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Startup Tips from UNIHACK

Melbourne’s premiere university-level tech hackathon was on this weekend. Just like last year, I joined in. With fierce competition, mentors & recruiters from big-name companies, and a panel of critically-acclaimed judges — it was one exhilarating event.

I learned so much in the span of 36 sleepless hours. While fresh in my mind, here’s what happened, in the form of major key lessons from UNIHACK:

Don’t be afraid to try something old

When you’re starting out as an entrepreneur, trying to come up with a unique business idea feels like the biggest problem in the world.

When my UNIHACK team and I were deciding what to build, we also ran into the same problem. We spent an ideation session trying to come up with the most original idea we could think of. It was extremely difficult, so our team decided to “play it safe” by working on a more well-designed version of When2Meet.

But, walking into UNIHACK, we were surprised to see so many teams doing the same thing: building some variation of some existing product. That was when I realised that a lot of big-name companies have done the same thing, too! I mean, Uber’s essentially the taxi service plus the internet — and Facebook started out as a MySpace clone but for Harvard students! Nothing is truly original.

So my team and I decided to stick to our idea, and just focus on improving what’s already out there. We were pretty successful in the end: we won the category for best design, on top of a people’s choice award.

Work Fast, Speak Slowly

6 hours before the deadline, my team and I were facing some really bad issues building our app. We couldn’t get the core functionality to work. We had a huge backlog of tasks that needed to be finished in just a small amount of time — and lot of that work was dependent on this core feature.

We were stressed, and each team meeting we had was getting more and more aggressive. It had reached the point where we each had to seperate from each other to cool down and figure out what went wrong.

First of all, here’s what we were doing right: we had hourly team meetings, and lined up our tasks on Trello. We were on top of everything, and everybody knew what each other had to do. (Not so different from the usual startup team workflow). But here’s what wasn’t right: we were too concerned about the quantity of team catch-ups, that we completely disregarded the quality of our communication.

Every one of us in our team was too concerned about getting stuff done that we didn’t bother to explain what we did and listen to each other. We were too focused on our own tasks, and assumed that everyone in the team would just understand what we did.

30 minutes before the deadline was when we finally resolved all our issues. It was extremely stressful, but one heck of a lesson to learn: you can never assume that other people know as much as you. When you do anything, explain before, explain during, and explain after!

It’s all about the pitch

There are so many ways to phrase this. Here’s a few that I like:

  • Your product isn’t worth anything if you can’t sell it.
  • What you do doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to tell others about it.
  • Your business cannot be successful if you can’t show others that it will be.

Even though teams at UNIHACK spent 24 hours non-stop building their product, the quality of the work was measured by their ability to pitch to the judges. Some of the best programmers and software developers I knew didn’t win — even if they knew how to write industry-standard code. The winning teams won because they could persuade their product’s potential.

Indeed, it’s crazy to think that one could work so hard on getting the product right — and have all that effort thrown away because a product is unsellable. (Perhaps a parallel could be drawn to the whole science communication conundrum). But the most important thing to learn here is that what you sell matters as much as how you sell it.

What I love about hackathons is the agile learning environment. It’s a playground where you’re allowed to make mistakes, learn hard, and learn fast.

Even though my team and I each came home with an Xbox of our own, the most valuable thing we got out of it was the learning experience. As cheesy as it sounds — it is the lessons learned from hardships and challenges after all, that guide one’s future decisions and motivations.