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Be a student founder, minus the hackathon stuff

We welcome Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Brent Liang of Shanghai High School to share advice for students interested in entrepreneurship. This is his first story in the graduate voices series.

By Brent Liang

Starting up

“In between classes and assignments, you suddenly found yourself in a strange new territory.”

It gets hard, progressively so. Two months ago, it was a case competition. Then a hackathon. You got assigned some mentors who said your idea deserved a shot and company X and Y would love to get in touch. There was a quick build-up: maybe you had a discussion with your team, trying to understand who’s “in”. The results hardly mattered since you found them slowly peeling away, leaving you with a pet project. What would this mean? In between classes and assignments, you suddenly found yourself in a strange new territory.

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Too early… Too late?

A territory of, “I think I got here by accident, but am I going to be running a start-up?” There was, of course, the euphoria of donning the new-found title, “entrepreneur,” not to mention the countless companies who would love to chat about your “innovative student project.” But slowly, (as you found out, quite confusingly at first), those conversations died out, one after another. People stopped replying to your emails. A week later, your parents started asking about your plans for the break: are you still applying for that internship at the end of the year?

Well, are you? 2 months and usually that is all it takes for the reality to set in. Your project is most likely dead, and to be very frank, you have no idea what you are doing. It is a terrible feeling when you are tossing up career options and actually seriously considering pursuing a path of entrepreneurship—worse if you have already given up something like a part-time job.

The truth about hackathons

The crash is real.

Moments like this deserve to be talked about because they put the future of millions of smart young people worldwide in an unnecessary tailspin. The truth is that hackathons (or competitions, for that matter) are very different from building start-ups. And consequently, being a competition expert is nothing like being a founder. A hackathon is essentially a sprint that is almost entirely fixated on, “the solution.” The problem is the grand opening statement: you read it, do a Google search, jot down some findings on a Post-it note and move on.

“Being a competition expert is nothing like being a founder”

It is inherently theoretical and abstract in nature. Spending too much time on the problem and you are in danger of rushing the solution—and a rushed solution makes a really bad pitch. In fact, with everything time-boxed and often being mandated to use certain technologies (cue the golden trio: blockchain, AI and machine learning), hackathons are almost designed to create solutions in search of a problem. A slick presentation and demo are powerful enough to sweep a range of issues under the carpet: typically, there is a question whether the market actually needs, or cares about, the product. Time and time again, that has proven to be the deal-breaker. And worse, it kills in silence, and no amount of hustle makes up for it.

Sustainably growing your idea

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Not if you are flogging a dead horse.

Quite ironically, building a start-up is a lot safer. Founders are not motivated by risks, they are optimistic and conservative individuals who choose to take calculated risks. From design thinking to shipping a Minimum Viable Product (or MVP, a minimal awesome thing that gets your point across to the customer), almost everything involved in an early-stage startup is about de-risking. Customer deep-dives make sure you are letting the end users pull the solution out of you. An MVP lets them visualise the product in a way that is most conductive for the market. The problem takes centre stage, the solution becomes, “solutions,”—humble guesses often in a state of flux.

“Founders are more facilitators than creators”

This is directly at odds with the hackathon mentality. Without knowing product specs and, “what the thing looks like,” a startup is reduced to little more than a hypothesis. The focus is thus on learning, not building a product or a pitch. Any traveller is going to tell you that your AR-enhanced translation app is super cool, but they will gladly pay for portable chargers and not your monthly subscription fee. Both things target the trouble that travellers face when getting around in a foreign place, but the portable battery outlet, not the AR app, will grow into a good business because it understands where it hurts the most for the travellers. A translation app burns phone batteries, for goodness’ sake. Wouldn’t that be an easy pick-up from a couple more discovery interviews?

Ask questions, then be quiet & listen.

And here is the thing. Founders are more facilitators than creators: bad for a hackathon but good for building something people want. It is not impossible to transition out of the hackathon hype (admittedly it works well for resume-building), but it requires adoption of a different philosophy. Build a case, not a solution. And don’t do it fast, do it properly. It almost feels like a zen class: to go far, you must go slow (and do the hard yards of 20+ customer interviews); and to find success, you must let go of your control (and let the customers point you in the right direction). Everything else does not really matter.

And so, the past two months could have passed by very differently. At its most optimal, you could feel like you were winning every day and getting a lot more fluent talking about the problem. The solution would be obvious by the time you finish. You would start to worry less about press, big-name partnerships, “potential investors,” hustling and burn-outs—the post-hackathon whatever. Instead of hard work, you now value alignment, with a clear and simple focus. Grounded, you became nothing but a problem-solver, in the most basic sense of the word—you have grown into a founder.

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Brent Liang is a graduate of Shanghai High School, International Division, Shanghai, China. He continued his studies at the University of Sydney in Australia. He is a 3x student founder and a Chancellor’s Scholar. On weekends, you are likely to find him obsessing over Mac Miller’s music. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at [email protected]We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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