College clubs are one of the best places to build things. They’re low-stakes environments, you have a lot of people to rally around you, and you can work on whatever you want — including some very high-impact projects. You would never find a better risk-reward ratio to taking a risk and starting something new. This fact, however, isn’t really reflected in the culture around campus.
The College Club Scene#
At least in Berkeley, college clubs are much more social groups that they are mission-driven communities. This is not inherently a bad thing. One of the biggest reasons to go to college is to meet cool people. In that sense, college clubs here do exactly what they’re meant to — give you a group of friends!
Most tech clubs, however, are organized around some common goal, like:
- Teach and develop web or mobile development skills
- Further research into artificial intelligence and machine learning
- Create more product-driven engineers around Berkeley through product-design consulting
- Create spaces for builders around campus
- Accelerate startup ideas
and more. Most of these communities are pretty young, created no more than 3-4 years ago, by students no different than us. There’s no set of rules, or consitutions, or by-laws — the culture, structure, and initiatives of every organization can be easily ammended, and indeed improved as per necessary. There’s nothing we can’t change, nothing we can’t try.
Despite all of this, I find that a lot of communities around Berkeley have a lot of inertia. There’s an aversion to taking big risks, to trying new things that might fail. A lot of clubs let old strucutres persist, long after the culture around them has changed.
As someone who’s held leadership positions in multiple clubs, I’m certainly guilty of organizing yet another speaker series then patting myself on the back. Let’s be honest, who really wants to attend speaker series anymore, when every word the person would say is already uploaded to YouTube a bajillion times?
What all of this amounts to is that no innovative ideas end up being pushed onto the campus.
This is really frustrating, given that college is the single best place to bring crazy ideas to life. Why isn’t the mobile dev clubs creating a campus-wide social media app, or the web dev club making the definitive Berkeley portal, or the hackathon club creating an invite-only house of crazy hackers, or the CS education club starting a class about teaching other people? The power of tech is such that anything you’d like can be brought to life.
Why aren’t we thinking of the most interesting thing we could do under the banner of our missions, then trying to do those?
Cal Hacks — Hackathons, and What Else?#
One of the biggest clubs I’m a part of around Berkeley is Cal Hacks — Berkeley’s premier hackathon club. But we’re more than just a “hackathon club” — we run Cubstart, a decal around teaching beginners how to build fast, as well as Fellowship, a program that teaches rockstar engineers how to build with a customer-focus. Hackathons themselves are built in the spirit of trying to do different things, with success being defined as the act of doing it — not what the product looks like.
You’d think we’d be perfectly placed to be Berkeley’s cool idea engine. Unfortunately, I don’t think Cal Hacks is immune to the inertia either.
It seems like starting something new has too high a barrier to entry in college clubs. I believed this to be one of the biggest problems I could tackle in my college career.
Labs: The Case For Sandboxes#
This semester, I decided to start a new initiative within Cal Hacks. A meta initiative, if you will — one that creates another initiatives. Labs, however, had an unconventional goal: Fail spectacularily.
I wanted our members to be able to suggest ideas, pick the ones they’re most interested in, then bring them to life — all in only five weeks. If those ideas crashed and burned horribly, GOOD. That was the point.
This essentially created a sandbox for new ideas within the club, where starting a new initiative was de-risked. It allowed people to suggest some pretty out-there stuff when we got around to brainstorming.
Once we had all these ideas, we compiled them around overarching themes we wanted to build on — cross-club interactions, team bonding, and running something for the individuals around Berkeley who may not typically interact with Cal Hacks. Using these, we set off with some ambitious ideas — throwing the biggest cross-club party of the year, internal hack nights, and a sticker designing workshop.
And then we messed up a bunch. For our internal hack night, we didn’t order food until the last day, then realized that catering required at least a one-day notice for most places. Every place we put an order to rejected it. For our design workshop, we didn’t realize the latency in printing the stickers that people were designing, and weren’t able to print 80% of the stickers during the workshop. During our cross-club party, we rented a place with a cap of 170 people, and invited around 200 people, expecting that a lot of people form different orgnizations wouldn’t pull up. We hit the 170 cap in 2 hours, and had to reject over 50 people at the door.
Despite all of this, I’d call each of our events a massive success! The team had a lot of fun running these, the people attending them had fun during the events, and at the end, we had a fulfilling semester to look back on and be incredibly proud of ourselves about.
I’ve seen first-hand how much impact we can have on our communities, internally and externally, simply by pushing ourselves to start something new. I’ve seen labs improve the culture of this club. I’ve seen it bring in new demographcics and a diverse set of people into our community, expanding it beyond just people who’re similar to us. I’ve seen it lead to members trying new things, just by themselves, completely unrelated to labs!
I believe that running an internal experimental “labs” initiative is one of the best things you can do for the longetivity of your organization. A healthy labs division ensures that your organization never gives in to inertia and decay.
Labs: The Gameplan#
It’s super simple to start Labs — you just need one person to care enough to do it.
The most-remembered people in Berkeley, in my perspective, aren’t those who had an infinite string of successes. It was the group of people who took the biggest swings — failures, successes, and otherwise. It was the group of people who tried. And yes— you take a lot of shit for messing up. But the the impact you could have far outweighs it, in my experience.
Are you the person willing to put yourself out there and take that risk?
If you are, here’s the gameplan, summarized in five steps:
- Set a deadline — ours was, “3 initiatives, started and maybe killed, by the end of the semester”
- Brainstorm with the team and come up with ideas — we came up with 136 ideas total.
- Pick 3 ideas and assign a leader and team to each of them — we picked 3 ideas that were doable with the current resources and time, and gave leadership responsibilities to the semester’s new recruits.
- Check-in with the idea teams frequently to make sure balls aren’t being dropped — I started with weekly, then moved to two a week, and then one a day week of the event.
- Do not let not doing anything be an option. Messing up and running a bad event is a success too. Doing nothing is failure. No excuses.
I hope you read this with an open mind, and a willingness to try to make something new. I hope if you feel inertia within yourself and your organization, this is a way for you to break through that wicked barrier. I hope that you share my urge to experiment, to create, to innovate. I hope you wish to leave Berkeley a better place than you found it, like I do.
If you do feel inspired to start a Labs division, I would love to help you get started, with advice, resources and otherwise. Please reach out at
Let’s get brewing. 🧪