Fail Harder : My Startup Weekend with VFS Alumni

Owen Chan About Page image

Design should not be seen as a visual enhancement or afterthought, but a product or service as a whole that combines technology, user experience, and storytelling.

I took the line quoted above from my Portfolio Site’s About Page , because it is something I have always truly believed in. While at school, I always sought to dream up products and services that were not only well designed, but design driven, from the core. Which is why, despite an extreme lack of sleep, I decided to attend a three-day marathon at the Startup Weekend Vancouver right after the graduation of our class from VFS. The Start Up Weekend was the perfect opportunity to experiment with creating a design driven solution to a real world problem.

To my surprise, I was able to team up at the event with two other VFS alumni: my classmate Saadi Alkouatli; and Yu Wen (Nancy) Sun, who is currently working at iQmetrix. After listening to Nancy pitch her idea in front of 150 other “wantrepreneurs”, we teamed up with her and started our Real World 3-Day Slam.

 Our Team — just before the Pitch

What follows is a description of my experience and some lessons learned throughout this amazing event:

Peeling an Onion
Steve Jobs once said, “When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions.”

Nancy’s original pitch was to come up with a solution to replace the need for business cards. Immediately, my two friends and I resonated with the problem, and found ourselves on the same team with 4 others wanting to solve it.

We started off by creating an app that could detect people around you who are using the same app, and which would allow you to send an electronically generated business card to that person, who could save it to his/her contact list. It was literally an e-business card.

After some testing and research, we did find existing apps that already offered similar features, but we also discovered that the process of creating an e-business card and sending it through a smartphone application is nowhere near the seamless experience we were imagining. In many cases, we found it to be an even bigger hassle than just ordinary physical business cards. So, that idea was quickly scrapped.

Back to the drawing board we went. This time we asked ourselves: What is the true purpose of a business card? — Networking. So, we conceptualized a service with features to help people do exactly that. People who attend events such as Grad Shows, Keynote Speaker events, and Award Shows (or any other networking event) can view a list of all attendees in real time, break the ice with a chat feature, and locate whomever they want to meet.

View from Saadi's computer

With 6 hours to go, we refined the idea even more, extracting the core purpose of a business card: The exchange of contact information and the communication of a personal brand, which eventually allows for a followup meeting to take place. To serve this purpose, we created a smartphone application called FollowUP: It identifies people with matching professional careers/interests at networking events,  and facilitates a seamless followup experience after the event has taken place.

The Pitch
Anyone who’s been through the Digital Design program can attest to how many pitches and presentations you have to do throughout the year. During the rigorous process of crafting an engaging presentation and pitching it in front of an audience, I went from someone who was stage shy in front of 20 other classmates, to being capable of clearly articulating my entire graduate project under 3 minutes in front of a hundred industry professionals (i.e., at the Digital Design industry event Appetizers). This process helped me a lot when, at the Startup Weekend, I took on the task of presenting our idea and our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to the judges in front of 150 other attendees. Despite the previous experience, however, this was no easy task.

The judges included two Co-founders of GrowLab: Jason Bailey — who is known for being straightforward, and for taking apart ideas without holding back; And Boris Wertz, who is one of the few venture capitalists in Vancouver. And 3 other judges who are extremely successful Vancouver-based entrepreneurs.

Not only did we have to introduce the problem, explain the opportunity, and demonstrate our MVP, we had to do so under a tightly enforced 4-minute limit. Crafting the presentation itself quickly became the biggest challenge as we approached the deadline.

John and Owen doing the pitch

As usual, I kept it as simple as possible. I introduced three Pain Points for students, industry professionals, and keynote speakers attending a networking event. Then my friend John and I did a walk-through of our app with wireframes made by Nancy and Saadi, illustrating how the Pain Points were overcome by using FollowUP.

In the end, we managed to create a fun and engaging presentation that was enjoyed by both the audience and the judges.

Fail Harder

Fail Harder
You’ve probably heard this a lot before, but the Startup Weekend marked the first time for me hearing the phrase Fail Harder and where I first learned its real importance. We kicked off our final pitch with the following slide:

4 Pivots,
2 Days,
1 Missing team member.

…which should give you some idea about how hard we failed during the 2 day period.

We changed our original idea so much that our end product had nothing to do with business cards. Our concepts were shot down completely after doing basic user testing. We came up with our final idea when we were 6 hours away from our pitch and had to start again from scratch. We had an important team member who didn’t show up on the last day, due to previous disagreements about ideas. On the last day, we debated whether to pitch our idea at all. Basically, everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong.

Finalized logo for our product, FollowUP

But in the end, I can say everyone on our team had a blast failing, and we learned a ton throughout the process: We learned how to really go deeper to the root of the problem, instead of solving only what’s on the surface; We learned how to overcome challenges in real time, when we had to pick up where our missing teammate had left off; We learned to give our best, even if we only had 6 hours to prepare, instead of giving up; And most important of all — we learned that the greatest value in life comes from the journey, not the destination.

Overall, the three days I spent at Startup Weekend Vancouver was an amazing experience. I met a lot of talented individuals, and learned many valuable lessons. I can only hope to see more fellow Degital Designers at the next Startup Weekend!

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