By now you might have heard about the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge. But in case you’re lost, the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge is a team-based challenge where you get the chance to win Rs. 1 million. The challenge is the teams have to propose and develop an app that adds value to the general public. If you’re thinking of taking part now, registrations have sadly closed.

Image credits: Malshan Gunawaradane
Image credits: Malshan Gunawaradane

Initially, the organizers planned to only accommodate 75 teams at the first stage of the competition. However, after seeing so much enthusiasm from the applicants, the organizers increased that number to 100. And so, on the 3rd of September, we saw these 100 teams fill an entire hall at Trace Expert City. Why were they here on a Saturday morning? Because it was here that the first workshop of the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon took place. Here’s what we saw at this workshop.

The introduction: Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge 101

Manindri Bandaranayake – Head of Marketing from Janashakthi Insurance takes the stage. She opened her talk by congratulating the audience for being selected for this workshop. Originally only 75 teams were supposed to be a part of this workshop. But after seeing the enthusiasm of the applicants, the organizers increased that number to 100.

Manindri reminded everyone about the prize money. However, she went on to say that’s not the only thing they should go after. It’s about the learning experience. It’s about creating the best ideas and encourages the audience to make the best of the opportunity. There’s going to be more workshops with experts coming to speak and mentor the teams build innovative ideas.

But why did Janashakthi pursue this initiative? Manindri shared two reasons to answer that question. The first was because they want to innovate and be relevant to their customers. The second reason was to give the youth of Sri Lanka a chance to create innovative solutions. However, at the end of the day, Janashakthi is still an insurance provider – they aren’t experts in IT. This is where their partners like GDG come in to make this an enriching opportunity for the participants.

Manindri then introduced the speakers of the day and why they were asked to attend the workshop.  They were asked to attend because the theme of the challenge is finding solutions for traffic. But it’s not about being stuck in traffic. It’s about the broader issues such as pollution caused by traffic. These speakers were asked to attend the workshop to show the different possibilities the teams could consider. With that, Manindri concluded her talk.

The PickMe journey

The first speaker of the day was Jiffry Zulfer – CEO and Co-founder of PickMe. He takes the stages and asks everyone to give a good morning. The audience response is a dull greeting. He replies, “With this kind of attitude, you’re not going to have any innovation in your head”, is how he opens his presentation.

Jiffry Zulfer - CEO and Co-founder of PickMe speaking at the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge workshop (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
Jiffry Zulfer – CEO and Co-founder of PickMe speaking at the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge workshop (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

Jiffry went on to say that this is a prime time to be in technology. He’s been in the tech industry for 16 years. But now we are in an era where there are stakeholders helping build the ecosystem and encourages the audience to take advantage of it. He then proceeded to share the story of how PickMe was born. You can read the entire story in detail here.

 “If you have a great idea and team to execute it, everyone will want to know you.” – Jiffry Zulfer

Afterward, Jiffry highlighted the importance of having a great team and help you execute your idea. Good ideas come second, the team to execute them that comes first. He also highlighted that contacts aren’t as important as they used to be. Today, it’s about the ideas you have and are executing. And if you execute it right, your competitors will find it very difficult to follow you. If you keep moving fast and innovating no one can keep up with you. With that, Jiffry concluded his talk.

“As Sri Lankans, we can do a lot more in our country”- Jiffry Zulfer

Following his presentation, we saw an active Q&A session. During this session, Jiffry shared with the audience that his parents too were skeptical about him becoming an entrepreneur. But he later proved them wrong. He stated that it’s up to you to break that perception that a startup isn’t worthwhile. Jiffry went on to say that Sri Lanka is the perfect place to start a business. If you can build a successful business in Sri Lanka, you can do it anywhere.

The trends and tools of the trade

Following Jiffry’s presentation, we saw Tharaka Devinda from GDG Sri Lanka take the stage. He opens by telling how he told taxi drivers in the US how Uber faces intense competition from PickMe. With that, Tharaka’s talk began and focused on upcoming trends and some tools the teams could use. While his talk was aimed at the teams, the tips he shared was something all app developers could use. The first segment was focused on the next billion users.

Tharaka Devinda from GDG speaking at the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge Workshop (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
Tharaka Devinda from GDG speaking at the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge Workshop (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

Serving the next billion internet users is a big topic amongst companies like Google and Facebook. He refers to how the Space X rocket exploded with a Facebook satellite. This shows how Facebook and Google with Loon are building infrastructure. Why are they building this infrastructure? In order to get the next billion users connected and consume their services. So what can you do? When building your app you need to consider that these people have:

  • Low-end devices with low resources
  • Small screens
  • Slow bandwidth
  • Offline usage in areas with poor cell coverage (Youtube now has offline access)

The first impression of the internet for these people is on a mobile screen. Giving then good impression about the internet and your app is important. That’s how you keep them using your app. Another important thing Tharaka highlighted is code quality. At hackathons, we typically, just create code that works. But after the hackathon, we find that the code is confusing. So he encouraged everyone participating in the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon to use clean code.

Tharaka then shared some tools the developers should look at in the future. The first being the newly released Android Nougat. When you build your app, it’s important to support the previous versions of Android as well. But don’t try supporting ancient versions of Android like 2.3 aka Cupcake. That’s only going to hold you back.

“Don’t sacrifice your functionality for the sake of compatibility” – Tharaka Devinda

Tharaka then spoke about Android Auto at the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon challenge workshop. Your app needs to support this Android Auto. However, Android Auto will soon be on your phone so you won’t need the car head unit. So you might want to look at how the interface changes and see how your app can support. Tharaka also encouraged the teams to look at how text messages work on Android Auto.

Afterward, Tharaka spoke about a few backend tools developers could use. The first being the Google Cloud Platform and its many tools. The second was Google’s machine learning platform: Tensor Flow. The last being Firebase, a handy tool for developers building both mobile and web apps. With Firebase, it’s possible to cut down on the unnecessary code. Tharaka then concluded his talk by saying GDG is available at all times to support them.

Analyzing the problems and trying to figure out solutions

Following a short break, we saw Sunesh Rodrigo, DGM Group HR – MAS Holdings take the stage. He opened his talk by saying, “Good morning. If it’s not a good morning, I don’t bloody care.” It was at this moment, we knew that we were in for something interesting. He went on to tell the audience that he was here to tell them how to make money. Maybe not at this event since there’re 100 teams but perhaps the tips will help at other competitions.

Sunesh Rodrigo conducting his interactive session at the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge Workshop (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
Sunesh Rodrigo conducting his interactive session at the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge Workshop (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

Sunesh then moved on to talk about his entrepreneurial journey. A journey which began when he founded Vantage Consultancy at the age of 28. Afterward, he became a farmer. His second startup which he calls his pet project is FoodiGrow. He got the idea seeing how remote his house was and an open field. And so he learned how to farm on YouTube and built his second startup. After his farming adventure, Sunesh was selected by the US embassy to represent Sri Lanka at a regional TEDx conference.

Afterward, Sunesh spoke about his other ventures at Agri Ceylon and his job at MAS. With that, he concluded his interesting but lengthy introduction. He then asked an open question from the audience, “What causes traffic?” It took a while but we saw a variety of answers. Some of the answers we saw were: Sri Lankan cops, bad public transport, bad parking, lady drivers, and a lack of highways. Sunesh then shared his thoughts on how the teams could tackle these problems during the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge. Some he said were possible, others not so much.

Sunesh then gave the teams a very important lesson. He stated that none of the ideas the team produce need to be revolutionary. Instead, they could be evolutionary. What’s the difference between the two? A revolutionary idea is something completely new. Whereas an evolutionary idea is something built to improve ideas that already exist.

“Don’t rack your brains trying to build revolutionary ideas. Evolutionary ideas with proper execution can be just as successful.” – Sunesh Rodrigo

Afterward, Sunesh threw another question at the teams, “What are the outcomes of traffic?” Once again we saw a variety of answers. Some of them were: wasted fuel, stress, accidents, pollution, fights and new connections. Once again, Sunesh analyzed the answers given by the teams. He then shared his thoughts on possible apps the teams could build during the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge.

The final segment of Sunesh’s talk was about sharing what the judges expected from the teams. If the teams wanted to impress the judges at the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge they would need to look at 5 things. These 5 things are:

  1. Clearly, define the problem in the proposal. Define the in scope and out the scope of the project. If your app is about air pollution then in scope is air pollution. Whereas, out scope would refer to other forms of pollution such as noise pollution.
  2. The idea itself. Sunesh recommended spending 50% of words and time on this section. A team is expected to talk about their solution in detail. This includes the technical details used to create the solution.
  3. How your idea different. This is an area where teams should spend 20% of their words and time. This is where the teams will need a bit of marketing knowledge. They’ll have to compare and contrast with existing services on the market.
  4. The target audience. If you build an app people need to download it. But who are these people? That’s the question that needs to be answered in this question.
  5. Resource allocation: The final section details all the resources required to build the app. This section should show how much time it takes to build the app. It should also show what roles each team member is doing. Most importantly, there should be a budget. All contestants in the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge can assume they have a budget of $1 million.

Following Sunesh’s talk, we saw another active Q&A session. During this session, one of the key questions he answered was how functional an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) should be. At the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge, the judges expect to see an app. The teams don’t have to develop a complete app right now, though. The immediate hurdle for the teams is to answer the 5 questions.

And when answering those questions, Sunesh shared that the teams shouldn’t be afraid to get technical. All proposals submitted at the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon will be judged by two groups of people. The first being a group that will look at the conceptual aspects of the proposal. These conceptual aspects include things such as marketing, finance, etc. The second group will look at the technical details to see if the solution is technically feasible.

Lessons from NicNac

The fourth speaker of the day was Sachira Fernando – founder of Erbenlab. He opens by asking the audience how many of them are developers and how many are marketers. We saw many hands rise up when Sachira asked for developers. But a very few when he asked for marketers. This Sachira says is the problem. In Sri Lanka, we see many developers in tech initiatives, but very few marketers.

Sachira Fernando - Founder of Erbenlab and NicNac speaking at the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge workshop (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)
Sachira Fernando – Founder of Erbenlab and NicNac speaking at the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge workshop (Image credits: Malshan Gunawardane)

Sachira then spoke about why he built NicNac – because (to an extent) he’s a lazy person. He didn’t want to go out, buy stuff and come back. He wanted a company to do it but he couldn’t afford a butler. Thus NicNac was born. Originally, NicNac wasn’t meant to solve our traffic woes. But it has contributed to solving our traffic woes. How? By taking you off the street. Instead of you going out and buying stuff, there’s another person getting stuff for you and a bunch of other people.

Sachira then highlighted the difference between entrepreneurs, developers, and marketers. A developer is an expert on the subject matter. They’ll know how to make things work. A marketer, on the other hand, is an expert of the customer’s views. They’ll know how customers want things to work. This sometimes creates a clash between developers and marketers. However, an entrepreneur is someone that’s an expert in both the subject matter and the customer’s views.

He then asked the audience an interesting question, “How many of you would sell your house to fund your idea?” One person was brave enough to stand up. After giving the brave individual a round of applause, Sachira spoke about Brian Wong who we met at Disrupt Asia. Sachira describes Brian as a confident gambler. When he initially came up with the idea for Kipp, Brian first ironed out the problems in the concept. Afterward, he was so confident that he sold his house and invested the money in Kipp.

“Do you have that confidence?” asks Sachira from the audience. That’s the first question anyone needs to ask before pitching a startup. Sachira himself has built 18 products. 16 of those products failed and he only sold one. NicNac is now his 18th product. He credits its success to putting himself in the shoes of investors and asking the tough questions.

Sachira concluded by saying that, budding entrepreneurs should think about how they can build proper companies. He also highlighted that the Sri Lankan market is a great place to start. Why? Because people complain about the tiniest things. Complaints are feedback entrepreneurs can use to improve their products. But it’s important to differentiate between smart feedback and dumb feedback.

Wrapping up.

The final speaker of the day was Thamara Kulathunga – Senior Brand Executive, Janashakthi Insurance. Thamara shared with the contestants, how the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge will proceed from here. From the 100 teams in attendance, they will be reducing that number to 20. To do so, they’ll be looking at the ideas the teams present. And the best ideas will be the ones that answer the 5 questions Sunesh shared during his session.

Following another short but active Q&A session, the first Janashakthi Full Option Appathon workshop came to an end. And so the teams went back home, knowing the importance of good ideas, executing them, and communicating them properly to the judges. With that, the waiting game begins, until the next stage of the Janashakthi Full Option Appathon Challenge where we’ll see the best and brightest ideas from these teams take center stage.

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