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What a #SWEL party this is

Last weekend I participated in Startup Weekend Education London (SWEL), the first Startup Weekend Education to occur outside the US. Held at the Free Word Center in London, SWEL is a startup ‘Vertical’, an event aimed at helping startups get from idea to company in 54 hours. I went along with Tiny Ears to see what I could see and hopefully to find some passionate collaborators to help bring the project into reality.

The format of the weekend was this.

6:30 Friday night, participants turned up and networked while eating pizza before taking it in turns to give a 60 second idea pitch before the entire room in what was termed ‘pitchfire’. Those that pitched then had to drum up enthusiasm for their projects by gathering votes for their idea in the form of post-it notes. Educators, being uniquely powerful at an event dedicated to education technology, had ‘power up’ pink post-it’s to give an extra boost to projects they wanted to get behind.

Votes were then totted up and the top 15 ideas got brought through as the ideas that were to be worked on throughout the weekend. Pitchers then had to try and recruit a team that would work on their idea for the rest of the weekend.

Finally, after all that hard work, the weekend culminates in the pitches, selling your idea to the panel of industry notables, business honchos and money types. These judges then decide who the top three startups are and the overall winner gets a goody-bag of awesome prizes.

Despite crashing on my pitchfire 60 seconds, I got voted through and managed to persuade a small group of 3 people to Tiny Ears’ cause. These were Stefan Kreitmayer, a game designer, David Jennings an educator and psychologist and, part time, Mike Mompi,  who actually worked for one of the sponsors but decided to join in the Startup fun.

Over the course of the three days we defined how we were to approach the learning experience that the app was going to use and built a small prototype based upon one of those theories. It was great to get going on a prototype and now there are lots of ideas to put into a series of prototypes that we can user test against real children further down the line. We also thought about the business side of things and put some actual numbers based on customer research against those ideas.

Sunday was spent largely preparing for the final pitch. Everyone worked really hard over the weekend, but it was during this period that my team really came into their own. Mike was amazing at helping to construct the pitch and listening to me fumble over it until I got it right. His feedback was invaluable and I’m sure it was because of him I didn’t crash and burn as I did during pitchfire. Stefan was a rock all weekend, but his last minute video editing, Illustrator and logo creation skills really helped turn the pitch into something that looked professional. And not to leave out David, who was unable to attend on Sunday, but spent Saturday doing all the research that we used during the pitch.

And what, might you ask, was I during while my team designed user interfaces and created pitch content? Well, mostly programming to be honest, as always. But also networking and selling the idea, talking to educators and feeding back what I learned into the UI and design of the prototype.

The pitches were great. It was inspiring to see so many unformed ideas from Friday night had morphed into fully functioning, well structured, feasible business models. Many of the teams gave really fantastic pitches, including the best pitch intro video ever from Youny. My pitch went well and I was really pleased with what we achieved over the weekend.

The judges deliberated over dinner and my nerves were on edge when we all sat down to hear the final judgement. To my joy, Tiny Ears came in 3rd, with really good feedback from the judges. It was just the enormity of the task ahead that seemed to weigh against the project, which was a perfectly valid point and one which I agree with totally. But as I’ve always said, I know it’s hard but that’s no reason not to try. And if we pull it off it will result in something amazing.

Second place went to Edevents, a startup around streamlining the process teachers have to go through when organising things, from simple form filling in to organising and communicating large school trips. The winners, completely deservedly so, were Night Zookeeper, an inspiring and fantastically executed creative learning world for children to enjoy both in and outside of school. If you want to encourage your child to learn through creativity, then I really do suggest you check them out.

All in all the weekend was well worth it. Tiny Ears progressed in leaps and bounds over the weekend, the idea was validated many times over and I made some fantastic contacts. There are a number of projects that I will be following closely over the next few months, as I know many will be following mine. If you have an idea and need help to move it out of the idea stage and into reality, I highly recommend the Startup Weekend experience.

Finally, here is a video of the Tiny Ears prototype that we built over the weekend. Once again, thanks team. I couldn’t have done it withut you.

Tiny Ears Prototype from Emily Toop on Vimeo.

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