Gerri Sinclair Award Winners on Starting Their Own Business
The Gerri Sinclair Award is given out every year to a student or group of students in MDM who have created a digital media product or innovation that has potential as a commercial digital media product.
Orbits began as a student pitch project back in May and then the student team continued on with the project as part of their Venture Internship. I sat down with the team to discuss their experiences of starting their own company.
1. Let’s start at the beginning. How did Orbits start?
Russell: Orbits started out as a platform that helps facilitate innovation within companies.
Bony: We were thinking about Google and how they give employees personal time to develop ideas. We saw lots of potential in this idea of cultivating ideas but, so far, the process was organic and we wanted to simulate that process in a digital space.
Henrique: We pitched the project in May as part of our pitch project. And then once we started researching we realized that there were so many companies doing this. We had to step back and ask ourselves, ‘Where do we fit?’
Bony: Yeah, we pivoted 5 times in one week, trying to see where we fit. The problem was that we didn't have an entryway—we couldn't see how the other platforms worked because they were enterprise platforms and closed off.
Bettsina: And then when we did get access to the other platforms, we found out that they were flat. They were designed like a forum and didn’t allow for building on top of ideas.
Bony: So we decided to step back and focus on three main areas: who our core audience was, who our competition was and how to differentiate ourselves from our competition. We looked at the game industry as our first niche market and met with lots of game companies, including Hothead Games and Roadhouse Interactive. Gregan Dunn, Director of Business Development at Hothead, was a huge help.
Henrique: And then we demo’d the first prototype at our final pitch presentation and the feedback was awful. At our initial pitch back in May [as part of the student pitch project] the judges were so excited about our idea, they were telling us to "be careful who you tell." And then we were so disappointed at the final presentation when the feedback wasn't good and we couldn't communicate our idea.
2. That must have been hard. But then you still continued with the project and went on to do a Venture Internship?
Russell: Yes, then we started the Venture Internship in the summer. We had about 30% of the prototype built but we still didn't know what we were. One of the big problems is that we had way too many people giving us advice. We were constantly showing our product to people and they were projecting what they thought we should be so we were constantly pivoting and changing our idea. Because of this, we decided to build an advisory board. The mentors were a huge help. Yvan Boily from Mozilla gave us tons of encouragement, even offering his help supporting the venture in various ways.
Bony: Then we enrolled in the e@UBC Accelerator Program, which is an 8-week program based on the Lean Launch Pad model developed by Steve Blank. Eleven teams were accepted into the program when we started and it was way more intense than we thought it would be—there were only 4 teams left at the end.
Russell: We learned to focus on customer discovery and development and to articulate customer pain points. This is something we didn't do before. We learned that you're supposed to find out what people need and then build it, instead of the other way around. So we stopped developing.
Bony: Instead, we did 100s of interviews. We actually had the most interviews in the program [laughs]. We interviewed all kinds of people—game developers, facilitators, script writers. At the end of the 8 weeks, we finished at the top of the class which is important because we started at the very bottom. The program was great for creating the groundwork we needed and now we can go back anytime and take advantage of the mentors associated with the program.
3. What was the result of the program?
Russell: In the end we realized that we didn't find a market. The markets we found were either not big enough, their need wasn’t great enough, or we couldn't afford to compete with the competition. For now, Orbits as a platform is on hold though we are still using the technology we developed for it in our other projects. We want to pick up it up again in the future and we’re keeping our options open. In the meantime, we’re out looking for jobs.
Bony: We got lots of experience getting out there. We met basically everyone in the startup space in Vancouver.
Bettsina: There were lots of ups and downs. Presentations would either be amazing or completely bomb. We did so many presentations—presenting to Facebook, Mozilla and tons of other organizations. At first, presentations took us half a day to develop but we got way quicker at it. We were also invited as guests to events, including the Diversity Breakfast. David Fushtey (a fellow at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue) even hosted a breakfast for us at the Vancouver Club to talk about Orbits.
Bony: It was surreal. We were dressing up for breakfast events and were with dignitaries, thinking 'I can't believe we're talking to these people.'
Henrique: And a lot of times it was completely disconnected from what we were doing. But you go to everything.
Bettsina: Now, as we're looking for jobs, we’re realizing all of the skills that we have gained. You need to come out of your shell in startup culture. We have management skills and leadership skills that we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t gone through the process of starting our own company.
Bony: And ultimately we learned that building a product and building a company is two totally different things.
Watch Orbits' Demo
About the Gerri Sinclair Award for Innovation in Digital Media
The Gerri Sinclair Award for Innovation in Digital Media, valued at $2,000, is granted annually to a graduating student or team of students of the Master of Digital Media Program (MDM) for creating a digital media product, process or innovation that has great potential.
The award was established at Simon Fraser University in 2010 by Microsoft Corporation with a generous endowment of $50,000 to recognize Gerri Sinclair’s innovative approach to digital media education in her role as Founding Director of the Master of Digital Media Program.
Students are nominated by faculty members and the recipients are selected by a committee chaired by the Director of the MDM program.