On Our Radar – Lessons for higher education from the entrepreneurial fast lane

Imagine you were given 54 hours to transform a basic idea into a startup company. You’re one of a sea of 100 individuals, most of whom you have never met before. They include software developers, educators, graphic designers, business developers, and even a handful of high school students. You have access to a few basic resources, such as posters, markers, and an endless supply of tea and coffee, but you mostly rely on your raw intellect and ingenuity. Sounds intense? Welcome to Startup Weekend Toronto EDU.

Unlike other Startup Weekends worldwide, this event required participants to tackle a problem in education. We decided to participate on a whim, stemming primarily from our curiosity about the startup world and our love of the sector.

When you’re trying to build a startup in 54 hours, you hit the ground running. After a quick Friday night mixer, we were off. Ideas turned into startup companies and strangers turned into teammates as everyone worked hard to craft something tangible (the “minimum viable product” or MVP as it’s called in the startup world).  A whirlwind of frantic labour ultimately culminated in a five-minute presentation and Q&A on Sunday evening, in front of a panel of seasoned edtech entrepreneurs.

We worked on a startup called LearningLoop – an online platform allowing parents and educators to share information about the children in their care in a simple and meaningful way.  While we were all initially nervous about working with a team of ten, it became clear that we needed all hands on deck to pull off this feat.

What our team learned and accomplished in 54 hours was astounding and exceeded all of our expectations. Not only did we learn about Early Childhood Education, a crucial but often misunderstood sector, but also gathered some key takeaways to apply to our own work:

  • Learn to “unlearn” – So much of our former learning has focused on well-established processes and systematic ways for approaching problems. Even in what should be liberating and creative tasks, it’s easy to fall back into a comfortable routine. But, in the startup world, there are no rules. There are no overarching theories that help frame your analysis. A successful entrepreneur is someone who connects fully with the targeted user in providing a solution. Doing so requires a great deal of “unlearning.” It’s about throwing out your books, getting out of the lab and interacting with the user.
  • Fall in love with the problem, not the solution – When entire business models are built around the solution, you risk missing valuable information that can help your ideas evolve to better fit your sector’s needs. The road to startup success isn’t straight and narrow and neither should be the path toward your solution. When you’ve come up with that big idea, validation is key. Test it with your audience, refine your solution, then test again. Always try to better understand and appreciate the complex issue you are trying to solve. Useful advice for problem-solving, no matter which sector you work in.
  • Fail fast – Failure is usually viewed as negative and something to be avoided at all costs, especially in education.  In the startup world, it’s merely a small bump on the road to better ideas.  For a team, failure is essential to learn what works and what doesn’t, so it’s best to experience “failure” critically but quickly – an opportunity for reflection rather than a reason to abandon ship.  It was a challenge adopting this mindset, but something funny happened along the way – our team learned how to become fearless. When you are trying, failing, and trying again that fast, you really are left with no choice but to go all in.

Thankfully, Startup Weekend is only one of many growing opportunities for those interested in startup culture. As more entrepreneurship programs continue to trickle into the higher education landscape, we hope and anticipate that this unconventional way of thinking will also permeate teaching and learning practices across Ontario and Canada.

P.S. Learning Loop won first place at Startup Weekend Toronto EDU. And, we are not quitting our day-jobs either. But, we do plan to continue pushing the envelope to make LearningLoop a reality.

– Lauren Hudak is a researcher and Loren Aytona is an intern at HEQCO.

On Our Radar features HEQCO staff and guest bloggers offering their unique perspectives on trends, new ideas, and hot-button issues in higher education. The opinions are those of the authors.

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