(Note: DemoCamp Ottawa returns this week, so I decided to post an article I originally wrote back in 2009 about my first experience with various tech ‘camps’ around town in Ottawa.)

Last week was interesting; I did something I haven’t done since my teenage years, I headed back to camp. Mind you it wasn’t the overnight camp we traditionally think of. This was the kind of camp that usually happens in the software space, where grown-ups collaborate on ideas and applications. Last week’s camps both happened in downtown Ottawa.

StartUp Camp

Let me first tell you about the larger of the two, StartUp Camp, held over the weekend of Oct 23-25th. You can read the blogs about it by the Rick O’Conner of The Ottawa Network, or by Ottawa tech blogger John Duff. But StartUp Camp was essentially a low-commitment way of experiencing start-up life by throwing together a collection of engineers, financiers, marketers and entrepreneurs. It started on Friday night with entrepreneurs pitching ideas for businesses, trying to get everyone else to ‘pick’ their idea and form a team around it.

I decided to join a team looking at a new use for Digital Picture Frames, an idea my teammate Randy Whitcroft has detailed on his site. In working sessions over the next two days, our 5-person team applied our own expertise to the idea to flesh out a business case. After many hours and several passionate arguments, we delivered our final business model Sunday afternoon in front of a jury of accomplished veterans in the local startup community. We didn’t win the $5000 prize aimed to jump-start the most promising company but I think we were all glad to have experienced it.

Demo Camp Ottawa

A few days before that, I’d been involved in DemoCamp Ottawa 12, held October 19 at the Clocktower pub. The night is a giant show-n-tell by people who present either a prototype product or a fun project and exchange positive feedback with the audience. The individual presentations at DemoCamp 12 have been well covered by other local bloggers; but you may want visit the sites of those brave souls who presented:

Treena Grevatt: Betidings

Darcy Whyte: The Squirrel

76 Design: Battletwip

Chris Schmitt: Twegather

Roy Periera: Shiny Ads

Reflections on the camp experience

Though the events were quite different, I can sum them up by their similarities. I found it interesting how our team quickly formed. Our team wasn’t formed by executive placement experts, rather a pseudo-random process. Even so, within a short time we’d developed communication styles and functional team dynamics. That’s pretty much all you need to start a company, people. That’s basically it.

I was surprised by how creatively we tackled the problems and by how deeply we drilled down into the business model. But the flipside of this is that we sometimes got too far down into the details, forming opinions about the market that may not be valid. It soon becomes hard to maintain objectivity and you find yourself dismissing external research or viewpoints that don’t support your viewpoint. Startup Camp’s mentors were able to provide course corrections, but in real-world situations, management has to guard against this dangerous tendency.

DemoCamp gave me a glimpse of others who are inside startups. They’d gone through the actual process that Startup Camp simulates. They fearlessly displayed beta (and even alpha) versions of what they’d been sweating over for a few weeks or months, earning admiration from most of us in the room.

It was fun to briefly explore the child-like fun that the camp atmosphere gives. These events are part of a serious effort to bolster high-tech in Ottawa, a sector which (along with the economy in general) has had a brutal year. I came away very encouraged by both events and would recommend them to those that are debating taking the plunge. I see very bright prospects for those in Ottawa who jump into these events, most come away brimming with creative juice to pour back into their vocations.

image credit: Glenn Schmelzle (with thanks to Treena Grevatt)