Mentoring a team that won the North Atlantic hackathon 2020

I spent a total of 50 minutes over three Slack calls this weekend mentoring Rachael and Samuel from Team 9 that won the North Atlantic Corona Challenge Hackathon. There were 15 teams in the hackathon from Greenland, Iceland, Faroe Islands, Norway and Scotland organised by the North Atlantic Cooperation (NORA) and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

We kicked off the weekend with a morning call on Saturday and the goal was to share a 2 minutes presentation valuing 3 following themes: Saving lives, Saving Businesses and Saving Communities. The video is shared below.

Here is what I learned being a mentor for Rachael and Samuel, #team9:

  1. 50 minutes is a lot!
    Each call was scheduled to be 30 minutes (90 mins in total), but we kept it short and precise. The less we said, the clearer the goal. Even though we kept our calls short we still had time to learn a bit more about each other and our countries (I’m from Greenland and they are from Scotland).
  2. Instant trust.
    Any team has an expectation to their given mentor so your own introduction as a mentor is critical to instantly gain trust without getting too much attention as the scope is their upcoming idea and the team. I kept it as short as “I’m Jens-Jakob, please call me JJ. I’m a product designer and entrepreneur and here’s my background: https://jjsandgreen.com/ “ (linked in the Slack channel during the call). “I will be advising you over the next 24 hours and please do not regard my advices as to-do lists. An advice is an relevant experience received by need. To get advice is to listen, not by answering back, but by questioning well. Remain focused on your project, you’re way smarter about it than I’d ever be.”
  3. An idea is endless.
    As we started the first call I could sense the idea was naturally ambitious like any new idea and needed a lot of explanation of dependencies and a series of features in order to make sense of the idea. I remember it as an online digital marketing tool as an e-commerce platform for small businesses that could… (then I forgot the rest). Trying to explain the idea alone in the beginning took a few minutes, which is also natural so early on (a few hours old) and the end goal was to do the whole thing in less than 2 minutes combined with covers. We needed to go from “online e-commerce marketing” to something more specific as the 2 minutes limit felt unsettling.
  4. Do not overinform:
    The main advice I kept returning to in our 3 calls was “to identify and present a relatable problem, followed by a value proposition that solves the problem. Present the problem and then the solution. That’s it — then the 2 minutes limit would be a lot of time and you’d have space for so much more! If you succeed at presenting a problem people can relate to, you’d immediately get their attention and they’d be craving for the solution and cheering you to solve their problem. Presenting a problem results in a highly giving and an inspiring conversation, while presenting an idea is typically an overwhelming one-way communication. Remember Mario? The game? Mario becomes Supermario when he gets the mushroom. Mario is your potential customer and the mushroom is your product. It’s not about selling the product, but what you can do with the product. Focus on Supermario.”
  5. Convert the idea to a problem.
    It’s difficult to understand and relate to an idea and even more difficult explaining an idea with an impact, but it is easy to immediately understand a problem and even easier if you can relate to it. Nailing the problem in one sentence was key. Our longest conversation over the 3 calls was about trying to identify one or two core problems that needed to be solved. During the conversation I wrote down a few candidates for: “The Problem” in the Slack channel to tricker a series of thoughts to the team. “It’s difficult to setup an e-commerce.” and “It’s difficult to showcase in-store products.” followed by an extended conversation about the problem differences between a store and a customer.
  6. Understand the problems.
    Why is this a problem? Who is affected by this problem? How frequently are they affected by this problem? What do they do to solve the problem when it occurs today? There are two sides: A local store who is forever struggling to not only setup an e-commerce platform, but making sales from it. The other side is the customer’s point of view. An e-commerce experience, whichever platform and how it is built, remains the same for the customer. You open a site or an app, you explore products, their prices and eventually have a parallel e-commerce platform open to compare the prices for the very same product. By understanding the problems early on, you’d realise you won’t be able to pitch an e-commerce idea.
  7. Form the reason for existence.
    The problem is arguably your strongest value and mission, which is the projects reason to exist. It is your true north. The team quickly identified that their market was local and small businesses and customers who valued an onsite advice from an expert before picking a product. Small businesses strength is being experts at something very specific as well as being highly passionate about the products they offer to their communities. The in-store customers value compared to what webshop customers value is that the in-store customers value advices and conversations around products more than finding the lowest price online. It needs to be the right product for the customer and we in-store experience needs to be recreated, remotely.
  8. The value proposition.
    What value are you offering to the potential small business and a potential customer of that small business? Once the problem was identified and set it was quite straightforward for the team to nail the value proposition: Shop With Me — Delivering face-to-face shopping remotely
    An e-commerce video platform that allows customers to browse stores with a shop assistant by video call, add items to their basket and checkout in real-time. It re-creates the in-store experience online while maintaining safe social distance.
    - Shop by video call
    - Integrate into an existing e-commerce or standalone
    - Items are added to basket in real-time for customers to check remotely
  9. Less is greater.
    Most startups fail by having too many features rather than too few. Be the best at one thing, than trying to be good at many things at once. If the core feature and value is to have a video call between a shop assistant and a customer, then you don’t need to invest a tons of money on an app to see if it would work. You can already start tomorrow with tests and validating the idea by organising video calls between a shop assistant and a customer. You can begin without spending money and more importantly, get real life experiences over and over before moving on to the next stage of the project.
  10. Highly launchable:
    People are highly forgiving as long as you are adding value and solving problems for them. It’s not about trying to make an idea work, but about solving a problem, not only once, but repeatedly and easily when the problem occurs. I built the initial version of https://wildfood.gl/ in 1,5 days and just threw it out there in the market and it immediately took off to everyone’s surprise, including myself. It’s not fancy and most of the work is done manually. The orders keep arriving and we are now launching what we call “a real version” where much of the processes are automated.
  11. Pitch to invite:
    Do not pitch sounding as someone who have thought of everything and that the only thing that is missing is “their money”. That typically signals the opposite even though we associate resourceful people as someone being there to provide with money. It’s better to end the pitch by giving the ones you are pitching to a sense of space to help and influence. When you pitch, you are inviting people to share the adventure with you. The team had already nailed the ending before I could advise them further and it went as “Today we ask for your feedback as we work to help businesses keep their doors open. Thank you.”
  12. Be kind:
    I’ve had mentors and advisors who liked or had the need to be either offensive (better you hear it from me than investors!) or mistrustful (why would it work while similar idea failed?). I can take them, but I just listen less to them. The biggest critic you have is yourself so there is no need to have someone from the outside challenging you on that. Be subtle and ask your way forward to endpoints. You are more impactful when you naturally let the person you are advising reach the endpoint herself/himself, if not, no need to keep trying. Just listen really deeply to the team and become one of their strengths of guidance.
  13. Hurray!
    Sunday evening they were announced as winners!
  14. I saved the best for last:
    Rachael and Samuel are genuinely talented and inspiringly concise team players. I was lucky to get team9. It is rare to find people who can, not only process so much information clearly in seconds but also take actions. As a mentor I felt they were really good and caring listeners and I am so thankful to experience a sense of giving. We all want to give something, not only me, but also Rachael and Samuel with their face-to-face shopping project. I look forward to experience local shops, their teams and products through Shop With Me!

Consultant and Speaker.