Owe$ome at the Valley, and lessons therein
By Joann Soon December 3, 2013
- Focus on making sincere connections, not finding investment
- Prepare for accelerated failings and pivots, but stick with your team
Team Owe$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 second of a two-part article, Owe$ome ‘creative head and idea founder’ Joann Soon talks about her experience in the Valley.
HOT on the heels of our June 8 national win at AngelHack Malaysia, we went on a rocky, accelerated journey to build our Owe$ome app, raise funds to make our way to Silicon Valley, and finally arrived in San Francisco, ecstatic to be there as an entire team!
At the AngelHack global demo day in early September 2013, Team Owe$ome landed third place among 30 over countries coming all the way from Columbia to Korea and even Israel. I’d like to think that we did Malaysia proud on the world stage.
Here’s what I learned:
Practice your pitch
It was not that I wasn’t doing this – I was doing this ‘lone ranger’ at first. I would set the stopwatch, and ramble to myself. I was doing this for a while until our project manager and resident whip cracker Tan Sue Lin ordered, “Do it in front of us! We want to see it.”
Knowing I would have to get used to talking into a mike and handling a clicker, Sue Lin placed a mineral water bottle and mouse in my hands and made me go over my pitch countless times.
Gan Chu Hang, our technical head, advised me on important aspects of the presentation into the wee hours of the morning.
It was these little details that I had no regard for earlier that might have saved our final three-minute pitch presentation!
So here’s what works for elevator pitches: Writing a short script helps as a guide. Time yourself using that script, then practise in front of your peers and get constructive criticism from your teammates.
Doing this actually helped cut down my ‘ahmm, eeers and aaahhs,’ shaving off precious seconds from our allotted three minutes. You have only so little time to make an impression, so make it concise and impactful.
During our first few days in Silicon Valley, this practice was the norm: Fix the deck after going through it with industry mentors in and around the Valley, practise pitch again. Fix deck, practise pitch, repeat.
They further held ‘peer group pitches, where you have a go in front of the entire AngelHack winning teams gathered from 35 countries around the world. This was incredibly nerve-wrecking, but the multiple questions and criticisms our multinational friends threw our way were highly constructive, preparing us for the scarier, larger audiences full of serious investors.
Focus on making sincere connections
Many accelerator/ hackathon events prime seed-stage startups into finding investments. I am of the personal opinion that that isn’t the best solution for all startups, if not most.
Startups that need capital injection to produce expensive hardware prototypes may need early investments. This does not apply however to startups which can actually function lean in the early stages, which can be quicker to go to market with their product and thus need not dilute their startup with foreign intervention in their infancy.
In fact, connections could be worth so much more! While passionately talking about your idea, you may suddenly meet a ‘possible partner’ there with a 70-million user base who is keen to integrate your app into their platform, as it relates to their core business offerings – as we did with Evernote.
You may make friends with a team member from another competing team who may advise you on an area in ‘visual mapping’ or ‘face recognition’ which can help fill the gap when you need it for an idea in the future.
The possibilities are endless when you’re focusing on making sincere connections, maintaining them and filling ‘need gaps.’
Partners might not pump in big cash but give you greater leverage to push your product out into the world, so it depends on how you see things. I think we set ourselves for disappointment and lose sight of the big picture when all we’re focused on is hooking big fish.
Accelerated failings, pivots, sticking with your team
In stressful situations, your true colours show. Hackathons may be fun and adrenaline-pumping to the uninitiated, but the pressure to get everything out fast and be the best also heightens your individual failures.
Prepare to pivot, not just your product nor your deck, but your person as well! When clashes happen (and they will), always stick it out with your team until you find a resolution together. If you need to remove yourself to calm down, do so – then come back, and fight another day.
I also think that every team needs a highly organised project manager – or at least someone in the team who is religiously structured and methodical in his or her thinking.
We had a treasure in Sue Lin, who navigated our way in almost every aspect of the trip, from finding the right place to stay to getting our water supplies to being our venue finder and making sure we stuck with each other – even when we were tempted to run away in opposite directions due to exasperation!
Products can be replicated, but not stories … share
Sometimes when caught up in the hype and production madness your idea generates, you forget that your idea may not be the coolest one in the world. Probably, at the same time, another three similar ideas are being produced (or have been produced) in different parts of the world by people just as passionate as you. They’re just not being showcased at the world’s largest hackathon – AngelHack.
What makes you unique is your story, what got you there, how you began, and how you’re pushing your way through to getting your product out.
Nobody can replicate that, but all can probably relate to it. So when you’re introducing your idea to the world, start by sharing your unique story.
Soak up the openness of the Valley
Most people come back from the Valley carrying a solid measure of that intrinsic free-for-all ‘openness’ in them. It’s contagious. From the moment we touched down in the city to the investor meetings and startup exposure we received at the AngelHack event and at TechCrunch Disrupt, we left having made fast friends with many passionate innovators from all walks of life.
We spoke to anyone and everyone, about anything and everything. This year’s TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon in San Francisco produced the youngest participant ever – a nine-year old! No holds barred.
Personally, I felt two weeks was too short a time to really get to know our multinational friends from all over the world – though I’ve kept in touch with two teams so far (from Mexico and India) who are chugging along with their respective startups.
The moment the whirlwind day-to-day schedule began to wane and we started warming up to each other, we had to get ready to go home – which was incredibly sad! But we left with loads of new contacts, emails addresses and Facebook friends from around the world.
Bring your entire team there
At the start of our AngelHack national win which awarded us with two prize tickets to San Francisco for the main AngelHack global event, some of us thought we would have to select the two who would need to go.
Who should be the priority? Naturally, the answer leaned towards one who would do the heavy pitching, the front-liner – and probably a developer to explain the technical part.
Along the way, I learnt that it was an opportunity each member in my team deserved and wanted to experience together. No one did more, no one deserved to go more than the other – though some were willing up to give up their places for the necessary ones to go.
At the end of the day, if you truly believe this, you can fund an entire team (even if it’s six people!) to go.
After an arduous fund-raising journey that led us to the doorsteps of MDeC, Cradle Fund Sdn Bhd, Proficeo, Malaysiakini, BFM89.9, the DAP, The One Academy, and even PitchIN (Malaysia’s largest crowdfunding online platform), Team Owe$ome managed to raise enough funds to go as a team to Silicon Valley and was fully funded for two weeks in terms of accommodation and flights.
I am thankful to all our kind angels and supporters who believed in us, and often think Owe$ome grew wings on this bedrock of compounded belief! It was an unforgettable experience we wouldn’t trade for all the money in the world.
For more on Team Owe$ome at AngelHack San Francisco, click on the video below: