While programmers on the West Coast were plugging away at their awesome projects this past weekend at hackTECH, I participated in a similar product competition-type-thing-of-sorts for the first time in my life at humble LavaLab’s Create-A-Thon at USC. Right off the bat I’ll tell you my team didn’t win anything or garner any glory. The honor (and my congratulations!) belongs to Quantified Skate (1st),

Lumonarch (2nd) and Faction (3rd). My team spent more than half the competition trying to figure out our idea, and when we finally had it, someone in the audience pointed out during our pitch that there was already a patent on the idea. I felt pretty discouraged when I walked out the auditorium Saturday night.

Of course I’m still glad I dragged myself to this 24-hour product design competition. I knew it in my mind Saturday night despite my shitty feelings then but I’m actually glad (not just saying it to myself to make myself feel better) now as I write this post on Monday afternoon. I mulled over my Create-A-Thon experience all of Sunday and distilled some of the more important lessons I gleaned from this inaugural experience. Hopefully these lessons will better prepare me (and maybe you?) for the next competition.

1. Don’t bring a sack lunch; do bring an idea.

I didn’t actually bring a sack lunch to this field trip. Bringing food is almost always optional at these continuous and frenetic competition types but bringing an idea shouldn’t be optional. I went into the competition without an idea, thinking I’d just listen to other people’s ideas and then join a team that had an interesting idea. There’s nothing wrong with that; plenty of people enjoy the problem solving and the hard work of executing the idea more than thinking one up. Not everybody can be a visionary. But it helps so much if you’ve got at least a general direction for what you want to do at the competition. My team and I tossed around multiple ideas, sometimes even returning to previously discarded ideas in an attempt to put a new spin on it. We were stuck on the idea of mirrors for several hours. Because we’d sunk so much time into researching all about mirrors and the mirror industry, we were creating solutions around mirrors instead of creating solutions to solve problems.

The products of all three teams that placed were preconceived ideas that a participant had already thought about for a while. For example, the Lumonarch team bought the URL for its product more than two weeks before the competition, indicating that one of the cofounders had spent at least two weeks developing his idea before he set foot in the auditorium. Preparation like this cuts down the time these teams had to spend on polishing and re-working the idea. One less step means more time can be spent on prototyping and crafting a more sophisticated pitch/demo. So bring an idea, as developed an idea as you can or even multiple ideas! The more work done before the competition, the more time you’ll have during it.

2. Don’t just solve a problem, know a problem.

Setting out to solve a problem a problem isn’t the same as knowing a problem. I know it sounds weird. Let me explain. The idea that my teammates and I eventually landed on was about implementing a sonar sensor on surfboards so that surfers could be alerted to large obstacles nearby without hurting or repelling local marine life. It certainly solved a problem: According to National Geographic, surfers were victims of more than half the shark attacks that occurred in 2010. And while the idea could help solve a surfer’s problem, it couldn’t solve our team’s problem, which was that none of us really surfed regularly. Of the four of us, only one had surfed at all and she was less a surfing enthusiast and more a tourist in the world of surfing. And our lack of surfing know-how showed in our pitch, especially in contrast to other teams who seemed so passionate and specific about their ideas as they presented diagrams, mockups, numbers and other proofs of concept in their polished pitches. As I mentioned earlier, all three teams that placed were preconceived ideas. In other words, three participants developed ideas near and dear their hearts and used Create-A-Thon to find the right team to make their ideas into reality. They knew their problems inside out and relayed their expertise and passion about their problems to the judges.

3. Judges can be wrong.

Yes judges can be wrong, sometimes in the most trivial ways. Granted, they’re judges because of their expertise and experience, but judges bring their own biases and quirks along as well, so there’s definitely some luck involved in any competition like this. And sometimes, as it was for our team, the reason for wrongness can be as simple as they just weren’t paying attention to your pitch.

I totally get it. For the Create-A-Thon judges, it was probably hard to listen to pitch after pitch and filling out comment sheets after comment sheet for nearly two hours straight on a Saturday night. After all I had sit through all those pitches too as my team was the last one to pitch. By the time it was our turn, I could already feel the auditorium getting antsy, ready to get it over with. When my teammates and I went to collect the judges’ comment sheets, we were hoping to take advantage of the judges’ comments to see if the judges thought our product was viable and where we could’ve improved our pitch. Well we were only able to get two comment sheets  out of three — maybe the third judge simply didn’t fill it out or lost the sheet. Of the two we got only one had comments on it. The other was completely blank save the scores in each category. Of the one that had comments on it, the judge dinged us for not thinking to attach our sonar device into the surfboard when we’d said in our pitch that we would do exactly that after initial prototypes.

I admit I was a bit annoyed. Our team wasn’t expecting to place but we counted on the comment sheets to help figure out our next steps, you know? Like I said though, I definitely get it. I certainly glazed over a couple times when I judged speech and debate tournaments in high school and tons of times while listening to the Create-A-Thon pitches. What I’m taking away from this is that judges’ verdicts should be taken with a grain of salt and context sometimes because they’re human and they err. Sometimes they only listen to a part of your pitch before putting pen to paper. So that’s all the more reason for you to have a tight and polished pitch that conveys your message well at least visually and verbally. The last thing you’d want is to have a great idea undermined by a poor presentation.

Bonus: Build a product, build a friendship. That’s an honorable mention. I thought this lesson went without saying because it’s such a cliché. It’s the idea that at the very least these competitions provide you with the opportunity to make some good friends and connections, which was pretty true in my case. People always bring this fuzzy friendship stuff up (“You’ll make lifelong friendships!”) when they explain why you should go to X competition. But it’s worth a mention. Personally I thought our product was a decent idea but my teammates were even better. We’re still mulling over whether to continue our sonar surfboard idea, but if we don’t I’d work with Catherine, Kathleen and Thomas again if we crossed paths at another competition. I have to thank them and the folks at LavaLab for making this such a memorable first Create-A-Thon for me!


Have you been a competition like this before? Feel free to comment with your favorite lessons/pro tips!