In what was a very busy week for Slate & Tablets, we ended the week with a great appearance at Challenge Cup NYC. This was one of the better events I’ve ever been to. It was fast paced, interesting, well supported, and for only the third year running, DC 1776 has got it down to a science. As a participant, I couldn’t have been happier with the way the event was organized and run.
John and I hit the road at 3:45 for the Founders’ Dinner and pitch workshop, with a planned start at 5:30. The first thing I learned during this experience is that you should never drive to the city during the day, because by the time we got there it was night time, and we were late. While sitting in the parking lot, a.k.a. I-95, I managed to get some work done on our slides, and we went over some final strategy bits. Jason had arrived early to the event and saved us a table up front, so when we arrived and scooped up a pair of delicious chicken wings, we were ready to go.
After an outstanding overview of the competition by Evan Burfield who, by the way, clearly has the best job in the universe. He travels around the world, listens to people doing awesome things, and figures out which ones are going to have success. Jealousy insues. Anyway, after his overview, we had a coaching workshop with Brandon Pollak, who helped us out a lot with our pitch mechanics. It’s interesting “performing” for different people and hearing how differently they interpret your pitch. When you only have one chance to explain things, you can’t just clarify, like you can in class. We survived a corporate sabotage attempt from our table mates (people do that?) and spent the next hour in the room and hour in the car rehearsing the 1 minute pitch. I think I practiced a total of 250 times.
Thursday came, and I woke up still pulsing with adrenaline. Good thing because five hours of class and then the competition was probably more than most people had to do. Truth is, I love teaching, and if not for some special moments detailed ahead, it would have still been the best part of my day. The afternoon arrived, I squeezed some grading in, and headed to the train station. I was more excited than nervous, but both feelings were, at this point, rushing through me. I skittishly practiced my 1 minute on the train, and after I was fairly certain I had it down, I did one of the only things that could relax me at this point; some coding. Yep, that’s weird. I know.
John and I arrived at the venue about two hours early (I guess our moms did something right) and went over some last minute strategy and pitch details. The event was set up in what probably was a night club turned into gladiatorial arena. I actually can’t overstate how impressed we all were with the quality of the experience as a whole. DC 1776 did an unbelievable job. I don’t know how they managed to feed everyone and have an open bar on $0 tickets, but they sure know how to organize an event.
The networking session started and it was fantastic to get to know the various people attending. You don’t really get to talk to the other startups in the competition during the workshops, and I enjoyed speaking with all of the education people and learning about their histories. Sadly, I noticed a disturbing trend, in that of the 10 education startups at the competition (not including S&T) only 3 addressed problems in schools. The two startups that went to the final round, while we were greatly impressed by the models and success of both, had absolutely nothing to do with academic success inside a school. As a society, we must not give up on this issue. There is such opportunity in educational entrepreneurship because getting into schools is difficult, but crucially important. Without innovations for schools, we truly have no hope but to repeat the problems that caused our schools to lag behind the rest of the operational world in the first place. Don’t give up.
As we waited for our 1 minute round to start, I noticed three familiar faces walk in. I had seen them for an hour earlier today – they were my programming students!
I’m not sure what craziness incited them to train out to NYC in the middle of the week, but they certainly provided me with a moment I’ll never forget. It’s one thing to work on Slate & Tablets while teaching full time, which is a lot of work, and another to pitch the company alongside others worth $10M+. Doing all of this in front of the students, our users, for whom all of the hard work is intended is something I will never forget. We were the only company in the room who had this kind of support, and if you ask me, that’s what’s missing in ed tech. Products and people that can make others get out and sing, scream, or fight over them. The number of heated debates you hear about Apple vs. Android is insane – until we have that for an educational product our jobs are not done.
The finalist rounds began, with some surprisingly excellent pitches. It was truly an honor to be competing alongside many of these companies, who are all several years and rounds of funding ahead of us. We learned a lot about some interesting business models, and I’ll never cease to be amazed by the completely different mindsets it takes to do the pitch work and the product work. It literally requires two completely contrasting points of view to push one singular product or vision forward. I think the education winner was hard to pick, as both Campus Job and Cognotion both did an outstanding job and had innovative ways to solve problems. I’m happy that Cognotion won, which teaches entry level workers the skills they need to graduate those jobs and ascend the payroll ladder, because Campus Job is not really about education, despite it still being a needed and useful service.
After three 18 hour days this week, everyone was pretty much exhausted. I’m happy John and I took the train home, because I don’t think anyone was in a shape to drive. I was so tired I forgot my shirt from the event! Those were nice shirts too. At least the students all got one
Farewell from an outstanding week!