If you're an Indie Hacker and you haven't been living under a rock for the past few days, you'll be aware that @patwalls, @arminulrich and @feloidea are organizing an online live-streaming event called the 24 Hour Startup Challenge on November 17.

The basic idea is this: You launch a startup in 24 hours and you live-stream the entire process in unison with all the other participants. As of this writing, the 24-hour challenge organizers have blasted past their initial goal of having 50 challengers and are now at 329 (and counting).

That's 329 people that have committed to spending their next Saturday to building and launching a startup idea and live-streaming the entire process!

Admittedly, it sounds a bit strange. How can you possibly start a startup in 24 hours? And even if you hack together a web app, it can’t possibly be represent something meaningful -- can it?

How this all came about

The response

A lot of people (including myself) are super excited by this idea and have expressed their support on Twitter:

But not everyone is excited. I’ve read plenty of tweets and comments where people are saying that this doesn’t constitute a “startup.” @levelsio received flack for calling his projects "startups" during his original 12-month challenge and @patwalls was faced with the same criticism after his live-stream:

If you’re just excited about hundreds of people getting together and making stuff while imposing a deadline on themselves, then perhaps it doesn’t matter who uses what label. Startup shmartup -- you can just enjoy the spectacle.

If, however, you’re like me and you’re interested in understanding precisely why 329 individuals (many of them highly qualified software engineers) are giving up a free Saturday to build a “startup”, then it probably matters what it is that they believe they are signing up for.

Different definitions of “startup”

To start off with: it’s not self-evident what a startup is supposed to mean. There have been different definitions floating around. Here are three notable ones (but also notice how these definitions are less than a decade old) from well-known advisors to startups:

A startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty. in 2010 (Author of the Lean Startup)

-- Eric Reiss in 2010 (Author of the Lean Startup)

A startup is a company designed to grow fast… Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.

-- Paul Graham in 2012 (Founder of Y-Combinator)

A startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

-- Steve Blank in 2010 (Author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany)

@levelsio anticipated some backlash to his use of the word “startup” in his original 12-month challenge post:

I expect many people to go mental seeing me use the term "startup" for this. But actually I think that's what it is. A startup doesn't have to be a world changing high impact $1B+ company from the start.

He goes on to say:

By just doing something you position yourself ahead of most people already, and you'll probably do the wrong thing. But that's not the point. You'll figure out what you need to do by exposing yourself to the world (and its market forces).

I think Pieter Levels hits the nail on the head with regards to the benefits that are derived from exposing yourself to the “market forces” (more on that later). He goes on to offer an alternative definition for a startup by combining two of the above definitions:

A startup delivers a new product and grows it fast.

I don’t think Pieter’s redefinition solves our problems here. What is worth noting, however, is that all the individuals above felt the need to (re-)define the word startup.

Why is that?

I would argue because it’s an evolving term. People doing startups are pushing the boundaries of how we think about things. It’s not surprising they end up pushing the boundaries of our definitions as well.

Eric and Steve’s definitions seem like they could conceivably include someone’s 24-hour project. Paul Graham’s definition seems to contain a VC-bias towards growth.

Designing a company for high growth may make sense for investors, but as Moz founder Rand Fishkin also argues in his new book, it doesn’t necessarily make sense for the founders or for the sustainability of the business.

So the definition of the word startup is evolving and some of the older definitions may have been too VC-biased. Where does that leave us?

The stretching of the word startup

Few would disagree that live-streaming yourself for 24 hours while you hack together a web app at home constitutes the same thing as investing multiple years of your life slogging away at a VC funded Silicon Valley startup. Those are two distinctly different activities.

What's happening here is that the definition of "startup" is being stretched. It’s being used to describe what a silicon valley entrepreneur does over the course of 5 years as well as what a Ukrainian digital nomad in Bali does on a Saturday.

It’s worth noting, however, that the definition seems to be getting stretched primarily in one direction. It’s being stretched towards smaller teams, smaller budgets, and smaller time investments.

One of the main reasons it’s being stretched is because it’s becoming progressively easier to do by yourself with a smaller time investment the things conventional startups used to need larger amounts of money, people and time, to accomplish.

Tools to help you conceive, build, host and launch digital products have continued to become more powerful, more plentiful, more affordable and their barriers to entry have continued to drop. Indie Hackers is a manifestation of this trend, but so are the microconf and micro SaaS movements.

This trend seems to be converging towards $0 startup costs.

Nowadays, as evidenced by, for instance, @levelio’s Nomadlist, sustainable and scalable businesses can (and are) created by solo founders. They may not fit into some of the older definitions or adhere to a VC’s desire for exponential growth, but it’s hard to see why these wouldn’t constitute successful startups.

As you can see in the revenue graph above for NomadList (courtesy of @levelsio’s open startup initiative) this is presumably not the type of growth Paul Graham would have liked to see in a startup.
 

So the definition of startup is being stretched. To what point? Perhaps a new definition will emerge. Perhaps with the advent of decentralized autonomous organizations, we can remove the human component from the definition of startups entirely. Perhaps a startup should be thought of as something more along the lines of “a temporary effort to deliver a new product and find a sustainable and scalable business model.”

However far the definition gets stretched. It still leaves us with other questions. Let's say you take a generous interpretation of these definitions and you accept that what an individual maker can accomplish may constitute a startup. That still begs the question, how much can one really accomplish in just 24 hours?

Is 24 hours too short to do something meaningful?

The complexity of what you can build in 24 hours is certainly limited. The trend in tech is such that what you’re able to do in a day increases every year -- but it’s still limited. Certainly when you compare it with what you’re able to do with a longer time horizon.

Some have weighed in saying they think 24 hour challenge does not leave enough time to accomplish anything of meaning:

I think these detractors miss the point, however, and I think there are two points to be made.

Point 1: Creativity loves constraints

Research into creativity has borne out that (paradoxically) constraints can actually promote the creative process.

Stanford professor Bob Sutton has the following to say on the topic:

On first blush, it may seem that imagination will flourish when “anything goes.” Yet virtually all creative feats are accomplished by people, teams, and organizations that face challenging and immovable constraints.

He goes on to say:

It isn’t a question of whether there will be constraints; it is a question of whether people have the will and skill to find ways around the constraints and transform them into virtues.

One area where the time-constrained startup has already been the source for something novel is the discovery that a <7 day startup live stream becomes watchable.

Where few would consider tuning in to a live feed for a 1 month startup challenge, many are now tuning into 24hr (or shorter) streams. The time constraint is introducing new ways for outsiders to interact and follow along with the process of creating a startup. Another example: @patwalls got help from his viewers to code certain parts of youdontneedWP during his 24-hour stream.

Constraints are widely recognized in the tech industry as a tactic to promote creativity -- It’s part of the reason hackathons exist (48 hours), why the Google design sprint works (5x8 hours) and why successful startups spin out of an event like StartupWeekend (54 hours).

Let's also not forget the original NomadList: a Google sheet shared with a Twitter audience to crowdsource data. Something you could easily have created when constrained to a 24 hour time window (if only you had had the idea).

What we can take from this is that constraints (even a 24-hour time-constraint) may have beneficial effects towards promoting creativity -- that is, if you embrace them and turn them into virtues.

Point 2: The benefits derived from building and launching something, emerge indirectly

As much as we like to focus on the initial idea for what we're building e.g. I'm building a startup in the XYZ space, the reality is that life often has a different plan in store for us. What a startup sets out to build doesn’t necessarily become part of the revenue model it ultimately converges on.

Let’s not forget that although @levelsio got a lot of traction on his initial crowdsourced Google sheet, his NomadList revenue is primarily composed of revenue from charging for access to a social network for digital nomads.

That’s not what he started off building.

What we set out to build may have little to do with the range of sustainable business models we may land upon.

The guys at Y-Combinator’s Segment, for instance, started off by building software for university professors but ended up building a company on top of a little javascript library. Again, something that was built within a couple of days.

The benefits of a publicly committing to a time-constrained startup emerge as indirect benefits, and there seem to be several:

  • Finishing projects gives you confidence, it gives you a sense of purpose.
  • Public accountability helps you overcome your fear of launching and promoting your products.
  • Putting constraints on your process promotes creativity.
  • Committing to launching a startup helps you become acquainted with the entire cycle of going from idea to finished product.
  • Participating in an event like the 24-hour startup challenge may give you a sense of belonging to a community of like-minded creatives.
  • Somehow participating in the process may snowball into the idea that ends up being the sustainable and scalable business model that you were hoping for, to begin with.

Conclusion

Your initial idea might not be what makes it. But perhaps, in the process, the confidence you build, the network you develop and the movement your start, will snowball into something far greater than anything you could have ever imagined.

Look at @patwalls. Nothing may come of his initial youdontneedWP 24 hr startup, but he may be at the helm of running a whole new kind of global, real-time hackathon for entrepreneurs. And perhaps, indirectly, that initial 24-hour stream gave him the confidence to make the jump.

Ironically I think Myk hits the nail on the head with his Tweet (but not in the way he intended it). The 24-hour challenge does indeed give people the idea that they can do something meaningful in 24 hours.

That's the point.

Inspired by the artist Austin Kleon, who is known for creating poems by blacking out words within the constraints of a single newspaper article, I leave you with my improved version of Myk’s critical tweet:

Many thanks to @levelsio and @patwalls who provided early feedback on this article.

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