baratunde Thurston.
"When we first started Comedy Hack Day, we got some frustrated dudes who came in with some negative ideas for apps," says Thurston, citing the example of a proposed social network aimed at people who wanted to urinate on people and places they hate. "But it's very hard to sustain that kind of negative energy as part of a team."
That was certainly true at this Comedy Hack Day. More negative ideas pitched at the beginning of the hackathon--for example, a website devoted to telling people they were jerks--tended to have difficulty attracting team members, and fell flat when presented on stage. "There's a big difference between saying a joke into a microphone, and building it into something tangible," says Thurston.
That's a good lesson for anyone, no matter who they are: negativity is inherently destructive, and you can't build anything, let alone a good product or team, off its back.