Josh Flannery

Hackathon? Startup Weekend? Pop-up Accelerator??

Wikipedia tells us “A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects”.

On the model of Startup Weekend, Wikipedia explains these are “54-hour weekend events during which groups of developers, business managers, startup enthusiasts, marketing gurus, graphic artists and more pitch ideas for new startup companies, form teams around those ideas, and work to develop a working prototype, demo, or presentation by Sunday evening”.

Both are phenomenal approaches to giving structure to teams of young, innovative teams in producing high quality projects in short time periods.

As for outputs of these two categories, a hackathon generates working prototypes of new technologies that solve a problem, whereas a Startup Weekend (according to a contact on the inside) generally lacks the time required for strong execution of prototype but does amazingly at validating a problem, solution, business model and performing a pitch at the end of the program.

So what if we could bring the two models together, over a slightly longer period, and judge teams on both work done on external validation of problem, solution and business model but during their final pitch ask not only for slides to be presented but also the working prototypes they have coded up?

What if mentors from accelerator programs like AWI Ventures (main program partner), SlingShot Accelerator and Venturetec Accelerator were collaborating in providing world class mentoring and support to these teams?

What if investment groups like Optus Innov8 Seed and Tank Stream Ventureswere side by side giving mentoring to teams from an investor point of view?

What if the likes high-end tech development agency First Order founder, Alex North, was a key mentor into the program?

What if a passionate group of entrepreneurial UNSW alumni, led by Jonathan Barouch (who has already built a killer app for the same CBA platform the program is targeting with his startup Local Measure) gave up their time, expertise and skills to support each team as a means of “giving back” to their university?

What if the participants were both local and international students and alumni from a variety of faculty, schools and backgrounds – from the obvious Computer Science majors but also across many other Engineering disciplines, and of course the UNSW Business School (who hosted the event in their new flexible, flipped classrooms on campus)?

Then imagine 15 Commonwealth Bank staff divided themselves into hipster, hacker and hustlers categories and provided another layer of mentoring for the students competing. With my colleague Melissa Ran and her team of 20 volunteers making things go smoothly in the background, it would be difficult to think of a way to improve “people power” for a single program.

This is what happened with the UNSW CBA Hackathon we ran September 27 – October 2 this year and the results were very interesting. One of the exciting results was that we have ended up with at least three startups with real solutions to real problems and the support of a major corporate who cares: Commonwealth Bank Australia. Some of the teams are already making use of the mentoring from CBA domain experts and access to the brand new CBA Innovation Lab. In addition, the teams are making use of the free incubation services provided by the Student Entrepreneur Development team at NewSouth Innovations.

$7,500 was up for grabs for the 9 teams who were competing with a focus on the retail transaction space and leveraging the Commonwealth Bank platforms Albert,Leo and Pi.

Some of the concepts teams developed during the program included:

  • tyca (customisable receipts)
  • Easy Dining (an entertaining self-service dining application)
  • Go Get Goods (an app for buying regular grocery items cheaper and easier)
  • Gift (a location gift recommendation app for merchants and shoppers)
  • Notify (a queuing systems specifically for the merchants Albert device)
  • PayRun (an app that allows you to pay faster and save time on waiting)

The icing on the cake was the quality and diversity of the judging panel.

A heavy hitter and such an amazing fit for this program, Brian Long is both the Chairman for the UNSW Audit Committee in addition to being a Board Director at CBA. UNSW alumni entrepreneurs were represented by Jonathan Barouch and CBA by Dilan Rajasingham, Executive Manager Technology Innovation and Senior Solution Architect Jason Chisholm who was able to judge on technical viability regarding how the concepts would work in practice with the CBA platforms at hand.

So who were the winning teams?

In 3rd place, and perhaps the most entertaining pitch, was Cabert – an app that allows one device to replace all others in a taxi. Given the controversy of Uber in terms of disrupting the taxi industry it will be very interesting to see how far Cabert can go and what attention they pick up along the way.

2nd place was taken out by ShopLink, a communal network for merchants. It allows merchants using the CBA Albert and Pi platforms to give each other competitive advantage over similar vendors outside of the network.

The winning team was CrowdSauce, a simple yet effective solution that combines self-payment with user ratings. The judges were impressed by the depth of validation the team had achieved in such a short time – particularly the way the team engaged potential customers (who they are still in touch with) and at the same time put together a prototype which was presented to judges during their final pitch.

The lead speaker of the 3 person team CrowdSauce, Ishaan Varshney, is completing a Computer Science degree from the Faculty of Engineering with a minor in Actuaries from UNSW Business School, “To be honest, the event wasn’t what I expected – it wasn’t a typical hackathon. I didn’t realise how much I would learn about pitching my product. As someone from the “hacker” category, I now recognise how important pitching is in getting your idea off the ground. I found it really valuable learning to validate a problem with the real world in real time – then follow up by validating our solution and business model – its really exciting for us to be able to now access ongoing support from CBA in their Innovation Lab too”.

So was the program a success?

We think so. We have brought together our UNSW startup ecosystem around the new batch of potential entrepreneurs out of the university. We’ve generated some great media exposure in The Australian, CIO and ComputerWorld for our sponsor CBA, the winning student team and UNSW itself. For our main sponsor, CBA, as opposed to looking at this program as a way of getting an early view on talent for recruitment purposes, it was more about testing concepts and validating new potential applications for their payment gateway platforms – and feedback has been nothing but positive so far. The biggest success for me though has been the 4 or 5 teams of students who have approached us post-event to continue with their startup ideas beyond the competition.

So, a “hackathon”, a “Startup Weekend” or a “Pop-up accelerator” – whatever you classify this program as, we certainly want to do more of them in 2015!

Get Rich or Save the World Trying: Social Entrepreneurs

There has been a lot of buzz around “social entrepreneurship” and social startups over the last few years and with it a lot of confusion over what a “social startup” actually is. Whilst some camps define social startups as not dissimilar to a charity or NPO, others dismiss them as businesses using a social cause for pure marketing and differentiation purposes.

Among the 215 or so student entrepreneurs and startups coming out of UNSW in the last few years we have had an impressive batch of social entrepreneurs with varying takes on social entrepreneurship, interesting social impact strategies and with impressive degrees of success.

FoodBank Local is a food aid logistics software company run by current UNSW Computer Science student, Brad Lorge.

Foodbank-Local

Foodbank Local

Chuffed is a crowdfunding platform for social causes run by UNSW Biomedical Engineering alumni, Prashan Paramanathan.

 

Chuffed Crowdfunding for Charity & Social Causes

Chuffed Crowdfunding for Charity & Social Causes

 Conscious Step is an e-commerce platform aligned with UN causes headed up by UNSW Medical PhD graduate Hassan Ahmad and UNSW Business School Finance major, Prashant Mehta (on exchange student from the US).

NewSouth Innovations has had the pleasure of working with both Brad and Prashant via the Student Entrepreneur Development program and more recently with Prashan who is looking to pull together a UNSW social entrepreneur community.

To dig deeper into how and why social startups like these work and what makes a social entrepreneur tick, I asked these co-founders 5 questions regarding perceptions, motivations, challenges, success and future plans.

ED: I saw Hassan pitch at the original Startup Games 18 months ago and thought the guy could sell Ice to Eskimos, very talented at getting his message across and convincing people to get involved, I have also worked with Brad and from the early days found him organising events, arranging competitions, getting sponsorships from companies to support the University Clubs he is involved with, it wasn’t a surprise to me to see his team win.

1. What is your definition of “social entrepreneurship / social startups”

Brad LorgeFoodBank Local:

Brad-Lorge-Imagine Cup-77_0

The UNSW Imagine Cup Team – Brad Lorge on the right

I see it as redefining profit to include something important to both the entrepreneurs and other members of the community. I think the best social startups have their impact and core business directly aligned.

Prashan ParamanathanChuffed:

Prashan Paramanathan - Chuffed

Prashan Paramanathan – Chuffed

There seems to be a whole industry of people who spend time trying to come up with a definition for ‘social enterprise’ – I’m hesitant to add to the muddle. Generally what I find is that there are two types of organisations that call themselves social enterprises:

1. Businesses that have a social purpose embedded into their actual trading activity (most commonly commercial businesses that employ some category of disadvantaged people or businesses that service the not-for-profit sector); and

2. Businesses that redistribute (a portion of) their profit to social causes (eg. charity water, who gives a crap, tom’s shoes)

Prashant MehtaConscious Step

Prashant Mehta - Conscious Step

Prashant Mehta – Conscious Step

Social Entrepreneurship allows for a company to have a primary mission or focus on giving back or making the world a better place, while leveraging the advantages of being a for-profit company. Allowing advantages for developing better products, paying for better employees, and having additional funds to test and develop stronger and more unique marketing campaigns.

Concious-Steps-Promo2

2. What motivates you as a social entrepreneur

Brad Lorge, FoodBank Local:

The same things that motivate me as a social entrepreneur motivate me as an engineer – we want to build something that has an impact for others. We want to make a contribution to our profession.

Prashan Paramanathan, Chuffed:

Tech in the non-profit sector is very often done very badly. Much of this is due to non-profits deprioritising tech spending, but it’s also due to a lack of tailoring of products to the sector. Most often people assume that giving non-profits a free version of the software design for commercial customers will lead to a good outcome – it very rarely does. The sector needs products designed for the sector, by people who understand the sector – and understand tech. That’s where I want to play.

Prashant Mehta, Conscious Step:

Motivation comes from delivering a better product than anything available in today’s market, while creating awareness for the changes I’d like to see in the world. In the case of Conscious Step, providing people with fun solutions for the problems that affect our day to day lives.

3. What are some of the challenges and misconceptions for social entrepreneurs?

Brad Lorge, FoodBank Local:

Identity crisis is a challenge, and knowing the difference between good and bad ideas and practice. A misconception is that you need to give up on growth of investment because a social startup has a social objective. Social startups with the right business acumen grow faster, have stronger support and break through barriers better than any other.

Prashan Paramanathan, Chuffed:

The two that I worry about are:

1. Social entrepreneurs not focusing enough attention on whether there’s a commercially-viable business case behind their venture. There’s not enough focus on delivering a great product or service for your customer, which manifests in several ways including: directly copying businesses from the commercial sector and assuming they’ll work for the non-profit sector; focusing too much on servicing a beneficiary, instead of a customer; or assuming that being a ‘social enterprise’ gives them slack in the market on delivering an excellent product.

2. As a social sector, we need to do a better job of attracting smart startup brains from the commercial startup sector. There is a very large bank of knowledge on how to run a startup well which needs to be imported into the social enterprise scene. I think we confound these startup skills with general ‘commercial’ skills and seek them out from experienced corporate types – this isn’t the best place to get them.

Hassan pitching Concious Step at the Startup Games - Credit Startup Games Bart Jelema

Hassan pitching Concious Step at the Startup Games – Credit Startup Games Bart Jelema

Prashant Mehta, Conscious Step:

Some of the challenges as a social entrepreneur include:

a) Financial Constrains – Most startups do not have a lot of financial backing. This forces you to really work to prioritize how money can be best spent to continue growth, but continually improving the back end of any business.

b) Testing- Getting out of your head and getting feedback on whether your idea is viable, learning the best ways to generate profits and revenues, and understanding the main reason people are interested in your product or service.

c) Networking- Networking is so important and can sometimes even be a bit costly. Meeting people in the same industry or working on similar projects can provide advise or knowledge that can save a lot of time, energy, and resources. More importantly, teams can usually accomplish more than individuals. More importantly the skills of meeting people and presenting can take one far in life.

As for misconceptions, one of the biggest misconceptions among social entrepreneurs is that there social mission will be its primary driver. The truth is your product has to be superior to the rest of the market, offer competitive advantages, and a social mission and presence is the cherry on top. Mission driven companies, whether startups or major corporation are becoming more and more common, and almost now an expectation with increased awareness of the many issues around the world.

4. How would you summarise your success so far?

Brad Lorge, FoodBank Local:

We achieved a 70% efficiency increase for food distribution. We have partnerships with some of the biggest brands in the world as well as the biggest charities.

Prashan Paramanathan, Chuffed:

Since launching Chuffed.org in October 2013, we’ve grown by about 30% every month and will soon have raised over $1 million for over 200 social cause organisations in Australia. The biggest of these campaigns was for a sanctuary for rescued farm animals – Edgar’s Mission – which raised over $162,000 from 1,785 donors in 14 countries, making it the largest Australian social cause campaign to run on any major crowdfunding platform. To support this growth, we have raised $460,000 in seed funding from the Telstra Foundation.

Prashant Mehta, Conscious Step:

Some of the press we’ve received early on includes our Indiegogo Campaign/Commercial , United Nations coverage, exposure during the Business for Good Competition, success in the BFG PitchSydney SEED Fund Competition Top 50 Social Entrepreneurs in Australia and finally a feature in the Women’s Wear Daily/ Footwear News .

5. So where to from here?

Brad Lorge, FoodBank Local:

We will keep building momentum behind a movement to push technology forward and end hunger.

Prashan Paramanathan, Chuffed:

We believe there is still a very large amount of room for growth in the Australian market, both in the rapidly growing not-for-profit and social enterprise sector, but also for crowdfunding in the school and university sector as well as for personal cause campaigns. We are also likely to expand internationally as broaden our product line to support more tailored online donation products for the social enterprise and not-for-profit sector.

Prashant Metha, Conscious Step:

Conscious Step intends to continue to raise money spread awareness for additional causes, while growing its presence in the U.S and Australian market. We plan to continue to educate people on the causes that are resulting in the most issues around the world, and simple ways they can get more involved and help create more solutions. More importantly, we intend to use organic materials and promote the values in fair-trade working condition to provide our customers with a superior sock experience.

It’s inspiring to work with and be supported by people like Prashan, Brad and Prashant and exciting to know they are in talks about potential collaboration based on a shared desire to foster a really strong social entrepreneur community around the university and within the broader Australian startup and business community.

I tend to think social startups are neither a fad, marketing ploy nor driven by a simple NPO charity goal but are the tip of the iceberg for what will become a normal part of corporate ethics for most successful companies. At some point, those companies that do not include social related considerations – across the supply chain – will fall behind those that do.

Starter Businesses – Great learning experiences for young entrepreneurs

Photo Credit: Scott Coleman

It’s not difficult to find a frustrated entrepreneur from our ecosystem whenever small businesses, lifestyle companies and startups get painted with the same brush.

Small businesses are just that – small versions of big businesses whereas startups (as Steve Blank drilled into our heads during my time with him in January during the Lead LaunchPad for Accelerators / Incubators program at UC Berkeley) are temporary organisations searching for a repeatable and scalable business model.

As universities playing in the startup ecosystem, the obvious route to remain relevant to students who care and the ecosystem itself is to set up programs that particularly serve and support programs that focus on encouraging and supporting startups.

It would be “missing the point” or “getting it wrong” to do the same for small businesses or lifestyle companies, wouldn’t it?

I don’t agree.

Firstly, we have to keep in mind that entrepreneurs, on average, fail 3 or 4 times before their first successful startup. So for student entrepreneurs, the nature of the first business they start is less relevant than the fact that it serves as a vehicle to develop them as entrepreneurs.

And an entrepreneur for a scalable tech startup and an entrepreneur for a small business face different challenges and need to use different methodologies but the skill sets required for success are not worlds apart.

Before I go on, let’s put this into perspective. The startup ecosystem needs more million dollar innovative Australian startups and the ultimate goal should be working toward this. But at the university level we have to also build a pipeline of entrepreneurs that may not have their first experiences in real world business as a tech entrepreneur co-founder.

Working with young entrepreneurs on a daily basis, I can testify that there are a growing number of first time small business entrepreneurs that aspire to eventually become a startup co-founder after learning what it takes to run a business more generally.

To explore this further I spoke with two young entrepreneurs at UNSW who are currently running successful small businesses but are also interested in creating growth startups. Shahe Momdjian and I originally met during the first edition of the UNSW Startup Games in 2012.

Shahe won 2nd prize with his startup StartupGenie.

Ed: I saw Shahe pitch StartupGenie last year and in my opinion it was one of the most likely to turn into a real scalable startup, its a real problem and he had a real solution.

Startup Genie

Startup Genie

 

I asked Shahe about the small business he has been running since his high school days and his thoughts on these matters.

Shahe Momdjian

Shahe Momdjian

Shahe Momdjian

Josh: What is your business about?

Shahe: We’re about proving that Young Wisdom is not an oxymoron! We are a communications and innovation consultancy designed to bridge the gap between talented young communicators (our team) and the corporate world (our clients) by building trusting relationships and delivering quality work.

So far, we’ve come to specialise in marketing communications and within that corporate (and startup) video production. Now, we’re branching out from there.

Recently we’ve begun to help business leaders and teams become more effective through communication skills training and team-building. Next, we plan to offer development and custom SaaS solutions to support our clients’ various communications initiatives.

Josh: Do you have an opinion on “lifestyle companies vs. startups”?

Shahe: Startups

I’m a big fan, but it’ll help more if I’m critical instead… Startup culture, particularly for students, can be problematic at times. We can underestimate what it really takes to run a business, and we can forget that a startup is (at least, trying to be) a real business. The “ask for forgiveness, not permission” mentality that many have adopted doesn’t help.

At the risk of oversimplifying… Sometimes I encounter startups that might have been better off as a feature in another product, or even a marketing/CSR initiative for a larger organisation (something the “founders” could be paid to implement).

Sometimes it feels like we’re “disrupting” for the sake of it, or being driven by a would-be boss’ ego. We don’t spend enough time vetting our ideas according to actual market needs and justifying why they deserve to be whole new businesses (even knowing what we do about lean methodology).

We then try to find a cofounder who will be just as committed (without looking much further than the next networking event) and try to pitch for other people’s hard-earned money to make it happen. This approach is full of risk and it’s no wonder that many investors are not interested.

We could then choose to blame the startup investment community and/or government for being small-minded, try again overseas or go back a few steps. And then, after many years of slogging away, there’s the opportunity cost to consider…

Lifestyle

For young entrepreneurs in particular, running a “lifestyle” business or being a contractor, are excellent ways to learn what it takes to actually run a business without investing too much capital (or worse, someone else’s capital).

Because the focus is on developing a relatively simple services-based product range, selling and serving customers instead of building something complicated (at large personal expense, at least in time) and getting funding; we learn the real challenges of business at an operational level.

Cash flow management, time/project management, book-keeping and tax obligations… These are the things that will really test our resolve as would-be entrepreneurs (and make traditional employment look much more attractive).

On the startup path, we only really learn how we feel about these responsibilities after the product is built or funding is received (when the stakes are much higher). As a lifestyle entrepreneur, we continuously work on communication skills and relationship management, customer service and marketing.

Overall we will have fine-tuned a whole range of transferable skills that will benefit us in every business pursuit, contract or job. Lifestyle businesses (of the coaching, training, etc. variety) also tend to relate to the founders’ personal skills or interests e.g. yoga, tennis, maths; which is an effective way for founders to hone their own skills (especially in teaching and working with others).

Finally, it’s not true that these businesses can’t scale dramatically. Once you have a product range that works, a few happy customers and a target market that responds well to you, you can start working on your systems and processes, growing a team, or even add a tech layer (bringing the startup-style potential… except with much more experience, market validation, and maybe even your own capital).

Then, the limits of a business run solely by you dissolve and the potential becomes global…

Josh: What is the most exciting thing that has happened so far?

Shahe: The thrill of sitting across from some of Australia’s largest organisations, listening to their needs, pitching solutions and being taken seriously as a credible supplier in a very competitive industry is one of my favourite moments (whether or not it turns into work right away)… The most exciting thing however was when a colleague of mine sold, worked for and billed his own Young Wisdom client for the first time.

Josh: Future plans?

So many plans. Wait and see! There’s no right or wrong way to go about entrepreneurship as a young person; it’s a brilliant time in our lives to be experimenting. There are however, lower-risk and higher-risk alternatives that we can choose from depending on our risk appetite, resources and skill/experience level. Lifestyle business can be a great way to test yourself while still offering the potential to “go big” later on.

Josh: It has been interesting observing Shahe and his Young Wisdom small business being so integrated into the startup ecosystem – he has provided marketing services for funded geolocation tech startup Geepers and is well known among the community for his extraordinary pitching and presenting skills.

 

Gary Liang

Gary Liang

Gary Liang

Another brilliant young entrepreneur kicking goals with his own small business but aspiring to eventually be a startup co-founder is Gary Liang who started his profitable tutoring business in his first year at UNSW. I asked him the same questions here.

Josh: What is your business about?

Gary Keystone Education is about designing the HSC for high school students. We provided small personalised classes that are tailored towards the school of the students so they are learning the content they want to and when they want.

Keystone Education

Keystone Education

Josh: Do you have an opinion on “lifestyle companies vs. startups”?

Gary: They are both great – personally I’m learning a lot from this “lifestyle business” from wearing a lot of hats, and having great freedom working for myself, but startups are interesting as they aim to have more of an impact . I would love to involve myself into one in the future.

Josh: What is the most exciting thing that has happened so far?

Gary: I wouldn’t use the word exciting – it’s more like satisfying. Of course I have been excited over inflows of prospective clients (students) or general things like that, but nothing beats the satisfaction of actually seeing the results of what I do. Seeing students improve their marks due to us is a great feeling. It was also amazingly satisfying looking around my offices and seeing that every classroom was full and students were all engaged in learning.

Josh: Future plans?

Gary: I would like to expand into a bigger location and obviously have more students, which means more Keystone mentors. I would also like to pass on some of the roles I have been doing, especially administration work, onto an employee or some sort of assistant so I can focus on the more strategic aspect of the business and make it more sustainable.

Experience with your first Small Business is Valuable

As someone with responsibility over the growth of the startup ecosystem on one university campus, my verdict is that for a more medium to long term mission it is just as important for universities to nurture these small business entrepreneurs and their businesses as startups. They don’t belong in the same pitching competitionsmixers with angel investors oraccelerator programs but they can be a valuable part of the community – whether in the short term as potential service providers or collaborators with startup founders or for the fact that they may just come back in 6 months, 2 years or 10 years as the experienced entrepreneur with domain expertise ready to launch a globally scalable startup.

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