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As part of the UNSW Startup Games, facilitated by Bart Jellema who is the co-founder of Australian startup zeromail, we were randomly assigned to teams and supported to create a new startup. Bart observed the teams over a few weeks and devised exercises and drills for team members to build their skills and potentially build a viable start-up that could be pitched to investors. According to Bart Jellema, what he looks for in budding entrepreneurs is the ability to show up, be on time and do the work. He also has a special affinity for technical people who have a sense for hacking a solution with limited sources and under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

So far the program has been a profoundly enjoyable learning experience. We have been pushed outside our comfort zone and given tasks that require us to showcase the kind of skills and capabilities that are form part of the DNA of an entrepreneur.

The question is, can an entrepreneur be made or are they born that way?

As a participant of the UNSW Startup Games and psychology student, I’m (Scott Coleman) a strong believer that people can model exceptional people and given dedicated practice anyone can learn the patterns of behaviour that make up an entrepreneur. However, there are certain patterns that set exceptional entrepreneurs apart from the average performers in the same niche. While I acknowledge that people can model the skills of exceptional people. When making a decision to select my own co-founder, you must set the standard very high.  It is an uncertain world out there so I personally am looking for an exceptional co-founder who is better than anyone else in their niche. They must demonstrate that they can model the best of the best. They must also have a strong technical skill and be able to perform in novel situations.

Investors like other are subject to cognitive bias and often have to make decisions with limited information. Experienced entrepreneurs and investors often through around the idea that ideas change but people don’t.

I’m most interested, like many investors and venture capitalists, in identifying brilliant technical people with great ideas and ability to make things happen with limited resources and under conditions of uncertainty. Time has shown that these people are most like to succeed in web startups. They are able to operate with little money and can get things done. They are interested in what works. They can outperform their peers, are decisive and can identify solutions that others cannot see. This insight normally comes from experience and technical expertise.

It is also very important that tech co-founders are a great at networking. This is something that Bart has encouraged the UNSW Startup Games participants to engage in from the start. He invited the class to Silicon Beach Drinks each Thursday night and even took a few lucky participants to a StartMate function. Successful entrepreneurs can inspire people to jump on board on an idea, even purchase products that are not yet complete.

Any team must be grounded and have an deep understanding and passion for the problem that is being solved. It is vital that you can step into the shoes of the people that this startup is solving. Australian Venture capitalist firm Black Bird list three characteristics they are looking for in the teams they found: 1. “domain expert who’s stumbled across a better way of doing something you’ve been doing for years” 2.  “a technical founder who’s experimented with a product and learned how to do something new” or 3. someone with a “a unique understanding of a particular demographic.” Vitally the co-founder must be able to describe why we will outperform 99% of people in the domain.

For me, and this is shared by newly create Australian Venture Capital fund Blackbird ventures, technical founders must have an affinity for hacking – that is to operate with little money and higher level of uncertainty. This point has been reiterated constantly by Bart Jellema throughout the Startup Games. Bart strongly rewarded participants who could produce prototypes and wireframes. He wanted to see how teams could perform when given tasks with little or no preparation too. He constantly set tasks which simulated a high level of uncertainty.

Lean startup methodology

Co-founders must adopt the principles of lean start-up. This is essential to limit waste, test assumptions about the business. The lean start-up methodology ensure that a business is built in a way that is repeatable and scalable. Founders must be responsive to feedback.

An important part of the lean startup methodology is to identify and test the assumptions in the business model. The lean canvas is a great way to do this. A guiding light is found in Dave McClure’s post about metrics he uses for 500 startups.

Optimum size of team and passion

How many people should be in my team? Studies of successful start-ups show that teams of two are most likely to succeed. Single founders are also successful. Above all there must be a chemistry between the founder, co-founders and the investors. Above all the co-founders must be extremely passionate about the solving this problem as well as be responsive to feedback.

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UNSW Startup Games - session 1 - 03The UNSW Startup Games is a skill building program for an elite group of entrepreneurial students of UNSW to develop the ability to take their ideas into reality. The studentare from different faculities including computer science, engineering, medicine, psychology, design, industrial arts, business, and photovoltaics. It is co-ordinated by Joshua Flannery at New South Innovations and facilitated  by Bart Jellema, a serial entrepreneur himself having started tjoos and now zeromail, who has been an active member in the Sydney startup community. He has run the Silicon Beach Drinks for that last four years and is involved in Startmate, a mentoring program which invests in the ideas of Australian business and gives them the tools to take it to Silicon Valley and pitch.

The week before the program started, Bart encouraged all the teams to curate their online presence on their blogs, twitter and especially Facebook. Networking is essential part of entrepreneurship. On the Thursday before the official start, the group met at Silicon Beach Drinks and met with other local entrepreneurs and those just starting out. Apparently this real face-to-face networking is still a vital part of networking for budding entrepreneurs.

The games officially started on Saturday, 6th April in a UNSW lecture theater. Bart introduced himself and gave some background on how he got started. He finished high school but did not go to university. He noted that the smartest people in society are encouraged to enter a profession such as medicine or law, however, he urges smart people to become entrepreneurs so they can change the world.

Participants were then invited to introduce themselves from the front of the class. Bart guided the class to customise the learning outcomes for the program by asking participants to indicate by show of hands who was familiar with different topics. Each learning outcome was written up so that Bart could highlight the essential parts and customise the program depending on where the participants were currently and what they were interested in. Some of the themes included lean startup methodology, financials, finding mentors, incubators, pitching to investors, risk, focus, face-to-face communication, presentation skills, and social networking.

Before the lunch break, Bart asked us to identify people in the startup community (local and abroad) that participants would like to meet. I was assigned Peter Diamandis who runs the X Prize Foundation, an organisation which offers large cash incentive to encourage inventors to solve grand challenges like space flight, better medical devices, and genetic deciphering technology. A current challenge is called “Archon Genomics X PRIZE” which will ward $10m to someone who can build a device which can sequence 100 human genomes within 10 days. The challenges are always specific just beyond our current grasp but if solved with lead to exponential technologies. A previous challenge included an fast and effective oil cleanup method. Peter founded Zero Gravity Corporations which inspires people to work towards space flight – it has actually been covering zero gravity flights since 2004 and Space Adventures which has announced the plan for sub-orbital and flights to the moon. The “Tricorder X PRIZE” sounds like something out of star-trek – it is a small device that would better diagnose and treat patients.  After the break the participants had to give a presentation of what they had found out about their assigned person of interest. Other people of interest included Eric Ries, and Steve Blank.

The next game involved picking two random words, turning them into a .com and then pitching it to the group which was a lot of fun. This sort of drill puts people far outside their comfort zone, they have to spontaneously improvise a business from those two words and pitch it to the group. People were encouraged not to think about it too much and just come to the front to pitch for a few minutes. This highlighted just how much talent and creativity there was in the room. It gave an opportunity for those less confident to shine.

At the end of the day, the group continued to a local establishment for “speed networking”.  We found a quiet spot in the bar and put together several tables. What followed was a cross between speed dating and networking where each person two minutes to get to know the others better.

The program was promoted as a way to build your skills, meet people and have fun in the process. So far the program has far exceeded these expectations. I’m eagerly anticipating what’s coming up next.