|By||http://e27.cohttp://e27.sg/2012/12/03/singapore-womens-edition-startup-weekend-a-participants-experience/||| Dec 3, 2012 | Featured|
Three weeks ago I left my job in London to explore opportunities in Asia, and last night I found myself at the Singapore Women’s edition Startup Weekend, applauding and hollering loudly, hyped up on Redbull (courtesy of one of the many sponsors), contemplating the best business pitch by Singapore’s hidden entrepreneurial talent.
Sixty people attended (about 60% women, all ages, all races, all professions and all ambitious) to participate in 54 gruelling hours of business development activity. That’s 54 hours to pitch an idea, form a team, develop the product or service, carry out customer validation, determine market placement, the business model, prototype, revenue model and exit strategy. We also incorporated time to consult a number of south-east Asia’s most experienced start-up professionals as “mentors.” The format started with pitches on Friday, where attendees were encouraged to bring their best ideas and inspire others to join their team. Saturday and Sunday were dedicated to designing and developing business plans. Sunday evening was the final pitch to judges and the generous award ceremony (prizes consisted of Athena Networking membership, Hub workspace membership, Microsoft and start-up packages, etc).
I’m not sure what I expected when I signed up to the event – maybe a bit of exposure to Singapore’s Start-up scene; maybe an opportunity to meet likeminded, aspiring individuals; or a bit of simulated learning. But besides getting overfed on three buffet courses a day (total value for money – and that doesn’t include the extra perks of the book, Microsoft goods, booze we received) my mind is now so completely blown from the experience that I’m still piecing things together.
The first day of the event lead straight into energetic introductions and a talk by Fergie Miller conveying the “power of passion” in business and Pieter Kemps on lean start-ups (after which I think the majority of the crowd were sold on the merits of cloud technology and will be adopting the Amazon web service). Emily Barner, the empathetic facilitator over the weekend, took us through an amusing icebreaker which resulted my joining a team to create a spoof a company called “Justin Bieber eggs,” that facilitates a celebrity “man egg” vitro procedure that genetically guarantees offspring to sing well. But my favourite spoof concept went to the ‘whiskey rollercoaster’ venture.
After the warm up, a string of nervous volunteers pitched the ideas that would lay the foundation for the weekend. The pitches, about sixteen in all, were heavy on the technical (developing apps, social sites, etc), with a few wandering abstract ideas. Ten were shortlisted. Being a person driven by social enterprise and responsibility, I decided to join to the feel-good pitch that sought to educate children about the plights of the less fortunate and provide an ecommerce fundraising platform for them to sell the arts and crafts. It was also a strategic move to compliment my recent child education Start-up project in Malaysia.
The pitch was whimsical but the intention was there, and with the right people I figured we’d work out the details. The emotive pitch attracted a large team of nine: three developers, three marketers, an HR specialist, a finance guy, and myself, a process data nerd who likes to write. We were a hive of excitement. HR specialist Catherine laid out the house rules immediately: “let’s have fun, let’s help each other learn, let’s stick to the vision, and let’s agree to disagree because over the weekend we’re bound to have a few hot moments. Respect all the way.” I was relieved we had a common understanding because the team was split between the very laidback and the very assertive, so we needed to create a balanced team culture. We brainstormed the company name “Seeidoo” as in “See-I-Doo” to capture the children’s ‘see and respond’ nature. We took inventory of team skills to construct the team structure the following morning.
Morning of Day 2, after and multiple cups of tea, my team Seeidoo had an icebreaker. We built a rapport immediately, laughing and snacking in between the ongoing work cycle. I was privileged to be elected CEO and trusted to keep things in line and build the team vision. Although I have extensive management experience, I wouldn’t normally take on the most senior role in an unfamiliar situation, but due to the amazing support of the team, I embraced the challenge.
We spent the morning brainstorming, sticking ruthlessly to time, cutting people off mid-sentence if the egg-timer was up. By late afternoon, after bouncing our idea off the mentors we realised our business model wasn’t viable. It was a blow after hours of debating and research. We had to re-think. Patience wore and tempers bubbled under the pressure for having to do the second day pitch with a new, completely undeveloped idea. It was during this intense period the burden of the CEO became very real. I couldn’t like the rest of my team, show any glimpses of apathy or signs of doubt. It was trying, at times lonely, because showing defeat or faltering confidence was not an option. As the saying goes, “heavy is the head that wears the crown,” and I never really understood that until now. Leadership isn’t about glamour or power. Leaders are appointed by the group, whether directly or indirectly, because they’re seen to be the best person to maintain the energy and direction. Leadership is about stepping up to responsibility. I can see now why CEO’s need a confidant or private coach; because unlike the team they led, they can’t show vulnerability because it would ripple like an unhealthy wave of demotivation; a breeding ground for despair.
I had to facilitate, judge and make quick decisions that some team members didn’t have enough time to deliberate or get on board with. In a stroke of collective team insight we decided to develop a platform to gamify world issues. We loved the idea. It was idea to educate the youth through fun, interactive mission-based adventure. At the end of day two, however, we completely bombed the second pitch. Our idea was under-developed. We hadn’t agreed the fundamentals: what the gaming platform would look like, what age group we were targeting, what was our access to market. We were in trouble.
Race against the clock
I went to sleep at 2 a.m. that night and woke up at 4:30 a.m. haunted by start-up failure. Immediately I began to create content for the pitch and research the gamers market. By the time I reached the Hub (the delightful co-working space the event was held in) I was reinvigorated and ready to take the project by its devilish horns. I stormed in, gave my team a pep talk and shockingly non-negotiable direction about our plan of action. It was surprisingly well-received. The team was motivated and ready to charge. We divided into sub teams: the “Charlie’s angles” marketing girls we’re going to perform customer validation, Link, our finance guy was going to hammer out the revenue model, the develops were to spilt the load between getting quotes for development costs and developing a prototype, and I was going to find a way to sell and articulate the concept.
We were against the clock when we had to consolidate the ideas. It was a massive challenge for me to keep everything together – the ideas, the separate strings of work and the digressions. Admittedly frustration built to a point I felt on the brink of my capacity. It was a valuable lesson in endurance. Minutes before the pitches we managed to amalgamate our respective areas into a cohesive presentation. We were elated with our end product: a ‘Captain Panda’ discovery game for 3-6 year olds to learn about social responsibly by travelling around the world in a heroic journey to solve world challenges.
The judges gave us pointed feedback when we pitched. The concept was commended but there were gaps in our marketing strategy and concerns about our target age group.
The nine other teams wowed the crowd with their innovations, conviction and thoroughness. A breakdown of the winners:
I loved all of the ideas and personalities on display; particularly gravitating to team STUBIT who sought to develop a digital solution to paper receipts (I would personally put my own money towards resolving this annoying problem) but STUBIT were not able to address the logistical and security challenges associated with digital receipts.
The most impressive visual display was team Uncle Habit, who developed a quirky tracking app (built for versatility – how many beers did you drink, how many times you take the stairs verse the elevator, etc) in three simple steps.
A life changing experience
The event was flawlessly organised with a live tweet feed in the background, good signage (always useful for people like me with no sense of direction), plenty of drinks, colour coded name badges, brilliant speakers (Maila Reeves UK editor of award winning business magazine www.thenextwomen.com who flew in from London specially for the event shared the stage with Emily and Gina Romero of the women’s networking organisation www.theathenanetwork.com.sg who closed the event, with genuine praise and admiration over what the participants had achieved. All supported by the behind the scenes coordinator, Lachimi Tiwari, a Singaporean born entrepreneur and project manager of Tug Box, a market research platform.
They created an incredible atmosphere that blended hugs with business, collaboration and innovation, a total character building accelerated learning exercise. As a fellow participant shared with me, “it’s a life changing experience. I’ve realise for the first time in my life, that it’s possible to be an entrepreneur. I now know I can start up a business doing what I love. It’s made it very real.”
Leading a team through an entire start-up process has transformed my understanding of leadership and collaboration. The whole thing was like a birthing process – painful, tiring, but the end result was a joint creation that is one of my proudest achievements and an experience I’ll never forget.
About the author
Amanda Blum was born in raised in London and spent the latter part of teen and adult life growing up in a small town in Florida where she studied English Lit, Anthropology and Environmental Science. She recently left her management and data analysis job to take up life as a full-time traveller and entrepreneur based in Singapore. Find out more at www.amandablum.com