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Authenticity is key: my takeaways from judging New Zealand’s only 48 hour startup bootcamp

NZ Startup Bootcamp's 2019 judges: Elly, Vaughan, Malcolm and Julie. Photography by Jeremy Tritt

$20,000 up for grabs, 20 hardworking teams battling for the chance to pitch on stage, 48 hours of refinement and just two winners to be crowned. Idealog’s editor Elly Strang, Dame Julie Christie, Ecostore founder Malcolm Rands and Vend founder Vaughan Fergusson were tasked with picking two winners in Soda Inc’s NZ Startup Bootcamp: the best start-up, and the best new idea. Elly Strang shares the inside scoop from the judging, and the key learnings she took away about what new founders should be thinking about.  

On a Sunday morning in Auckland, I hopped in my car, cranked up the latest true crime podcast I’ve been binge-listening to (To live and die in LA, it’s addictive) and drove two hours to visit Hamilton, where I was due to judge Soda Inc’s NZ Startup Bootcamp – the only boot camp in New Zealand that runs for a tight turnaround of just 48 hours.

The judges – Malcolm Rands, Dame Julie Christie, Vaughan Fergusson and I – were swanning in on the final day of the bootcamp to pick six finalists to pitch on stage from 20, which would later in the night be whittled down to just two winners.

First things first, we decided to heap a bit of pressure on. We wandered through the Atrium at Wintec where all the teams were based to get the contestants’ hearts racing, as well as see if anyone dared approach us to score some brownie points before we began deliberating.

Unsurprisingly, many did not. Most teams were heads down, sparing a strained smile our way with empty snack wrappers and cans strewn around them – a scene not too dissimilar to what a magazine deadline looks like. Julie and I photobombed one poor guy who was nervously practicing his pitch to a video iPad set up to document everyone’s experiences throughout the weekend, but he didn’t break his game face.

We’d had our mischief, so we headed up to the board room, where we’d be locked away for the next four or so hours deliberating on who to pick as our six finalists. The contestants had to submit a written pitch that covered aspects like the value created by this new product or service, whether they’d attempted to validate the idea, the market opportunity, and the financials.

Will the real Elly please stand up.

A post shared by Vaughan Fergusson (@nzvorn) on

Elly 2.0. – new and improved

As for the overall quality of the pitches? It was a mixed bag. While with some, we’d be impressed by the strong and clear description of what the business actually was, once we investigated a little further, the ideas were already being done overseas, and it didn’t seem like a small-scale start-up would be able to take them on without a unique proposition.

Other finalists had seemingly unique ideas, but the way they presented them in the pitch was all over the place. At times, we’d find ourselves flicking through the document trying to piece together the puzzle on what the product or offering actually was.

I don’t know whether it was the fact they’d been locked in an intensive boot camp for 48 hours and their minds were in a bubble, but for someone who tells stories for a living, it was a bit mind boggling.

If the judges can’t understand the very essence of your idea in a simple sentence or two, then you can’t expect a regular human being with no business acumen to. Being able to nail the description in layman’s terms is more than crucial – it’s the first step in winning over a investor – or a customer.

Julie Christie said as much in her summary of the judges’ thinking later in the night: “We felt it would’ve been good for some of the teams to pitch to their families and had them ask what they were actually talking about, perhaps not the scientist next door – something to keep in mind for future teams.”

After a lot of deliberation (and a glass of wine or three) we narrowed it down to six finalists.

We selected the companies based on whether they were actually solving a useful problem, their authenticity and whether that shone through via their company purpose, and if they’d validated the idea in some form of user testing and it had showed promise.

For example, while a business idea for a robot vending machine that creates fresh, healthy meals got us all excited, there wasn’t enough detail in how they planned on executing it and mitigating the various risks, like food expiration.  

It bears mentioning that the only information we had to go off was the written summary document, so we didn’t know who had ‘star power’ to take into the on stage pitches later that evening. It was purely based on the ideas on paper, hence why describing it in a compelling way was so important.

Winner, winner

As for the six finalists, in the best start-up category, we picked: RH Innovation, an agritech company that has come up a sensor device that measures soil moisture and salinity and distinguishes between the two while gathering other useful information, Lonelyseat, a peer-to-peer delivery platform that uses spare space in New Zealanders’ vehicles to deliver stuff, much like Uber, and Voxpop, social media platform for radio shows to interact with their audience and record a message, and then uses AI to translate that recording into text.

In the best new idea category, we picked: Pōtiki Poi, a mother-daughter duo who makes authentic poi to sell and promote New Zealand’s culture, Luprio, which equips back-injury sufferers with wearable technology that improves patient form during out-of-clinic contact hours and Chameleon, which has created a gel-based colour changing product for refrigerators to help reduce the emissions generated by gas leaks.

When it came to their on-stage pitches that night, some were a bit scrappy, while others shone. Particularly inspirational was the 12-year-old behind Pōtiki Poi, Georgia Tiatia Fa'atoese Latu.

She came up with the idea for Pōtiki Poi when she needed to fundraise for an upcoming event, and made $1000 selling the poi on social media in just two days. Now, Pōtiki Poi’s plan is to operate under a social enterprise model and employ people of unique abilities (mothers, children, those who are mentally challenged) to create an authentic alternative of poi to cheaper options on the market.

Georgia Tiatia Fa'atoese Latu (centre), her mother Anna (left) and Soda Inc CEO Erin Wansbrough

While the poi whirred around her wrists, Georgia spoke of how she wanted to come to the boot camp to see if it was a viable business model she could pursue, and of her passion for promoting her culture. This was an authentic purpose at its best, and a beautifully human story behind a business idea.

While Georgia didn’t win her category, she won the crowd’s hearts via the People’s Choice Award. Her mother Anna was also a crowd pleaser, getting on stage and performing a waiata with Georgia’s baby brother strapped to her chest.

The winner of the ASB Best Startup category was RH Innovation, made up of Rahat Hasan, Tyler Crabree, Bismarck Simeon, Daniel Blair and Cooper Stephenson.

While the team didn’t have the sexiest of pitches, they had clearly defined a need and it was fitting, seeing as the competition was held in farming heartland in the Waikato. Its team has developed a device to measure soil moisture, salinity and NPK using cost effective sensors, with the information is stored in their database and available to users via the cloud.


RH Innovation pitching

The winner of the Gallagher Best New Idea category was a Waikato University student team whose unbridled passion and genuineness shone through on stage: Namrah Siddiqui Carpio, Callum Macdonald, Chun Ho Tse (Leo), and Jiabao Zhao (Boa), who make up Chameleon.

Their gel-based colour changing product for refrigerators that will reduce the emissions generated from gas leaks was impressive for the sheer scale of the problem they’re trying to solve. Ecostore's Malcolm emphasised this in our decision making, referencing environmentalist Paul Hawken who says the number one solution to solving the climate crisis is refrigeration management.

Both teams took away $10,000 prizes, and say they'll continue to grow their ideas. Watch this space!


Chameleon pitching

Following this experience, my number one piece of advice for start-up hopefuls is to get outside of your head and practice that pitch with your Mum, your neighbour, and even your five-year-old brother. Let them pick it to pieces if they don’t understand it, as this collaboration is where the magic takes place in refining your pitch.

The former editor of Idealog, Nikki Mandow, would always ask me and other fledgling journalists dealing with complex subjects like tech who were writing the introduction to a story, ‘What would you tell your Mum about this?’ and the same rings true for new founders. It doesn’t matter if your product is technical or not, you’ve got to be able to explain it to someone who isn’t as clued up as you are in that particular industry.  

The other key takeaway is that as Tyrion said so aptly in Game of Thrones' finale last night, "There's nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can defeat it." An authentic story behind why you have founded your company and a strong purpose wins the crowd over more so than any other aspect, no doubt about it (and for the record, Jon Snow's story was way more compelling than Bran's).

Congratulations to all the winners – we look forward to seeing you in Idealog's Elevator Pitch section in the future.

To see all the companies that competed, view the full list of all the participants here

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