It was a cold Friday morning and we were in Vavuniya – a long way from home. Suddenly at 5 AM, our co-founder Enosh wakes us up and tells us to pack our bags. We were heading to Jaffna Town. What followed was a long drive on the open roads surrounded by Jaffna’s lovely scenery. Five hours later, we found ourselves at our old Jaffna haunt: The Tilko Jaffna City Hotel. Why were we here once more? Startup Weekend Jaffna.
In case you’re lost, Startup Weekend is a 54-hour event which brings together developers, business managers, startup enthusiasts, marketing gurus, graphic artists and more in order to pitch ideas for new startup companies. But that’s only the beginning. As the weekend unfolds, the participants form teams and bring their startup ideas to life.
It’s an insane idea but will it work? That’s what we came to Jaffna to find out. Here’s what we found once we unpacked our bags and walked into the event hall.
Breaking the ice at Startup Weekend
It was 6pm and as we walked into the hall, we saw a fairly large crowd inside the hall. Many of whom were still only interacting in the groups they came with. Anurag Maloo, the Startup Weekend Regional Manager (South & Central Asia) was determined to ensure that this changes by the end of the day. After all, Day 01 is known as, “the icebreaker.”
Thirty minutes later, the majority of the participants and mentors were in the hall. Seeing this Anurag, kicked off the proceedings. He began by welcoming everyone and giving the usual introduction as the participants took their seats, forming their de-facto teams.
His short presentation ended with him sharing some basic yet important details: the Wi-Fi password and the location of the bathrooms. With that being said, it was time for the introductory presentations.
The presentations: The Startup Journey 101
The first speaker of the night was Arunesh Peter – Chief of Projects at ICTA. His presentation emphasized on the importance of the country being digitally connected. As he points out, a country prospers when it sees an increase in internet penetration. This is a statement that was echoed by Chamath Palihapitiya sometime back as well. Arunesh then concluded by speaking about initiatives being carried out by the ICTA to connect the country such as Project Loon.
The second speaker of the night was Chanidka Jayasundara, CEO, and co-founder of Cinergix. He’s also a startup weekend veteran who took part in Startup Weekend in Bangalore. He went on to share that he’s tried to host a Startup Weekend here in Sri Lanka before. Alas, at the time no one was ready to pay for such an event. Thankfully, today things are different. Chandika then went on to emphasize one of the most important things a startup should do: listen to its customers.
He emphasizes this point by sharing the story of Cinergix and their main product: Creately. In the beginning, Chandika had a business plan that was winning awards and a product they believed would blow everyone’s minds. Expectations, however, are completely different from reality.
As they spoke with potential customers that were interested in paying for Creately, they learned some interesting lessons. In a nutshell, all the lessons said that they had to overhaul Creately and so they did. The rest, of course, is history as Cinergix is one of the top IT companies in the country. Only 1 in 100 startups succeed. Chandika’s story shows us that the ones that succeed are the ones that weren’t afraid to change their product to gain paying customers.
Anurag Maloo’s crazy introduction to pitching an idea
With the conclusion of the presentations, Anurag took the stage once more. He asks everyone to stand up and shake their hands in the air.
He then asks everyone to spin one finger slowly in the air. The audience keeps their finger in the air for a good minute.
At the end of the minute, Anurag says the magic words, “at the count of three, point to one person at the table.” It seemed like this person would be the team leader.
But he then reveals twist and asks the selected people to select a person to pick a person next to them to walk towards the stage. The individuals arrive and Anurag asks the de-facto teams at each table to scream two words. “Any two random crazy words”, he repeats. This game started with each table sharing words one by one before Anurag started selecting people at random.
Wi-Fi, wife Knife, bullshit, French fries, Floppy Disk and Batman are a few of the random words we heard during this little session. At the end of the session, Anurag looks at the people standing near the stage. He tells them to pick three words each and share it with their teams. The words were picked and each person returned to their team.
Anurag then announced the next stage of the game. The teams have to build a business plan for an idea around the words they picked. At the end of 5 minutes, the person who picked the words has to return on stage and make a pitch for that idea. “I’m going to start the timer,” announces Anurag before a countdown timer appears on the projector screen. Almost instantly, we saw the teams frantically trying to build a business idea.
Five minutes pass and Anurag screams, “STOP!” The teams stop frantically discussing and began making their pitches. If you expected the teams to be stumped, you’d be wrong. We’ve seen many pitches by many startups. But this session? This was easily the craziest one we’ve ever seen.
We saw an energy drink called Lava to kill your hunger on Mars. We found a security agency that works at night called Batman. We heard that Dinosaur French Fries can be used to brainstorm new ideas. There’s a company that gives sports team’s advice from Adolf Hitler. Not to forget a music player that has no bullshit songs and a cookie for a logo. A few minute later and all the teams had made their insane pitches. Even now, we are still stumped as to how we held our laughs.
At the end of the session, Anurag congratulated the teams on their creativity. He then asked, “How many of you are willing to work on these ideas over the weekend?” A few teams raise their hands. While some of the ideas were absolutely insane, Anurag encouraged everyone to find an idea for a startup. None of them needed to be shy, they already made a pitch in front of an audience.
Anurag then talked about Startup Weekend in detail. It’s an initiative whose mission is to inspire change in the lives of entrepreneurs. They’ve seen 193,000+ participants across 150 countries with the newest being Sri Lanka and Morocco. He then spoke about the Startup Weekend experience. This is not an event about ideas. This is an event about entrepreneurs. It’s about entrepreneurs forming the right teams and creating something amazing. Startup Weekend is a new experience. It’s about networking and finding the right team to execute ideas and learn new things. All these will happen naturally says Anurag but only if the teams work together.
His presentation concluded with a geography test. Yes, he shared a few pictures of countries around the world and asked the audience to guess what these locations were. At the end of the test, he shared the names of these locations: Indonesia, Brazil, Ecuador, Morocco, Yokohama, Redmond, Malta, and the UK. These were but a few of the 21 locations hosting a Startup Weekend simultaneously to Jaffna. With the answers having been revealed, Anurag’s presentation came to an end. Now it was dinner time.
The initial Startup Weekend pitches
After a filling dinner, it’s time for the teams to make their pitches. However, this pitching session isn’t like the traditional pitching session startups in Sri Lanka are used to. At Startup Weekend, everyone had exactly one minute to present their ideas. The goal of this pitch is not to win awards. Rather, it was to explain your idea and tell the other teams what kind of people you need in your team.
This pitching session had no judging panel other than the teams themselves. It was the participants themselves that would select the best ideas that would become a reality at Startup Weekend. Each team was given three votes. They were able to use these votes to select three ideas they like. However, they couldn’t vote for themselves or use the three votes for one idea. With Anurag having explained these details, the pitches began. The first pitch was a sample pitch by Chandika.
His problem was that he’s a tourist and he doesn’t know where to go in Jaffna. He wants to build an app to help travelers lost like him. He’s not a techie person and needs techie person to help build this app. With that demonstration, Anurag tells the teams to line up and start making their pitches. Initially many were hesitant but soon we saw the line of participants wanting to make pitches grow. By the end of the night, we saw a total of 21 pitches.
However, only a few of these ideas would become a reality at Startup Weekend. When it was time to collect votes, not a single soul was seated. All of the participants were walking around and now speaking with everyone else.
Thus a short but fierce election campaign began to select the top ideas of Startup Weekend Jaffna. Once the dust had settled, everyone was in their seats, the top ideas were selected. That being said, the ideas which the teams shall work on over the weekend are:
- MyTeam – An app that wants to help budding entrepreneurs find developers to help make their ideas a reality.
- AirTurbon – A drone delivery service to help e-commerce vendor’s ship products to their customers.
- Touropedia – In simple terms, this a platform where you can experience a virtual tour of locations and plan your vacation.
- PredCult – This is an app that wants to help farmers. The app first takes data from farmers about their farms. It then uses the weather forecast to input future cultivation.
- Smart Changer – This is an automatic switch that you can use to automatically turn off your devices in case you forget to do so.
- Digital Menu Card – This would be a digital menu for stores similar to a tablet menu. It displays what items are available at a restaurant. Customers can select the items they want and the order information is automatically sent to the kitchen.
- Smart Travel Guide – The one and only chatbot at Startup Weekend. You can ask this chatbot various questions about cities if you’re a tourist. The chatbot then gives you answers such as what you can do, what landmarks you should visit, etc.
- War Tourism – The goal is to create a system to boost tourism in the war affected areas of Sri Lanka. The system would aim to do so by promoting the cultural heritage of these areas.
- Sky City – Think of this as an MMO virtual reality e-commerce shopping complex. It’s a place where you can meet your friends in multiplayer and purchase items.
- Seat For Me – This team wants to build an android application or website to help you book seats on trains.
- I-Augment – This is an AR application that lets you experience an architectural plan of your house before you build it. The app creates a model and lets you walk around and explore the planned house.
- Go Monkey – The system has a series of alarms designed to warn you in case monkeys enter your house. The system also aims to have a series of sounds that can be used to scare off the monkeys.
Conclusion: The end of Day 01
Once the ideas had been announced, the budding entrepreneurs with those ideas made one more short and final pitch. This pitch was to remind everyone of their ideas and what kind of people they needed in their teams. Once these pitches came to an end, it was time to form official teams. But before that Anurag briefly reminded everyone about the judging criteria. There’s 3 points the judges will look at:
- Validation – Do customers want your idea? You’ll need to speak to customers and justify why you’re giving the answer you chose for this question.
- Execution & Design – This is all about your MVP aka Minimum Viable Product. The judges will look at how functional it is and whether it’s easy to use.
- Business Model – The final item is all about how you plan to build a successful business around the idea.
With the judging criteria having been made clear, Anurag’s job came to an end. The participants then got out of their chairs and once again started networking. This time, to form the teams and none of them were shy to talk to people. It’s safe to say that the goal of Day 01 was accomplished. Looks like we can be optimistic as and expect great things as the teams start building their startup ideas on Day 02.