During reading week, I attended the Propel ICT selection camp to pitch a company Riley and I are working on, and I managed to get a spot in the 2017 cohort. Our software allows the crowd of an event to send song requests to the DJ from their phones. Going to selection camp alone was an interesting but somewhat stressful experience.
What is Propel?
Propel is a startup accelerator in Atlantic Canada. They offer three different programs depending on how far along your company is. We applied for Launch, which guides entrepreneurs through the early stages of validating, developing and launching a startup.
It all started in UIT when everyone in the class had to make a mock application to Propel, we were all also encouraged to send them in but it was optional. We didn’t expect a response when we sent our one minute, poorly-edited video to them.
They must have liked it because after about a week Riley received an email saying we were in. That was exciting.
We had come across a problem. In October, Riley booked a trip to England for two weeks in February. Selection camp was during that time. It was too late to cancel his trip, and they couldn’t change the day obviously, so the only option was for me to go alone. That was spooky.
When selection camp rolled around, I was pretty nervous. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, but I figured I’d try my best. Selection camp starts with all the companies delivering an elevator pitch to the whole room (the spooky part), followed with interviews by eight different groups of two mentors for eight minutes each. For those keeping track at home, that’s sixty-four minutes of interviewing and only one of pitching.
February 22nd, 2017 – Dawn of the final day
I’m pretty sure time was moving a little slower while I was waiting to pitch, but when that time came, it went better than I expected. I didn’t think I’d remember the whole thing, but I managed to get it all out and it was under a minute too. It went perfectly. The interviewing was next which I was no problem for me.
Interviewing for over an hour doesn’t sound fun, but that wasn’t the case. All the mentors/judges were super nice and offered a ton of ideas for our company. Everyone seemed to like our idea from what I could tell. Even if we didn’t get into Propel, just getting a chance talking to all these established business(wo)men was incredibly valuable for the ideas they offered. They did all ask pretty well the same questions, but that was to be expected. How many questions could they really ask a kid who doesn’t know much about business other than he has an idea for one?
After being interviewed by all the groups, we were done and people started clearing out. I said my goodbyes and went on my way. Two days later Riley got an email saying that we were in. We were both super happy, and it is definitely an accomplishment that I’m quite proud of.
All in all, selection camp was a fun experience that I would absolutely recommend stays in the UIT curriculum for future years, even if it did seem a little overwhelming/scary at first. Hopefully we make millions (or just one million, I guess we could settle for that) and get the chance to come be judges in the future.
The first project we had to do was to create a portfolio from a template. Super simple, but back then it was bit more of a challenge. I was still learning the basics of HTML and what everything was. I think we had a week or two to do it, which was plenty of time. It turned out well, and was a good intro to UIT and the basics of developing websites.
After the portfolio we all made chat apps. Mine was a canvas with a chatroom to collaborate on math equations called Mathboard. We had two weeks to make this one, and it was written in JS and HTML. I used PubNub for the backend of mine because it was a lot simpler than Firebase for making a canvas. This project also turned out well and was where I really started learning a lot more about coding, particularly JS.
UIT isn’t just code!
Meanwhile, on the business side of the course, we’ve been following startups and learning the basics of starting a company and how to keep it afloat. Global Entrepreneurship Week is also a huge thing at UIT. For one week in November, we had events with mentors every day. I wrote a blog about it here, but to sum it up, it was such a fantastic networking and learning opportunity, and I’m super happy to have been involved even in the small amount that I was.
Global Entrepreneurship Week also marked the second week we were working on our next project, a software-as-a-service app. I remade Mathboard, but without a canvas and focussed on connecting users to tutors. You can make a room, and then that room is joinable by one other person who will be your tutor. Then after the tutor helps you, you can leave them a rating as you leave the room. Very simple concept, but I didn’t start early enough. During the last week before we had to present it, I came in on off days to get help from Rob (thanks Rob!). Thankfully, I had something put together in time, which also turned out alright. The website isn’t something I plan to continue with other than as a UIT project.
End of the semester
The last day of the semester we presented our portfolios again, but this time we updated them and added our projects. The last day of the semester was also cancelled by a storm. I still drove in to do my presentation. If that doesn’t say enough about how much I’ve enjoyed the semester, I’m not really sure what else I could say.
Next semester, we’re going to start another project where we use our own backend for one of our previous projects. I’m looking forward to getting started on that, but I’m going to use the break to learn more JS, because I feel like that is where I’ve experienced the most difficulty. As for this semester, everybody did not a bad job.
This week was Global Entrepreneurship Week, and because of that, there were tons of super cool workshops and events happening. Visitors came all the way from Arkansas to meet the UIT class: Jeff and Phyl Amerine, of Startup Junkie Consulting. Everyone got to hear some very valuable advice from Jeff, Permjot Valia, as well as the co-founder of local startup Marcato, Darren Gallop. We all learned a lot of valuable information on subjects such as mentors and company culture. There’s a particular experience I’ve been wanting to write out: why I’m glad I put myself in an awkward situation.
We started off the week on Monday by being introduced to Jeff and Phyl, and a few of us students (Ben, Dave and myself) pitched our projects and ideas to them. Ben pitched his chat app: “Text and Paper Chat“. Dave, his company idea: “Invisible Hand”. I pitched my SaaS (Software as a Service) app I’ve just started working on. It’s a visual-based task/project management app called Vennio. It relies more on motions and gestures and visual representations than other projects in the market. Everyone did a really solid presentation, with tons of noticeable improvement. Everyone presented their idea in a way that sounded clear and natural, and it’s awesome to be able to see the progress as it’s happening!
I’m hoping my pitch seemed that way as well to others. But at the same time, I knew going into this that I would be taking my chances. This was the first time I’d pitched the idea to anyone, so it was like an experiment. I wanted to challenge myself to see how they would take to my idea. There would be nothing to really lose from giving it a shot anyway. If my idea got ripped up, so be it. It’s the early stages and I know it might not seem like an idea that’s completely solid.
Starting off strong…ish
While I was presenting, I felt pretty good – probably a 6 or 7 on the confidence meter. The only thing that bugged me was that I felt like I couldn’t get the point of my idea across in a way that represented how I felt about it, and what my goals were.
I’ve spent a lot of time working on the programming side of things, but I didn’t really spend much time thinking about what the real incentive is for others to use the product. I mean, I have a general idea – The project is meant to be targeted towards creative and visual learners. But, I haven’t truly gravitated towards a distinct aspect of that area. I think that’s just because of how new the idea is to me. That should improve as I spend more time getting to know the project, so I’m not too worried about it.
Questions I have no idea how to answer
After the presentation however, I was asked a lot of questions which I didn’t have the answers to yet. I know for a fact that I stammered my words more than once. I have to admit the confidence level dropped to maybe a 3. When I was finished answering questions, I sat down and shook it off, because that’s what I expected to happen anyway, and being put in that awkward position will just help me in the long run.
It’s not over… ever
Anyway, going back to what I was saying, it was hard to get across what my app is, just because of how new it is to me. The experience of being put on the spot and asked difficult questions was what I was kind of hoping would happen. I knew if I were to get asked any detailed questions, it would make me uncomfortable, but I’ve heard time and time again that the only way to become comfortable is to put yourself in uncomfortable situations.
To anyone else who feels awkward stepping out of their comfort zone: Don’t even think about it. Just get it over with. It’s worth it. It won’t feel easier right away, but over time you can learn how to manage your awkwardness. That’s what I’m in the process of right now.
And so, I feel pretty proud of myself that I went up to do that. But it’s not a one time thing, that I can just sit back and never have to think about again. I’m going to have to do this lots of times. And if I want to improve and minimise the awkward factor, I better start getting used to it…
One of the great things about UIT is that everyone who teaches you has real-life experience in the industry. In a typical university, the professors are academics who have studied the fields they’re in for many years. For a lot of subjects, that model seems to work pretty well, as the professors know quite a bit about what they’re teaching. But for some subjects, that teaching model just seems wrong. For example, look at programming and business – the two core features of the UIT program.
I know I’d definitely rather learn programming from people who practice it every day as part of their job. And I know I’d want to learn how to run a business from people who have that experience of their own! That’s why we have mentors. Not only do we get the dynamic duo of Rob and Eric every class but we also have guests come in occasionally. This week we had two separate mentors come in.
First, we got to meet Gavin Uhma. He’s the founder of this program, and the ‘U’ in the name of it. We each pitched our chat apps for him briefly as well as showed him our demos. Personally, mine didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I kind of rushed through it. Part of it was because I was slightly nervous. Part of it was because I was sick as a dog (which contributed to the nervousness). After the presentation I mentioned to Eric how I felt about it. After talking with him, I agreed that it’s better to do a presentation while you’re sick, than to not do it at all.
The same week we also had Gab White come to UIT to do a workshop on design. Gab is a professional web developer/designer from Halifax. In the workshop, she gave everyone some valuable insights on how to make a web page not just visually appealing, but a good experience for the user. She also showed us how to use the mockup creator, Sketch. It’s a pretty cool program I must say!
I wasn’t sure how much the class would interest me, only because of the fact that I’m much more of a programmer than a designer. When I’m working on something that has a visual interface, design sometimes gets put on the backburner. However, I found the workshop really interesting, and Gab gave a great presentation. Surprisingly, it was relieving taking a break from coding for once, which was an unexpected feeling. And thanks to the presentation, it will be easier for me to get through the design side of programming, using Sketch. Also, it will help me out in the future if I have to collaborate with a designer. I’ll be able to know where they’re coming from and put myself in their shoes better!
The class has been working away at some pretty interesting projects over the past few weeks. The goal of our project was to create a chat application, with two unique features, chosen by each of us individually. It was originally due on Friday, the 14th of October. I had a great idea for my project, and was sure I could get it done within a reasonable amount of time. Or so I thought.
Firstly, I’ll tell you my idea. I set out to create a way for Netflix users to watch it together, while chatting at the same time. As I looked further into the idea I started digging myself into a deeper hole. I was losing sight of what I had originally set out to accomplish. It was a nightmare, but I was determined to turn my idea into a real thing. Big mistake.
It turns out, once you figure out that an idea you have is unrealistic (especially one with a due date), you really should take a step back, and just ask yourself if it’s truly worth it. I ended up feeling overwhelmed and thus unable to concentrate on actually getting a project done at all. And so, after accepting the fact that my idea was just infeasible for this project, I decided to pivot.
I felt a bit more at ease after I changed my project idea to target YouTube, rather than Netflix. Not only there were more resources on the subject, but YouTube is actually open to allowing developers access to their API. The only problem was that it may have already cost me too much time. Even though I was in the right direction now, the time frame I had held me back from doing this project in a way that I’d be proud of.
And then suddenly, floods. The city now looked more like a lake. People had no power, meaning they couldn’t work on their chat apps. Naturally, the due date had to be moved from Friday to the following Monday, the 17th. This gave me more time to work on my project and prepare during the weekend. The functionality was all there, but something just felt wrong. When you pour your heart into a project, you’re proud of your work. But all I felt was a strange disconnection. It took me back to how I felt after finishing projects in middle school. I knew that I hadn’t put my all into it, and its current state, is truly unfinished.
And then I saw a glimmer of light through the trees. The project had been moved to the next Friday, the 21st! It gave me the chance to turn my project from something I was assigned to create, to something I wanted to use. I still had to do my original pitch on the 17th, but it was more of a practice run. It let me know what I needed to work on for Friday, and that’s how it worked out. After doing my pitch on Monday, I realised there was a lot I wanted to work on. The practice run helped me gain confidence for Friday’s presentation.
Over the course of the week, I began checking items off of my list of features I wanted to implement. I wouldn’t have been able to get many of them done if it weren’t for the second due date change. This whole experience taught me a few things to keep in mind for the long run. One of the more important ones being to not bite off more than I can chew. Just because something sounds like a great project does not mean it can be realistically created, in a relatively short time span. Another thing would be to trust my gut telling me that I could have done a better job on the first time around.