Ideas Challenge FAQ

The Spark Ideas Challenge is due in 4 days, 1000 words for a 1000 dollars – I’m not even joking. If you can, you should definitely enter. Putting together 1000 words on a business idea is pretty easy and there are a lot of prizes to win and less competition than you think. There will be at least 20 different winning teams on the day and $33,000 is the total prize pool. Your odds are good.

The main rules:
1. It needs to be a business Idea, not something that is already in the market
2. One or more of the team members need to be an Auckland University student or employee. Only one though, so drag someone into it if you need to.

You can read more about the competition here and download the entry form here.

I’ve been a winner and a judge before and I’m judging again this year. I usually work on the web and software entries, but all judges contribute to the final discussion. I tend to get a few emails every year asking for advice, so in the spirit of fairness, here are some of my answers to the more common questions.

My idea is super awesome so I’m not willing to tell you anything without you signing an NDA, you’ll definitely want to steal it. The NDA is attached
Nice try, that wasn’t even a question. Good news though, all judges sign NDAs before looking at your entries so don’t worry. The bad news: lots of people stop taking you seriously when you take such a hard line on this stuff, I prefer the FrieNDA approach.

What kind of team do you recommend building? Do I need a business guy?
For the Ideas challenge don't be too concerned about the team, but make it obvious that you are aware of any major skill gap and outline a plan for filling them. For the larger competition later in the year, there's not really a need to have a 'business guy' on the team who doesn't have another pertinent skill to the the business. Instead plug the gap by up-skilling yourself and by getting a good advisory board that you can ask the 'business' like questions to. Spark can help you with this, just ask.

What kinds of ideas do the judges like? Do they look at things beyond the idea, like team members? For the ideas challenge, it’s all about the idea. When we do the judging we work in teams of two usually going over about 20 ideas that relate to our field of expertise. I usually judge for the web/software division, and these are the things most likely to lead to to being cut from the running:

  • Idea is too similar to something else already on the market
  • Idea was tried and failed in the recent past (You have no idea how many people suggest creating a social platform for ‘X’ niche)
  • Idea is not useful until it has a massive amount of users – the exceptions are those with either a killer user acquisition strategy or localisation strategy to get a density of users.

How much chance do you think a solo entrant has?
In ideas challenge, an equal chance if the idea is good and you know where you’re lacking. However no one has ever won the 100k challenge on their own. Find someone to share the burden, lots of groups of 2 get through to the final 12 in the 100k, and you can build a team from there once you’re in the running.

If you’re a developer, find a designer to be your co-founder. Not someone to help you with your logo, but someone who understands user interaction. They’ll help a lot with making your work digestible by a non-technical judging panel and will do wonders for your user testing during market validation.

What is the competition like? Was there a lot of people in it? How many people really had a good idea what they were doing? Anything from amazing and experienced through to people’s first shot at putting something down on paper. The good news (for you) is there’s generally less than 300 hundred entries so your chances are pretty good. You can take your idea a long way by running it past a few people from the industry first. Don’t worry about them stealing your idea, they won’t.

Do you have any general tips for the Ideas Challenge?
You obviously have to get the basics right: your idea needs to be original, feasible, defensible and be going after a market that exists and is preferably measurable. Please do some research on who your competitors are as well, don’t write that you are applying a Blue Ocean Strategy and have no competitors, you’re wrong.

Most of all though, get something down on paper and enter, as many times as you can. It’s a great exercise and the feedback sessions are awesome and fun. Every entrant gets one. If I’m one of your judges you’ll get me along with someone much smarter and better looking.

Read more, get involved and enter here.

The B2B Marketer: Doing better work

So you know now how B2B marketing is different in nature than B2C— they’re trickier products, sold for more money, over longer periods of time to multiple decision makers... yawn. Looks less glamorous right? Here’s why I prefer to do it:

You should own less crap

Your shelves are covered with shit you don’t use, your kitchen draws don’t fit all the stuff that you have bought, you have a garage filled with boxes titled ‘miscellany’ and your closet is filled with clothes you haven’t worn in years.

You were always defenceless though— consumer marketing budgets are massive, their messages are compelling and increasingly targeted at you. Don’t be part of making this any worse than it’s going to be. Companies are much better at not buying stuff they don’t need than people are.

B2C can be fucking evil

I once did some work (development, not marketing) for a brand whose marketing strategy could be summarised as follows:

  1. Make women feel insecure about their self image
  2. Convince them they can plug that insecurity with the product.
  3. Profit

Unfortunately, that’s a pretty universal B2C marketing strategy. Even B2C marketing that doesn’t prey on physical insecurity is still perpetuating the belief that you are far from your ideal self, and buying this thing is the answer. There are obviously B2C products that do good in the world and hopefully you’ll go work for one of those companies. The odds are though, that you won’t, or worse, you’ll be at an agency helping a plethora of companies achieve these ends. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of evil B2B jobs as well; weapons manufacturing and fracking componentry come to mind. But by the numbers, you’re rarely destroying the planet and you certainly aren’t making people feel bad about who they are.

This doesn’t mean we don’t push buttons when we’re marketing business products. We go for the fears and aspirations of our decision makers as well, it’s part of the fun, but it’s about business outcomes and work performance. We don’t need to go after the identity and self worth of the people we’re communicating too.

You Can Help make New Zealand Awesome

Icebreaker is perhaps the only New Zealand consumer brand that I really admire, but the future of New Zealand isn’t in creating a dozen more clothing brands, it’s in building a dozen more Fisher & Paykel Healthcares. If you do one thing today, watch this video, it’s 18 month old now but more relevant than ever:

Paul Calaghan gives a great heuristic in the talk:

If you go to a hi-tech company in New Zealand and ask them what they’re doing, and your response is “hey that sounds pretty cool”, don’t invest in that company, it’s going to fail. If on the other hand you say “what the hell is that?”, that company might stand a chance.

That’s the sort of product that we need great marketers to help talk about. It’s why I think this is such an exciting and challenging area to play. As a marketer who cares about New Zealand, you should be thinking about how you can help companies sell more ‘weird stuff’, it’s hard, rewarding and worthwhile work.

The (sort of) Exception: The Web

I need to add TradeMe as another consumer brand I respesct. I’d love to see a dozen new TradeMe stories, maybe even some that address an international market. In saying that though, I think the ones most likely to be real breakouts are going to be B2B plays anyway. Xero being the obvious breakout and Vend the awesome up and comer; both of whom are targeted at the international B2B market place - more of the same please.

A French Sabbatical by the Numbers

Last year my partner and I spent nearly a year travelling Europe and living in France. We spent close to six months living in Paris, two months in Antibes in La Cote D’Azur and month in a beautiful Annecy in the Alps. The rest of the time we spent travelling. Below is some numbers that I accidentally collected over the year, they paint an interesting picture of our year away and speak for themselves:

  • Hours of French Classes: 360 over 3 months
  • Days of travel: 331
  • New Friends on Facebook: 96 [1]
  • Films watched: 69 via Letterboxd
  • Books read: 40 books totaling 14,981 pages (375pg/ book) via Goodreads
  • Cities visited: 39
  • Flights taken: 24
  • Oktoberfest Steins: 21 [2]
  • Countries visited: 14 [3]
  • Days Snowboarding: 10
  • Days Sailing: 7
  • Personal lifting records: 5 [4]
  • Gyms: 4
  • Powerlifting Meets: 4
  • Marriage Proposals: 1

Things I’m glad I didn’t count

  • Bottles of wine
  • Mojitos at Escalle
  • Bottles of French beer (they’re all terrible)
  • Afternoons by the river seine

  1. I’m using this as a proxy for the number of people I made friends with, even if only temporary. These days I wonder how good a measure this is to the number of people you meet, it is certainly close. This is the number of people that were added during the year, as opposed to the net gain which would be a lot less since due to regular culling back  ↩

  2. 3 + 6 + 3 + 9 - It’s generally advisable to only drink crazy amounts every 2nd day.  ↩

  3. Countries and (number of cities): France (16), Italy (2), Monaco (1), Spain (3), Belgium (3), England (2), Switzerland (3) Germany (3), Hong Kong (1), Macau (1), Lichtenstein (1), Greece (1), Serbia (1) & Montenegro (1)  ↩

  4. Bench Press: 110kg & 115kg. Deadlift: 235kg & 240kg. Total:520kg  ↩

The B2B Marketer

When people think of marketing, they usually think of the advertising they see day to day that target them: ads on the TV, billboards in the bus shelter and 30% of your average magazine. The campaigns are funny, sexy and emotional, but based primarily on annoying people about things they don’t need. I decided being a marketing professional wasn’t for me.

When I left university and joined a design studio, I found out about the world of business to business, or B2B marketing, my tune changed. The process was more complicated and the products were more useful. No longer would was scantily clad women a solution to moving more product. I did, however, have to learn how to deal with some interesting new challenges that every company that sells to other businesses, needs to face.

Multiple Decision Makers

When you sell a product built for businesses, there are almost always multiple decision makers involved in the buying process. These people have very different personalities and priorities. As a result you need to devise effective methods for communicating to everyone involved.

To sell your product, you might need to address the needs of a CEO, CTO and CFO–you’ve met these guys, they’re all really different people that you need to convince in different ways. Doing this could mean finding ways to split your online audience from the homepage, staging your communication through different channels, or providing your first contact in the company with materials they can use to convince the others. There are lots of cool tricks, but the most interesting part is figuring out how different personalities approach problems and products.

Complex Products, Complex Benefits

Usually a B2B marketer has to convey a more complex product proposition. For example, in the consumer marketing space you might want to say:

  • Perfumes: Makes you smell sexy
  • Bags: Look good while carrying things
  • Airplane Tickets: You can fly to a different city

All of these are cased in the complexities of building a brand of course, but the product propositions themselves are simple.

When you’re selling business products though, things get a little more complicated:

  • Bio-fuel: Harvest, conversion and refinement of wild algae and multi-biomass waste streams into drop-in bio-fuels.
  • ERP: Financial, supply chain, inventory and production management/analysis for a pharmaceutical distributers.
  • Biometric analysis algorithm: Transform raw biometric and environmental data into usable information that can dynamically adjust individual or team training plans.

It doesn’t stop at concisely describing the product offering, all this must still be done within the same constraints of attention and interest that consumer products must work through. The buyers still have fears, insecurities, hopes and dreams that we need to use to get cut through. We still need to make the stories sticky so a customer will remember the product when they have a need for it. We just do all this around propositions that are much more interesting, and in most cases, more difficult to convey.

Long Sales-Cycle

Since B2B typically revolves around big ticket items, the customers procurement process is generally much longer, often spanning 6–18 months. As well as having obvious financial implications, it requires more complex marketing strategies as well to succeed at during each phase.

Discoverability during a research phase is accomplished through different materials than what get you through an RFP process. Likewise, materials that help an organisation with problem identification are not going to be the ones that get a CEO to sign $100k cheque. Pacing and distributing the right materials at the right time with the right messages ties in tightly with dealing with multiple decision makers. A B2B marketer needs to influence this as best he can as each potential customer moves through their respective buying process. It’s a long game.

There is lots of crossover as well, and many exceptions in the the B2C world. I imagine a lot of car manufacturers know that getting the spouse across the line helps get the car off the lot with the main buyers. But overall, the differences require a different mindset and it can help to have a specialist internally or at the agency you use, who gets these and other key differences and builds a strategy around meeting them.

There is great and satisfying work to be done in the B2C sector with plenty of interesting and complex challenges, but most people don’t realise that that’s only half the story. There is marketing to be done by all organisations, and a whole world of industries that don’t sell to you and me. But they sure could use our help.

The Name Stamp

I didn’t want to get personal business cards when I left LTW to travel, so our wicked senior designer Su Yin, designed a stamp for me to use instead.  The final product is an Inspector stamp that was formerly used by Health Inspectors and Train Conductors of old. We had it made by the appropriately named Cranky Pressman. He's quite nice though really.


It works great on beer coasters, notebooks and other peoples business cards if you're really short on something to use.

Its stuck around as something I use often, and I like it much more than business cards now. I like it so much in fact, that when I decided to move to a responsive web design this year, I knew it was just what I wanted to use.

It also showed up in a similar form on the great one pager that Lee ter Wal helped me put together when I left. You know your company is awesome when they set you up with the tools to find a new gig when you leave.

Four Things I learned from Spark

If you’re attending or working at Auckland University, you can’t go wrong with getting involved in Spark, a student-led organisation that spearheads the university’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. Since 2008 I’ve been through the Spark system as a competitor, winner (mostly loser), as a lead on the management team, as mentor and as a judge. There have been many lessons learned but here are my top four:

Meet cool people

When you want to start a company, all kinds of really cool people get involved in lots of awesome ways, bringing a diversity of thinking, skills and approaches to the table. Grinding out ideas with people is a great way to get to know your network in a semi-professional way.

When one of my high school friends, then a computer science masters student, Peter Chen, said he had an idea he’d like me to work on with him, I didn’t realise how much I’d get hooked. We went on to win a small prize in 2008 and got to know each other a lot better in the process. He liked the experience we went through so much that the following year he submitted 12 ideas with 12 different people; not because he wanted to win so much as he found it such an excellent vehicle for getting to know people.

Bottom line: Use Spark to strengthen your network and learn to work with people from other disciplines.

The entrepreneurial mindset

Spark got me to reframe the way I look at all research and development that took place at university. My top question for every 4th year engineering student was “how will this project be taken to market?”. The cool thing is that every year, they get better at answering the question. The answer is becoming more important.

Spark helps take this question to every sphere of the university; they bring a fantastic pragmatism to the arts and social entrepreneurship, really pushing you to think through creating something sustainable, even when the primary goals aren’t commercial.

One of the things that we suck at in New Zealand is commercialisation, often demonstrated by our lousy ratio of publications to patents. Over the long term, I believe difference between these two capabilities is largely about the mindset that is brought to R&D in the first place. Spark helps to cultivate this mindset everywhere.

Bottom Line: Spark gives you the mindset so that the work you do can reach the audience, community or market it needs in order to survive.

Starting a company will kick your ass

I completely fucked up with my team when we went through the 100K challenge in 2009. World’s best portable composting toilet isn’t obviously sexy; but the business opportunity and social need were massive. Not only that, but the technology founder, Brad Lovett, who brought in the IP, had a kick-ass prototype in the works that we could really test and prove demand with.

We went on to win the then titled 40K Challenge, which for us included $20,000 seed capital and six months at The Icehouse[1]. Within a week, the other member of our trio decided to drop out, she was early in her studies and, as far as I could tell, didn’t want another distraction. Six weeks later Brad and I sat down and he said I should walk away as well. We haven’t spoken since.

We had some fundamental differences of opinion around next steps for the organisation, in particular the appropriate strategy for taking the technology to market (in-house manufacturing vs licensing). I’d also arranged to work half-time at Lee ter Wal Design to keep personal cash flow while we grew the business out of The Icehouse. This didn’t sit too well with Brad either. Since there was no shareholder agreement at that stage, there was an inevitable dispute over shareholding[2]. I don’t think I’d get myself in the same position now, but if I did, I’d walk away faster. Sorry Brad.

Regardless of this, the experience sculpted a large part of how I operate today and what I aspire to in the businesses I help build and the selling I do. When we were doing the final presentation, largely done by me, I emphasised the strength, unity and completeness of our team. I really admired the members of that judging panel, and it turned out I was full of shit. Sorry guys.

Bottom Line: Starting a business is a lot harder than you think and working with other people is also hard, particularly when money is on the table. Have the tough conversations early and often.

It’s not about the competitions

There are so many competitions focused on starting, planning and pitching a business that a lot of start-ups become distracted from doing what their core mission is; getting people to pay money for a product or service that you provide. Winning competitions can give you a false sense of achievement and can take your time away from accomplishing these things.

People should enter the Spark competitions, because they’re at university, it’s fun and you’ll learn a lot. For some of them, they’ll get to the hard part of making something worth paying for. But we still need the 80 teams to try and put a business plan together each year, because this kind of work is contagious and stays with you when you’re done. This is how cultures change. A phrase I heard early on was that we were creating ‘business savvy scientists’ - there’s nothing our country needs more. An extra few hundred people every year thinking about starting a business has had a massive impact on the hallway conversations at the university. But these conversations continue when people leave as well; they can infect our NGOs, research institutions, government and businesses alike. A competition is just the conversation starter.

Bottom Line:Changing the culture of our university is just the first step to changing the culture of our country into one with grand aspirations to create world-leading businesses and a better society.

Now go!

Spark launch is this Tuesday at the Business School, you should RSVP here and check it out. If you’re not at university any more, you should come check it out anyway, you might be able to offer some help, and at the very least meet some good people.

  1. [Update: These days, there is no equity surrendered to for incubation, good on you guys] A little-discussed facet of The Icehouse’s incubation is that it also includes surrendering 4–6% of stock to The Icehouse, so although there is usually a price ticket for residency, the prize itself doesn’t get you in there without another, often more significant, cost. Whether this was a worthwhile sacrifice was a considerable source of tension between Brad and I. I was for it, but was giving up less overall.  ↩

  2. Sacha Judd wrote a great pair of articles on Rowan Simpson’s blog that are worth checking out: Call me Maybe Part 1 and Part 2. When I went through Spark, start-up governance was one of the least-addressed areas in the their education programme. These articles are a good starting point.  ↩