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.
Global Entrepreneurship Week at UIT is quite the time. All sorts of exciting activities for the UIT cohort this week. I attended two events during school hours, and one in the evening. Each event was a great experience, and in hindsight, I wish I had gone to more.
The week started with a visit in the lounge from Jeff and Phyl Amerine during class hours. They started by watching a couple brave volunteers who pitched their projects to them, which they seemed to like. Then we all went to Flavour 19 for the afternoon and had a workshop about being coachable with Jeff and Permjot.
I had planned on attending the UIT monthly mixer on Tuesday, but work said no.
On Wednesday we had another event during class, but this time it was in Navigate. Darren Gallop and Jeff put on a workshop about creating good company culture. Permjot also made an appearance and somewhat blew our minds with how a Sigmoid curve can relate to the success of a company.
He went on to explain that there are measurable peaks and declines in the success of your business, and to be aware of when you’re possibly nearing a peak. When you realize this, you should begin thinking of ways to branch off or better your business. (i hope i remembered that right)
The last event I went to was the panel with Jeff, Darren, Joella Foulds, co-founder of Celtic Colours International Festival, and Chad Munro, founder and CEO of Halifax Biomedical. This event took place at seven in the lounge, and about 20-30 people showed up (five UIT nerds). The panel talked about their businesses and how they came to be.
I didn’t go to the other three or so events, and as of writing this I don’t have the schedule anymore. However, the ones I did end up going to were certainly excellent learning and networking opportunities. The mentors are definitely one of the biggest things that sets UIT apart from any other tech program I’ve seen.
I vote Global Entrepreneurship Week should be monthly.
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!
I recently sat down with Mike to discuss the story of UIT, the local tech environment from which it was created, the recent history of the Atlantic Canadian tech industry, and the opportunities and challenges for its future.