Owe$ome and AngelHack: Devil’s in the details

  • ‘Like a jet being propelled into the unknown’ best describes the intensity
  • What they don’t tell you about startup life: Be prepared to fill up loads of FORMS
Owe$ome and AngelHack: Devil’s in the detailsTeam Owe$ome, which won the leg of AngelHack in early June with its debt collection app, went to Silicon Valley to compete in the international edition, placing third among the 35 global startups it went up against. In this, the first of a two-part article, Owe$ome ‘creative head and idea founder’ Joann Soon talks about her experience in both hackathons.
 
TEAM Owe$ome got back from the ‘AngelHack San Francisco 2013’ global hackathon about two months ago.
 
It was an amazing privilege to be able to soak up the dense spirit of innovation in the Valley; meet new people and friends; share our work on the TechCrunch Disrupt stage; and listen to LIVE Fireside Chat talks by Yahoo Inc chief executive officer Marissa Mayer and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, among many other giants.
 
More epic was the accelerated learnings – about our individual strengths, and alongside other startups, sharing similar seed-stage stories, triumphs and struggles.
 
Before I start sharing about my learnings in Silicon Valley though, I should touch on the precursor to that, and give you a wider overview of what a global ‘hack-celerator’ as huge as AngelHack involves and demands of you.
 
AngelHack in Cyberjaya
 
“Like a jet being propelled into the unknown” – that phrase best describes our two-month accelerated programme prior to getting on the global stage.
 
After winning the Malaysian leg of the AngelHack competition – which took place at the 1337 Ventures facility in Cyberjaya in early June – we went through weekly online meetings with AngelHack’s mentors in the United States and from all over the world.
 
These included conference calls, as well as face-to-face meet-ups with our appointed local mentor, who would coach and prepare us for Silicon Valley.
 
There were many forms to fill and visa preparations to make – and not much time to do it all in. What they don’t tell you about startup life: Be prepared to fill up loads of FORMS!
 
We were filling in forms in the car on the way to events, in the middle of the night, on the fly ... till we told ourselves that we might work on an ‘automatic form filler app’ next!
 
We were fortunate to get the best mentor – Raiyo Nariman, managing director of Angels Den Asia, who poured burning coals of pressure on our heads week upon week, and encouraged us to get our story out to our fellow Malaysians across the nation.
 
“Write to the Prime Minister if you must! Tell Malaysians you’re representing the nation at Silicon Valley with your Owe$ome idea and rally their support,” he said.
 
Scary and kind he was, and we have now taken to calling him ‘Papa Raiyo.’ Beyond killing our weekends, he taught us so much about getting our story out, funding our way there, creating a story that would engage Malaysians, developing a strong value proposition, managing team dynamics and project timelines, and more. He made us wide-eyed with trepidation every week, and it got us this far.
 
What the hack, let’s just do it
 
For those entering the various hackathons (and there’s a proliferation of them these days), the team dynamics will vary. Some form their teams beforehand, most hack it overnight – like ours. Team Owe$ome was the result of an overnight snowball effect.

[The writer and her team were mostly employees at digital agency VLT Kuala Lumpur Sdn Bhd at the time – ED]
Owe$ome and AngelHack: Devil’s in the details
How was it formed? I checked with our project manager (Tan Sue Lin) to see if she wanted to try hacking out an idea of mine which I believed had potential. We roped in a writer (Zahir Mazlan), a designer (Lee Chien Chien), pulled in her front-end developer friend (Shaiianne Lydia Ong), and that developer persuaded her back-end developer friend (Gan Chu Hang) into joining us.
 
This happened over the course of one day! Our innovation director at VLT Labs, Andrew Tan, had also kick-started the whole thing by running a mini one-day hackathon in our office for a foretaste – so we had a head-start and basic app wireframes figured out a week before the event.
 
Some teams pitch for their teammates at hackathon events. Here’s how it works: You go in with an idea, and pitch for the resources you need on the spot (though that route isn’t recommended if you don’t want to be forced to share your cramped space for 48 hours straight with some weirdo who doesn’t brush his teeth and reeks of body odour!).
 
Collision of minds, wills, failings and strengths
 
AngelHack was intense. In June, we won the national competition, and two months later we had a product on the Apple store (approved but not LIVE yet as bugs needed to be fixed and upgrades made).
 
That’s no easy feat for any team, and we’re glad to have had not only the backing of the digital agency most of my teammates came from, VLT Kuala Lumpur, and Alphapod, our key mobile developer.
 
No mobile developers in their right minds would take up this kind of a psychotic timeline, and not all bosses would let their employees go to pursue startup ambitions – but that’s how mad our partners were about making sure Team Malaysia rocked in Silicon Valley.
 
We lost our weekends, and our Owe$ome app work began at 7pm after work. We incurred plenty of sleep debt and developed caffeine immunity. On top of weekly meetings with mentors and industry contacts, we had to manage the project and meet our Alphapod mobile developers weekly after work.
 
Running concurrently with that, we had the crazy notion of bringing our entire team to Silicon Valley – not just the founders. That meant six of us. We blame Papa Raiyo partly for instigating that thought!
 
So we went out on a mean fund-raising hunt which involved the media, government bodies, private agencies, Malaysia’s largest online crowdfunding platform, sisters, loved ones, friends and strangers I just met in a restaurant – basically, anyone and everyone who would seem keen to support a bunch of underdogs who have never even developed a single mobile app in their lives!
 
All in all, we managed to raise up an estimated total of over RM35,000 in donations and sponsorship money in just two months – a value I never dreamed we would raise. It was just enough to support our journey to Silicon Valley and back, as a full team.
 
Every morning upon waking up, our Owe$ome Whatsapp group would go bust with hundreds of new work updates and messages. It was intense, the sleep deprivation and workload – but it taught me a great lesson: Never to limit myself nor my team.
 
I remember tweeting this one night before I went to bed, and it sums up everything I feel about our journey: ‘I see fire in my team’s eyes and it lights up my own.’
 
The lean team a winning factor?
 
Was it the idea? Was it the lively video we presented that seemed to overshadow the other dry tech demos?
 
At the end of the day, it was none of these per se. Teamwork got us to where we were, the compounded diligence, madness and passion of individuals who were already natural self-starters to begin with. But not just teamwork of any sort – lean teamwork!
 
Digital agencies have a way of segmenting employees in the office into job-specific teams; meaning, the developers sit together with developers, designers with designers, so forth.
 
Eventually what happens is you mix with your own kind of people. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t the best way either.
 
At AngelHack in Cyberjaya, developers, designers and writers were mashed up in one cubicle. I was sitting next to our developer and polluting his sacred space with my monologue and weird music half the time. The designers were sitting opposite us, ranting and going slightly off their rockers, especially after the clock hit midnight and we knew the night had only begun.
 
We were bouncing rapid-fire ideas and questions off each other – nonstop. This no-boundaries lean collaboration created camaraderie among us that I will never forget.
 
It was also the same sort of joy we found on our trip to Silicon Valley as a team.
 
Next up: Owe$ome in the Valley
 
Related stories:
 
‘Owe$ome’ Malaysian team at AngelHack looking for sponsorship
 
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