Catalyst Challenge (5/3/2014)

Beware! This will be a long blogpost 😉 To help you out, I’ve provided some headings in between. Sorry for the length, but there is just so much to tell and I didn’t want to compromise!


 Put together in a team with strangers, working on a problem you’ve never thought of and to top it all off: have a business plan ready in 3 hours to pitch to a team of experts! Yikes!

Yesterday I had one of the most exciting  experiences I’ve had since  arriving in Southampton: The Catalyst Challenge. After being selected with 23 others out of 60 applicants, our day started off with meeting all other contestants, having a really quick coffee and a coach ride to the University of Southampton Science Park. Before this challenge, I never even knew the University of Southampton had a Science Park, so I already learned something new at the beginning of the day: It thus all started off brilliantly!

After arriving at the Catalyst Centre, we were given a badge with name and team name, so for the first time we would be able to find our fellow team members! I had the luck to be in a really cool group with people with different backgrounds: Daniel (management and business), Rahul (engineering) and Rachel (Geography). I immediately became excited: these were people that would probably have completely different views on problems than I had! So, not learning that day would be out the question! Next, we  were lured into a room with cookies and coffee (<3), where we were welcomed by Peter Birkett (CEO USSP), who gave us a quick introduction about the science park and the layout for the day.

Layla Stacey (React Marketing)
After Peter, Layla Stacey from React Marketing, treated us with an inspiring talk about the highs and lows of when she first started her business. Starting up a business, had been her biggest learning curve ever, especially when she came to the stage of charging and hiring people. She handed us some valuable lessons, that I’m sure will be useful for the rest of my career:

–       Work hard.
–       Stay with your vision.
–       Go with your gut feeling.
–       Let go AKA Life is uncontrollable. Ride it.
–       Know your limits.
–       Don’t take all advice.

Phil Sharpe
After Layla’s inspiring talk, Phil Sharpe took the stage and gave us insights in the business canvas that we’d be using during the day. He too, gave some valuable lessons that will be very useful for me in my career:

–       You’re always part of a value chain.
–       Your value proposition should not be longer than 20 seconds long. If you can’t explain it to THAT important person in the elevator, you’re chance will be gone.
–       Only your customer can decide what is valuable. So you can only listen.
–       Always have a degree of uniqueness, but never be completely unique.
–       Be BETTER, NOVEL and CUSTOM.

The Challenges
After taking in all these inspiring words, the challenges were laid out: it was either going to be a business model concerning a website for combining recipes and food shopping, or something completely different: supplying internet to off-grid communities in rural Africa. Everyone in my team (Team A), thought it would be logical that we would have Challenge A, but of course, after Robin Chave (USSP) had told us the logistics of the day and had directed us to our little office, we found out that we got Challenge B allocated.
So, bringing internet to Africa it was. Oh my god. Where to start? I remembered from my problem structuring modules in my MSc, that it would be a good idea to use post-its to brain storm and to come up with ideas. Within a few minutes, we filled the entire wall. But still the focus was not there.  Next phase: Google-ing! How could we possibly get this technically feasible? After half an hour to an hour had gone by, we were stuck. Would we do WIFI balloons, or even drones or something else?! Then we decided: We were on the wrong track. This was a business proposal, not a purely technical one. So our focus shifted quickly to the business aspects: If every village had a box that would somehow connect to the Internet, how could we make money with that? And how could we bring them the boxes?

Our Idea
After much sparring, discussing, brainstorming and writing, we finally came up with our final idea: We would use existing communication channels (charities and voluntary workers) to get to the villages near the big cities first, so that it could spread like a snowball later on. It would be unethical to ask money from the villagers, so we decided to go freemium: the basic internet would be free, but if they wanted faster internet later on, they would have to pay for it (since in the end, we don’t want Africa to stay poor). Being a social business, our revenues would have to come from different sources at the beginning, from crowd funding, to charities, from governments to donations, we would get everything possible. But we had one more trick on our sleeves: we would not only give them Internet, but also a portal/landing page to access the internet. We anticipated that the average African farmer would not (initially) have the critical assessment to grasp the entire width and breadth of the Internet, let alone assessing whether something would be true or not! So we proposed to make a simple portal (think buttons with ‘health’, ‘water’, ‘weather’ etc.), that would be top of mind when they thought of the Internet. Basically, we could be the new Google. I mean, how much more awesome can it get? The last 30 minutes were hectic, with Rahul and Daniel writing down the presentation on a flipover, while me and Rachel were writing on our business canvas in pretty colours.  But, with one minute to spare, we were done right in time!

The Pitches!
With our hands almost falling off from all the writing, it was time for the presentations. Again we were tricked in thinking that we would be first (Team A… I mean, that would make sense?!), but instead we were…. Last. LAST! Oh the agony of sitting in your chair and having to wait. Luckily we were treated to some awesome presentations of the other teams! Everyone had taken a different route with their proposals, and none of them were the same. Ideas were proposed for the Recipe Websites, ranging from asking fees from users, to getting a percentage from the supermarkets, from copy pasting own recipes to using different websites. The sky was the limit! Really cool to hear what the others had been doing all this time. And then, it was the turn of our challenge. The other 2 teams went before us, luckily not having the same idea as us (pfiew!!!). However, some lines we were planning on using (give someone a fish.. rod.. that kind of thing), were used (DAMNED! :p ). So we had to quickly come up with some new one-liners. Much time we didn’t get for that. Because there it was.

Our Pitch!
The moment supreme. Pffff. Daniel and Rahul started off with the presentation, looking the judges right in the eye. Some of them were nodding, others’ heads were shaking and some of them you just couldn’t read. Rachel and I had to wait for Daniel and Rahul to finish, because we would do the questions. Nerve wrecking! But there it was… Our turn! We got some tough questions, asking how we would compete with Google and Facebook, how we would monetise things and more (– but with all the adrenaline I can’t remember now ha ha! ) Rachel and I stood our ground and had an answer on every single question! We were pumped! The idea popped into our minds: We might even win this thing!

Even more cool presentations!
While the judges retired to assess our presentations, we were treated to even more cool presentations! This time from two guys who were actually running the businesses we had proposed for! Nobody expected this… It was so awesome! First up was Mike Santer who, with his company BluPoint, aims to bring internet to offgrid communities. It was great to hear all the cool stuff he’s doing, and even more fun that we was doing it in quite a similar way as we proposed! After him, Danyal Bilgil took the stage, talking about his start-up combining recipes with food shopping. He gave us some good lessons as well:
–       100% that give up, fail.
–       Work hard and believe in what you’re doing.

The day ended with a reception in the Foyer, where we had the chance to talk and network with the people that had been around us all day. It was a great opportunity to talk to people who were actually in the field, but also with our fellow contestants, people from career destinations, USSP, etc. etc. Until we were all drawn to the stairs: the winner was going to be announced! Every group got great feedback and some important learning points for the future. Really valuable! For us, the judges particularly liked how we answered the questions, but also our proposed portal and using the already existing communication channels. We could have given more attention to the financial bit in the future…………. The suspense kept us on the edge of our seats. Sandra Sassow (SEaB Energy), gave us another inspiring talk about the challenges of setting up our own business, until Peter Birkitt said the relieving words: The winners of the Catalyst Challenge: Team A!!!! YES YES YES YES YES! We were pumped!

Thank you!
We won! And I’m still pumped about it! I want to end this blog post with thanking all the people that have organised this amazing day. I learned SO much about myself, starting my own business, team work, problem structuring and pitching. And I absolutely loved every second of it. Also, I’ve met some amazing people that I really hope to stay in touch with. So, if you are thinking about entering the Catalyst Challenge next year: Do it! It was an amazing experience and I would certainly do it again!


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