SVIA: Biggest Takeaways

By Lousia

7 Weeks of intensive effort, concluding just like that.

The last week was definitely the most intense, whereby we crammed 2 MVPs (literally, as we launched them on the morning of the first presentation) and 2 Presentations. I thought it was going to be akin to the last sprint, where this is the time we would go all out, then recuperate after…. but no. The presentation was just a launchpad, and everything’s only getting started.

That being said, a common question circulating among us SVIA-ers was  “Are you happy with the way SVIA turned out?” and each of our answers varied greatly. We all came in with different backgrounds, different expectations, different goals so naturally, the process impacted all of us uniquely.

I started out with really high expectations, after following the startup scene for about 3 years, through first a similar program in High School, a brilliant internship at a blooming Singaporean (now Asian?) Startup, the hilarious Silicon Valley TV Series and alongside tons of clickbait-y articles from tech blogs and tech influencers. Nothing would compare to actually being here, as expected.

While I’m still feeling overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions at how eventful the last few days have been, one good habit I’ve picked up and hope to continue would be chronicling the process. It’s like taking photos — it’s kinda annoying to have to stop whatever you’re doing in order to get that photo, but give it some time and you’ll be so glad you took that many photos.(thanks for the “mandatory” one-post-per-week requirement!)

I love how the focus has always been about learning and I’ll thus conclude with the most significant takeaways this program has given me.

Building A Team

It was our first task of sorts, where we had to pitch our idea in 90 secs and recruit 3–4 team members. As others were nervous about pitching, I thought it wouldn’t be a huge concern because I’d gotten more used to it (through practice!).

Then I realized the conflict between convincing people to join and being selective of who to have on the team, the conflict between skills vs commitment vs interest vs how well you get along. Ideally, you’d have all but people don’t exist like that and so I settled for a balance of these factors, even having to “reject” 2 brilliant individuals. I got 2 “interested” and 2 “skilled” team mates.

Dependent On What’s To Come
It seemed reasonable but the nature of how the following 6 weeks would pan out changed many things, leaving the “skilled” members not having any avenue to apply their interests. Those 6 weeks entailed more general, more mixed type of work and hardly any business model / finance-related involvement. Our skilled coder, who was already busy with school work, didn’t have much to do either as there are so many free-to-use platforms that provide nicer UI and served the same purposes. The other coding work he could have contributed for would then take way too long and so we didn’t need him. We also had a mechanical engineer who would have played a more generalist role in our team, but she left us (peacefully!) in order to apply her mech eng skills, emphasizing how it was vital to let people work on their true interests, even though they were capable of doing other things.

The Power of Small
I was thus unintentionally left with a much smaller team size comprising TheBestTeamMateEver, Maria and a finance guy who served primarily as our financial consultant and was heavily involved in putting the video together. It was a blessing in disguise, however, as we could move so much more quickly as two people. Being already really good friends (road trip buddies! harrypotter-obssessed!), it was effortless to meet and get along, discuss and agree. What I especially loved was that Maria had a really critical eye and criticizing your own thoughts and ideas is almost impossible. You need to love your work to do a good job, but then it becomes easy to fall too far in love with it that you can’t critique as much as you should. She was also the sort of person whom you can fully trust with a task. She took charge completely of our 3rd MVP, executed it perfectly and I barely had to get involved, allowing me to spend time on coursework.

Trusting Your Gut Feel
There’s clearly not enough research being done to scientifically explain this but looking back, my first Gut Feel instincts would have been more reliable. I owe this to how there are sooooo many factors in determining the “best” co-founders that you can’t isolate each. You’ll just have no doubts that he/she will be perfect.

Moving Forward With Three
Based on that, one friend we made, who isn’t in SVIA, stays 3 doors away from me and already asked us what we were working on before we even thought of involving anyone else, was just the one we had to have on our team. It also doesn’t hurt that he loves Harry Potter too and we have similar humor. For instance “that’s not a stupid idea” is his lingo for “that sounds interesting, I wouldn’t mind working on it!”. And so it begins.

Balancing Building vs. Testing

This would be where my response to the aforementioned question gets iffy. Unlike some of my friends who would have reactions akin to “THIS CHANGED MY LIFE” as they didn’t know they could have done so much, my personal journey was tinged with the exposure I already had to the startup scene and with extremely high expectations.

In particular, while startup ideas always bounce in my head whenever I chance across a problem, I’ve been holding on to this idea for awhile and kept going back to it because it was so executable. I thus hoped to find a team to execute this out and build the platform.

But we didn’t.

Our mentors discouraged us from Day 1 to build it, advising us to understand our customer segment further and test hypotheses in small doses. While I was itching to build it, I trusted their advice because they do seem to have had extremely valuable experience. I thought we should have built it from the start then see how it goes because our idea wasn’t like the others — the biggest barrier was social change, not as much industry barriers. We stuck with their advice, however, and learned so much. We didn’t exactly pivot from one problem to another, but understood our problem so much more deeply than before and have become much clearer on the next steps that we can expect. We also receive so many valuable insights from the people we’ve talked to, such that one of the key features originated from a suggestion made by a random person in Starbucks that Maria interviewed.

The only part where I feel slightly dismayed was when our main advice from the super-experienced panelists after our presentation was “just build it” — exactly the same thought I had at the beginning. It does seem that we came back to square one but it’s far from it. It’s easy to downplay the progress we made just because the “next step” is the same, but that amount of information and hypotheses validation makes all the difference. I suppose it’s all part of the process.

The Power of a Good Presentation

The last presentation we had at CEMEX Auditorium, Graduate Business School, 4th August was definitely our best yet. The reactions we received during and after were also slightly unanticipated. While people generally have positive attitudes towards everything here and “just build it” could have meant either “it’s such a brilliant idea, people need it, please build it” or “you’ll only know if it works once you’ve built it” or somewhere in between, the fact that people have been mentioning it even days after the presentation, even remembering the name of it, suggests that maybe there was really something that started there.

It was also intriguing that this wasn’t the first time I presented this idea and while the idea technically didn’t deviate too much from previous presentations, illustrating it with a story (literally) and presenting it in a way that would connect with the audience made all the difference.

The Silicon Valley Cultural Nuances

I arrived having already heard about how ideal this place is, so I’ll skim through those parts and highlight the instances that defied these stereotypes.

  1. It’s collaborative, not competitive. They don’t fight for the pie, they create new pies.
  2. Given how cut-throat many industries are (especially at the top), this is comparatively true but just Google how Facebook had a lockdown when Google+ was released, and how both giants fight over the CS talents. Silicon Valley (the show) also highlights many of these ironies.
  3. Everyone is open and shares everything. 
  4. True, people have shared so much, even though we could be potential competitors. They go by how giving an apple to someone else = losing an apple, but giving an idea = both parties get ideas. It’s the premise that open-source and sharing economy was founded on but there is still a limit to how much you share. Take for instance the top-notch secrecy that Tesla, Apple has over their products and yeap, not everything can be open.
  5. Everyone’s is casual and there are no dress codes.
  6. Zuckerberg’s Hoodie-jeans and Jobs’ Turtleneck-jeans uniforms are probably what you think of, but the majority of people still dress semi-formally, nearing smart casual. I was just at an event two days ago and in my top+ denim shorts, I definitely felt out of place among everyone who was smart-casually dressed. I suppose it’s still a lot more casual than other areas like Wall Street but not to the extent you’d imagine. There also are reports of how dressing more formally makes you feel and thus act differently so there’s always that.
  7. Testing Hypotheses to Validate them
  8. Failure is encouraged as being part of the process. The Silicon Valley methodology seems to be trying out many solutions, letting users give the feedback to indicate which is the way forward. It seems to be their secret to why little tiny startups can kick the butt of giant slow moving mammoths, but while it is the general rule, it’s not always the case. Now that many of these tech guys are becoming giants, I feel that they’re pushing their way. For instance, take the problem of transportation. There are tons of ways to get around but they’re all betting on self-driving cars. Back in Singapore / Europe, I never quite understood this direction but after coming here, yes, self-driving cars could work well in this vast country … but only here. Coming from cities with really good public transport (Paris’ > Singapore’s btw), self-driving cars seem to be a needless development but because so much investment has been made into this field here, it will happen. Same goes for (I reckon) VR even though it is incredibly dizzying but I suppose we’re seeing the rise of AR through Pokémon Go (Harry Potter version, anyone???)

So many other sites and other people can write about Silicon Valley’s uniqueness way better than I can (on Quora, TechCrunch…) but these are just based on my experiences here. I’m definitely still impressed with it and will miss it so much (though I feel like I’ll come back?) but the biggest thing that bothers me is that it is a bubble.

I suppose investors would talk about it as a bubble like a dotcom bubble but I mean it in the sense of how the level of technology here is craaaazy but it’s mostly rich-people problems that are being solved. Had plenty of discussions about this and a lot of people do try to solve worldwide, systemic problems (eg air pollution, corruption, unemployment) but as a new kid on the block your hands are tied and if you’re trying to build a business, profits do matter. You incur costs the moment you start spending time on things so profits are necessary for things to be self-sustainable. I wish I could say we’re tackling a really pivotal problem but the closest we get is preventing wastage and putting a bit more heart into consumerism. However, we’re definitely not gonna stop with this and this is just the most executable first step of the way :)

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