I love the concept of business competitions. Among the many things there are to gain for participating in one, my favorite has always been to discover what seemed to be the faraway land of Business students.
In my experience, there is a very interesting paradox between an Engineering and a Business student:
The former often dreams of amazing innovative machines that nobody wants, and laughs at ideas he thinks are not physically realistic; while the latter often dreams of amazing innovative ideas that everyone would want, but are not physically realistic.
I believe this paradox and their complementary knowledge makes their collaboration one of the best combination you can think of to kick-start a new business.
However, a recurrent problem business competitions face is the lack of practicality. Some competitions are just about selling an idea, a dream. Those are great exercises to train your imagination, learn about business strategy, and network, but it won’t give you practical training. Others push the exercise further, but as time and money is limited students most often find themselves doing very similar things.
In essence: business competitions lack the engineering part of a real business.
Soon after deciding we were going to build this printer of our dream, we heard about a competition that was gaining in popularity at NYU: The Inno/vention. The selling point was very different from other competitions we knew about: After the first pitching round (so still in the sell-a-dream phase), two dozen teams are chosen to continue and receive a cash prize of $500 to build a prototype, around which the rest of the contest revolves. The goal is to prove that you can pull off what you advertise. This was the bait and we definitely took it.
Ironically, we did not pass the first round. The feedback we managed to gather was that the jury did not deem our idea physically realistic with the money and time allocated (see a pattern?). An online vote could still potentially put us back in the competition, but chances were slim. Never mind. we were going to build it anyway and prove them wrong, if only we could figure out where to get the funds..
In a second twist of fate, we somehow managed to get enough people excited about our idea and we got back in the contest. This is when we learned about the true nature of the competition: alongside working on the prototype, we had to turn our product idea into a viable business. This meant many more hours to be spent in preparing a business model, analyzing the potential market, making cost analysis, talking to customers,…
What happened next is what I’m sure can be called a disruption of time itself. We became the impersonation of the word efficient. Classes were pushed to second place and we were literally living in the lab (For those wondering: yes, I did end up graduating somehow). We reverse-engineered an Ultimaker, built it, and customized it to fit our needs. When came the time to present in the next round, I was amazed at what all the participants were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time.
As people were able to translate more ideas into reality thanks to the initial cash boost, no two teams were even remotely going in the same direction. Everyone saw their efforts directly materializing in something concrete, giving them more motivation to continue, even when they failed.
I think that what made that contest such a unique experience was that balance between two worlds, making it a better reflection of what a real startup really needs: get an idea, plan ahead, manage your funds, develop a basic prototype, discover your customers, develop more, discover more…
For the record, we ended up winning third place and were on our way to create BotFactory.