Going into the startup weekend, I didn't know what to expect. I had an idea that I wanted to pitch an interest to get to know the grassroots startup scene in Shanghai a little better. I came out of it with great new friends, countless lessons, the top prize, and a renewed confidence to pursue big things.
The Startup Weekend works as a fastbreak simulation of the entrepreneurial process - from conceptualization to prototyping and pitching - all in the span of one weekend. It was held from June 27 to 29 at the Sino-Finnish Innovation Center in Tongji University. On the first night, I nervously delivered a one minute pitch in front of the audience. Participants then voted on their three favorite pitches, with only the 8 most voted ideas allowed to form teams. Unfortunately, my pitch wasn't selected as one of the top 8. Many people approached me with interest, which was encouraging, but ultimately I wasn't able to get my point through, so I had no choice but to join a team.
I joined a team called Kid Edu+ because the core idea had a lot of similarities with mine. The concept we created was an integrated assessment platform for children's educational games. It's based on the premise that kids these days are always on their tablets, while parents care about their kids' learning more than ever. The concept is to bridge them together so that kids' gaming performance get routed to a parents' dashboard for them to monitor their kids' progress.
We had a very balanced team. Our team leader was a digital producer, with knowledge on both technical and business aspects. We also had a PHP programmer, a toy designer, a robotics expert, and an IT project manager. It was quite overwhelming at first for a humble research analyst like me. What value could I add and how would I be able to fit in? I told the team that I would work on the business model and user experience aspects.
The next day, we began working in earnest. We first laid out the details of the service so that the technical team could start building the product. Meanwhile, the business people had to devise ways to validate with customers in real-life settings. It was definitely out of my comfort zone, but that afternoon we headed out to Wujiaochang and started approaching moms with very young kids.
There were the occasional rejections, but I was pleasantly surprised how receptive they generally were. We briefly presented our concept, then asked for feedback and suggestions for improvement. I was skeptical at first on the entire customer validation process, but to my surprise found it very enlightening and extremely valuable.
When we got back from field research, my teammates were already brandishing the web prototype. I was amazed to see how quickly technical people could operate given the right direction. I certainly wasn't used to that kind of environment in the consulting setting, where every possible solution had to be pored over in detail.
The next big challenge for the team was the business model. At first I thought: finally, my comfort zone. It turned out to be the most nerve-wracking, since we had to force a business model out of an idea that was conceived to be 'open-source' and social. We also had so many gaps left to fill for our presentation the next day - defining the problem, the market, and the solution, outlining our expansion strategy, and fitting everything into a five minute presentation.
I showed up early the following day and got to work. After getting the team leader to agree on some core adjustments, I started making the slides. My teammates continued to tweak the prototype, while coaches came in and gave great advice on a high-impact way to define the problem. I could see that my teammates were motivated to win, and I had a good feeling about our direction.
Finally, it was time to present. The entire venue were bursting with ideas, both excellent and absurd. Judges had a good reaction to our team's presentation. I was encouraged by people's reaction to the design and structure of the slides, my labor of love for the day. As they were announcing the winners, I fidgeted in my seat. The winner of the Startup Weekend goes to... Kid Edu+. I believed from the beginning that we had a chance, but having the moment actually come to pass felt surreal.
I don't think I had ever learned so many things in one weekend. I couldn't believe I almost skipped this event. Quick startup events like this cannot get a business up and running, but it goes a long way in terms of validation, for peers, judges, and customers. I saw how a startup team works together from scratch to achieve a vision. It also serves as a personal lesson on how my skills can fit into a team. Finally, communication is an even more crucial ingredient than I thought, and it was evident from pitching to talking to customers to working with the team and presenting to the judges.
Beyond the lessons, winning the event meant a lot to me since it was probably the first competition I'd won since elementary school. It's a great first step as I embark on my startup journey.