How We Failed a Startup in a One Week Hackathon
Arista — the search engine that offers more for less.
“This is the future,” we said, “our solution has just gotta be the most in-depth.”
“Nobody would even think about this problem. And we understand our problem better than anyone else. We applied first-principle thinking. Our team is amazing. Lol no way can we lose.”
Well, we did.
And here’s the how, why, and what’s next for us.
When news of the hackathon first came out, all four of us had one goal in mind: approach everything with a strategy and win.
It did feel smooth. We were humble. We started early. And we didn’t believe in our individual abilities enough so we got together with the best people we could find and hustled. In the first 30 minutes we met, we figured out each other’s strengths. In the second 30 minutes, we found the group of people who we wanted to help: under-privileged children without sufficient access to quality educational resources.
I sometimes wonder how the outcome might be different had we focused on this problem for just a bit longer.
The push of ambition
Things started to change when we had our second meeting. The solution we had come up with—personalized content based on a user’s progress—wasn’t good enough for us. We decided to think about things like entrepreneurs:
How big is the market? What are we changing? Where’s the money?
Is personalized content recommendation innovative enough? Are we actually going to improve learning? Where’s the motivation to use our product?
Ohh … wait a second … “personalized content” … “improve learning” … I feel something … this might be hard but let’s try following a path from the solution and see if we can discover a different problem.
We’ve got a tech-lead, a designer, a financial genius, and all-around research experiences. Why not pursue something harder?
What can go wrong?
A few hours of mind mapping, decoupling, and researching later, we came across our first smoothie—a sweet but bubbly drink.
How do students learn using the internet? → Lookup a topic, open an article/video, find too much information, cannot form connections with the discovery, curiosity dies.
Sip #1: There is too much friction between curiosity and learning
What’s not effective about homework? → “Mr. Boggieman, why are you making us do this?”, “when will we ever use this equation?”, “hellooo, what can I actually do with this information?”
Sip #2: Students desire meaning behind work but educators fail to provide them
At this point, we thought we were ready. We set our slogan: “Minimal effort, maximum learning.” We decided to target 11 to 22-year-olds who wish to accelerate on their own. We declared that we would challenge the status quo of “I just don’t have enough time to learn this,” and we created a solution from tech to business model that provides quality content and expert tutoring to guide a student every step of the way from curiosity to application.
Oh and we made a working prototype that checks your live engagement level based on posture and eye-movement. Ah yes and we designed a community for paid VIP learners. Oops, almost forgot to mention that gamified UI.
Haha, all of this only took three days. Look at us!
A bigger bowl
That’s right. We have tasted our bowl of smoothie now. But how do we know if we can get a bigger bowl? Numbers.
From 2012 to 2019, the global online education market has been expanding exponentially. By 2025, it’s predicted that the market will hit a staggering $319+ B and not plateau out until at least another 5 years from then. Within the arena of MOOCs, Udemy saw a 400% increase in sign-ups in the last 18 months and received $50 M in funding. Skillshare and Coursera each saw ≈ 30 % year-over-year growth. Byju became the world’s most valued edtech company with a valuation of $11.1 B. And other software companies like CENTURY and Age of Learning are adopted by more and more schools around the world during Covid-19.
But it turns out that less than 4 % of high school students who have pondered upon learning from the internet actually completes an online course. Online tutoring is only a market in Asia. And, as a fellow student, I have never heard of CENTURY or Age of Learning until now.
This vision, as we are starting to acquire now, is to provide a solution powered by AI that will truly revolutionize how learning is conducted. It will offer a magical experience that no one has ever experienced before.
We saw an opportunity, and we saw glory. So we decided to work more.
It turns out that vision can act as a pain killer. It makes you so focused on your actions that you dismiss all appreciations of danger.
Our vision carried us to put in another 20 hours of R&D. This time, we dived deep into the core of human cognition. We broke down learning even more—into memories, interests, and inspirations. We learned about the “flow” state, where our brains release all five of the “big chemicals” (dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, anandamide, and endorphins) to create a sensation of selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness, and richness where everything you learn is immediately brought to your hippocampus (warehouse for long-term memories).
Perhaps it was our pain-killing vision that also gave us a similar sense of flow. So we thought: what if we can personalize content for optimized memorization? Just. Imagine. That.
Sip #3: If we hack human memory, we will unlock super-human performance
We were now going to enable a future of superb retention in the least amount of time. Where everyone can pick up a new skill up to 5x faster.
The world is our customer, and cells are the last frontier.
Where did we go wrong?
Looking back, we are grateful that we didn’t even place in the top 10. It is a scary thought that we could have pursued turning this idea into a startup—conceited by our vision.
We are lucky that this hackathon was just like a simulation. It provided us with a challenge. It injected a stimulus for us to chase our limits and study our limitations. However, there are others out there that couldn’t have pulled the brakes. This has inspired me to share our story and takeaways.
Take advantage of fear
Fear, in essence, is the pain caused by our subconscious (which accounts for 95% of our conscious awareness) reacting to the detection of potential harm.
Entrepreneurs tend to dissent fear. We believe that it is an unnecessary emotion that hinders us as we sprint towards success. We favor the bold. Those with unworldly insights. The visionaries.
But we also need to understand that not all visions are truthful.
Vision can be created by two wickedly similar sensations: ego and confidence.
All mindful people face a dilemma someday: how do I know if what I’m feeling is ego or confidence? In the moment, the thoughts are so incredibly similar—we think we know what we know and can do.
It is often only in the future, when the feelings have led us to irreversible decisions, that we can look back and identify the root. Too late.
Instead, let’s try listening to and understanding our fear. This is not the same as suggesting to follow our fear, but only to study their causes. What is our subconscious afraid about?
What has it detected that we have not?
Is it risks that we are aware of? Or, like a siren, is it warning us that our mind will be taken over by toxic ego?
Study your fear. Use it to clean your visions.
What’s next for us
“Whenever you feel like you will be the best is when you most likely wouldn’t”
If there is anything we learned from this past week, it is to understand our visions. Be confident only about our true abilities and never fly far astray from the solid boundaries that we have built through real experiments.
One of my favorite founders, Jack Ma, once said: “You lose only when you give up.” Obviously, we wouldn’t give up on pursuing this idea. The future belongs to us, the next generation, to shape. I have no doubt that our innovative spirit, resilience, and dedication to the world’s hardest problems will leave many footprints in the long history of our civilization.
But to do so wisely, to do so with confidence and confidence only, and to do so responsibly, we need to sharpen our judgment of reality.
We must focus our time on learning and constantly polishing our craft.
To a better future!