Hackfit Philadelphia: The City of Brotherly Hugs

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To be totally honest, we had no idea what to expect from Hackfit Philadelphia. Hackfit’s two prior events in Boston and San Francisco had each attracted upwards of 160 participants; yet, as we boarded our bus out of Boston just days before the looming event, we had just shy of 80 registrations. We wondered if this size group would be able to create the epic atmosphere of the previous Hackfit events. Well, if there’s anything to be said about the entrepreneurs, starter-uppers, hackers, coders, and fit geeks of Philadelphia it’s that they truly embody the age old adage: “it’s not the number of dogs in the fight, but how passionate and willing to hug strangers they are.”

I think that’s the one.

We knew Philly was (is) an awesome town. Six weeks prior to the event we had made the journey down from Boston to visit with our all-star sponsor, Vynamic. (Read about our trip here). In addition to an exciting walk-through of the jaw-dropping Vynamic office, we got the chance to visit the local coworking spaces getting a feel for the spirit of the local startup scene. In our perusal of these Petri dishes of entrepreneurship, we were exposed to the true nature of the Philadelphia startup scene.

Philadelphians are scrappy. Indeed the population would cite myriad reasons for their scrap, yet I doubt many would refute that statement. It’s a fact. And nowhere is it more evident than in the city’s relatively small but increasingly impressive startup scene. Characterized by immense talent and a true sense of underdoggery, the burgeoning group of D.I.Y.ers has formed a remarkably close-knit community where teamwork and hustle will cement the city’s spot alongside San Francisco, New York City, and Boulder, CO for premier startup scenes.

Philly Hackfitters sit for the keynote address

Philly Hackfitters sit for the keynote address

This is also evidenced by Philly Tech Week: the city’s celebration of all things tech (many directly related to technology-focused entrepreneurship) across ten days of events and gatherings around the city. Hackfit Philly just happened to coincide with the first weekend, and kickoff event, of PTW ’14. Though it can be seen as both a blessing and a curse landing on the same day as such an epic event, we were ecstatic that Hackfit could be one piece of such an amazing week.

Needless to say, Hackfit Philly started off in proper fashion. After the first of a weekend’s worth of amazing meals catered by Pure Fare and sister restaurant Agno (did we mention what an awesome food city Philly is?) we kicked off the night’s events with a blood-pumping Bollywood dance workout provided by fellow Boston-born startup Bolly X. Should you be one of the unlucky masses who has never had the pleasure of taking part in a Bollywood dance workout, I can only describe it as an intensely fun combination of heart-rate-raising cardio, ab-shredding core control, and plenty of hip thrusting and torso gyration to smash any hint of the comfort zone you walked in with.

BollyX. Total chaos in the best possible way.

BollyX. Total chaos in the best possible way.

After a presentation by Stacey Mosley – a representative of the city’s data department who presented ways in which the city is collecting and using data to improve the health of the city – and with everyone sweaty and looking their best, we thought “what better time to begin the pitch round?” One after another, Hackfit participants presented their ideas for a new health technology or business that would help make the city a healthier, happier place.

When all pitches were finished, and all pushups done for every time a pitcher went over 60 seconds, participants were free to form teams around the most supported ideas. At the end of the night, 10 teams had been formed, and participants went home with a new group of entrepreneurial partners, a head full of business plans, appointments for a few fitness classes, and a healthy need for some rest.

Some ambitious participants got Saturday started with a 7:15am indoor cycling session at Flywheel; the rest filed in right as Impact HUB doors opened at 8:00am. Still riding the momentum of big ideas and new friendships, Hackfitters wasted no time jumping right into their projects. Staking out conference rooms, wrangling whiteboards and supplies, and sucking down a quick breakfast and a (or several) cup(s) of coffee, participants began the building and hacking process.

A team of Drexel students hacking their hungry asses off.

A team of Drexel students hacking their hungry asses off.

It is Hackfit’s core belief that activity inspires innovation and personal growth while also building camaraderie amongst teammates. Therefore, It was my distinct pleasure of tearing people away from their computer screens or elaborate whiteboard murals to organize and send them to their scheduled fitness classes for the day.

Throughout the day, fitness classes were arranged at City Fitness, Steelworks Crossfit, as well as on-site classes taught by a participant who doubles as a personal trainer. Getting Hackfitters out from in front of their projects for some activity and fresh air allowed people to clear their heads, spend some time getting to know their group members outside of the context of the project, and to then return to their project fresh, reinvigorated, and ready to push forward.

A High Intensity Interval Training Session led by Participant and Traininer, Roger of Relentless Fitness

A High Intensity Interval Training Session led by Participant and Traininer, Roger of Relentless Fitness

As teams pressed on into the night, we found that Hackfitters were surprisingly chipper for such a long day. Despite the hard work of the day, most groups seemed to be working with as much vigor as that with which they had started the day. As I made final rounds to kick people out of the building so that they could go home and get some sleep (crucial for high cognitive function) we even had one group end their night with an impromptu (and shockingly spirited) Bollywood-style dance party/ mini flash mob. What a way to end the day!

A few dedicated Hackfitters made it to the Impact HUB at 7:15am on Sunday, early enough for some morning yoga to get the day started right. When our entrepreneurial yogis had attained a little zen, and the others attained higher caffeination levels, groups wasted no time in diving back into their projects. Justin and I tallied activity scores and prepared the demo space as teams scrambled to finalize technology components and rehearse their demos. At 1:00pm on Sunday we shut each and every team down, and sent them to a final lunch before showing off their progress for the weekend to their peers and a panel of expert judges.

Demo Day: Expert Judges grade team Swadio, our eventual winners.

Demo Day: Expert Judges grade team Swadio, our eventual winners.

Again, being totally honest, I was blown away by the demos Sunday afternoon. I knew that Philadelphians were passionate and talented, but to see the capability of each team and the progress made throughout the weekend was truly incredible. In a five minute demo and a quick Q&A session, each team showed off their business model and tech demo, competing for the $1000 prize. And what a competition it was.

Ranging from seemingly silly to purposeful and practical, all projects displayed their team’s dedication to the goal of making the world a healthier, happier place. Further, each demo reaffirmed that spirit of scrappiness and savvy that Philly uniquely boasts.

After all was said and done, and after scores had been tallied and winners were announced, the 60 or so Philadelphian Hackfitters who hung around to chat and hug one another between fistfulls of Pretzel Crisps possessed a spirit of enthusiasm and camaraderie that is rare amongst any group. The spirit was infectious. From students to industry veterans, all the participants who stuck it out until the very end displayed an amazing sense of accomplishment, hope for future projects, and pride in what they and their peers had achieved. Not once did I hear a gripe about judging or a remark about unfairness. Each person in that room at 4:00pm on Sunday was truly excited by what they and their fellow Hackfitters had managed to accomplish, giving praise to each others’ projects and asking questions about technical components.

With the hug-tally through the roof as the last of the stragglers exited the building, Justin and I both felt the positive energy of a talented and inspired group; Philadelphians may be scrappy, but they’re also a bunch of softies deep down, with an enormous amount heart to match their talent.

Seriously. We hugged a lot.

Seriously. We hugged a lot.

 

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