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Knocked into shape: insights from iLab bootcamp

 A great idea is not enough to launch a startup, as a group of university students discovered at iLab’s summer Bootcamp recently. Georgia Gifford, Tom Volling, Andrea Epifani, Jonny Lu and Christian Mein took their News Cloud concept to bootcamp and quickly found money, markets and legal understanding were the key ingredients they were missing. Here, Georgia Gifford and Tom Volling reflect on three days of pitching and relate some lessons learned for other first-time applicants to iLab’s Germinate program.

We first toyed with entering the iLab startup competition when our course co-ordinators at the University of Queensland sent around an email about it. We had been working all semester on an interactive news project with some interaction design students. We, the journalism part of this multidisciplinary team, were not that keen on the idea but our tech-focussed peers –  Jonny, Andrea and Christian – were excited. They were enthusiastic about the possibilities a competition like this could provide. Before we knew it we were all working to scramble together what was to become the first of several pitches to the iLab Germinate program.

Germinate is a three-month program for early-stage technology businesses offering training, mentoring and networking with up to $20,000 in funding and office space at iLab headquarters. Funded by the Queensland Government and UniQuest, the University of Queensland’s commercialisation arm, iLab has incubated more than 100 startup companies since it launched in 2000. It has raised more than $70 million in investment income and has generated nearly 400 technology jobs.

Our team was selected from our written application as one of 30 startups for this November bootcamp weekend. The competition entailed three days of workshops aimed at moulding your idea from a business perspective, along with daily pitching sessions. On the third day there is a final pitch to a panel of three judges who would then select ten startups to go into the program.

While we were unsuccessful in making it into the Germinate program, the experience was undoubtedly a valuable one. The iLab facilitators and guest speakers using their wealth of knowledge and real world experience were able to highlight the importance of applying solid business principles to a new, innovative idea. In doing so it is fair to say that all those who participated in the three day boot camp left being in a stronger, more conversant position to further develop a startup venture, whether they were accepted or not.

As a pair of journalism students, bootcamp not only opened our eyes to new possibilities, but more importantly, it was a chance to dip our toes into the brisk, yet rewarding environment that is entrepreneurial tech startups.

Our idea

Imagine this: You are at a train station and there’s a large contingent of people using their smart phones to consume news, individually. But what if this could be transformed into a collective experience?

The idea we took to Bootcamp was the News Cloud, a ubiquitous computing concept that takes an individual, small screen news experience and transforms it into an innovative public interaction platform. Public spaces or bus stops could be fitted with large, interactive screens that could be manipulated with gestures. People at the train station could scroll though stories and advertising could be placed alongside related content they have read or currently reading: it’s engaging and interactive, potentially more effective than regular billboard advertising.

The screen would be controlled by the audience — those waiting for the train  — with simple hand movements. We had mocked up this interaction previously using a Leap Motion sensor. The ability to manipulate the content without touching anything physical to us seemed like a glimpse into the future, and something worth exploring as a way of adding some value to an enfeebled journalism industry.

Yet our vision came screeching to a halt after a presentation from intellectual property lawyer, Kay Lam McLeod, from Idea Law. Kay walked us through the tedious legal nature of the technological environment, stressing the importance of patenting, trademarks and copyrighting. More specifically how being aware of the legalities behind using already patented technologies can make or break a promising idea. Being a specialty intellectual property lawyer, it was obvious that she knew what she was talking about.

This got us thinking about the patents involved in the Leap Motion technology we were using.  Sure enough following a quick Google search we discovered that Apple had patented 23 gestures on the Leap Motion in late 2012:

“…A new hand gesturing system peripheral is set to attack the Mac Market within the next eight months. You’ll be able to zoom into maps, enter a signature, play shooter games and play in 3D spaces in ways more natural than Apple’s Magic Track pad.”

Just like that the door was firmly shut on the whole ubiquitous, hand gesture aspect of our idea.  It is safe to say that following a right hook from a patent and a left jab by revenue streams, our idea was left battered and bruised.

But the beauty of this competition is that they expect things like this to happen. In fact, they hope for things like this to happen, to prompt people to refine and develop their idea before the final pitch. And that is what we did.

Pitching

Our idea was so fresh and undeveloped that we struggled with preparation.

Heading into Bootcamp our team was confident that the platform we were pitching had extensive potential. I mean, who wouldn’t use an application that fed news to you in a simple, personalised format engaging you, your friends and anyone around you? That was our first mistake.

Admittedly, not giving any thought to business basics such as revenue streams, market segmentation or customer validation meant we faced an uphill battle to sell our idea to our potential investors.

Upon entering the program we had expected a room full of young students/ entrepreneurs like ourselves with a raw, underdeveloped, yet promising idea. For many this was the case; however there was no escaping the imposing presence of those teams and individuals that had platforms developed, thousands of dollars invested and a solid underpinning business strategy driving them forward.

Another terrifying surprise was that the pitch practice on day one involved actually delivering our pitch to an audience of fellow competitors and iLab facilitators – followed by some “constructive criticism”.

Needless to say, fronting the pitch unprepared and using a slideshow with content a monkey could have created drew great scepticism from the audience. It was then that the flaws in our almost non-existent business model slapped us in the face. For anyone considering entering a startup competition there are three key words you need to mull over. Money, money, money. The candid reality is that regardless of the extent of the revolutionary or “never been done before” elements you believe underpin your idea, if you can’t sell your idea as a money making machine, you may as well be selling pork chops to a room full of vegetarians.

We were quickly kicked into action to improve the way we sold our idea. The most important thing to remember was the elevator rule. If you can’t sell your idea in a 30 second elevator ride, the opportunity is gone.

Given the capitulation of the ubiquitous aspect of our idea, our team was going to have to re-sculpt the core competencies that our idea will offer to a consumer. Following hours of discussion we decided to focus on the conversational aspect of news consumption, i.e.: a platform that will incorporate elements seen in Facebook and Twitter into a formidable news application.

With a growing 55 per cent of people in 2013 consuming news on mobile platforms, we believed our proposal still had some legs. The core idea that we refined was that you would be able to interact with and follow particular stories with your friends, encouraging not only deeper news consumption, but inadvertently providing another form of social interaction. Our long term vision was essentially to do what Instagram has done with photo sharing to news stories.

One of the most beneficial learning curves for us was what we gained from our competitors: while they got to watch our less-than-perfect pitch, we also got to watch theirs. With the problem we encountered in our first pitch encapsulated in the delivery being convoluted and confusing, the core idea was essentially lost by the audience. In order to rectify this we simplified our presentation slides, using images, diagrams and fewer words.

In addition the spoken aspect of the presentation was left to one team member, instead of interchanging between two or three. These minor changes inspired from watching competitor’s pitches improved the overall understanding of our idea and as a result there was a lot more positive feedback on the final day from not only the judges but fellow contestants.

Mentoring

The pitching was complemented with mentoring and skills sessions. From the very first day we were thrown into intensive workshops on marketing, innovation, prototyping, funding, business structuring and the dreaded pitch practice workshops. The speakers on these various topics included lawyers, project managers, marketers, salesmen, software engineers and experts on entrepreneurialism. They knew what they were talking about and each workshop made us aware of yet another factor to think about in the cutthroat world of starting your own business.

One of the more influential workshops was an introduction to the business model canvas. For many startups, including ours, this workshop had the potential to expose flaws you didn’t even know existed. The session basically entailed pin pointing the exact way that your business will provide value to your desired customer by answering a series of simple questions on a large piece of paper.

The value we offered was embedded in a new innovative way of news delivery, interaction, personalisation and convenience. However these were consistently challenged by the ways we could differentiate our application from pre-existing platforms such as Twitter that already serves as a large number of people’s primary source of news.

It is the persistent questioning of the integrity of the building blocks of your whole idea that happens in this session that, while it seems brutal at the time, can really propel your idea forward.

Next time …

The advice we would pass on to budding entrants would be:

  1. Look at the legal environment that your idea will be operating in as a hiccup similar to the one we encountered can potentially derail your whole idea;
  2. Think about how your idea can generate money. The reality of the bootcamp is that the iLab facilitators, or any startup programs for that matter, are shopping for a solid idea to invest in. If you can’t convince them that your idea will bring them a return on investment, your chances of acceptance into a program will be severely crippled;
  3. With these points in mind, it is important to have a solid presentation prepared for the pitches. From watching pitch after pitch over the bootcamp the most important thing to note is that while five minutes is not a long time, it is a long time if the speaker is boring. Keeping presentations simple while maintaining the audience’s interest is the key to pitching success in these competitions.

The intense and confronting nature of bootcamp certainly put things into perspective and made us more inspired and confident entrepreneurs. Despite being unsuccessful in the iLab 2013 bootcamp, our team was happy with the three days and the progressive development of our startup.

For anyone flirting with the idea of entering a startup competition we highly recommend it. Even if your idea doesn’t get into the program you will still come out of the whole experience in a stronger position than when you started. Plus you get a couple of free lunches over the weekend!

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