Recently I took part in Sync The City, an event where you form a team and have 54 hours to build and launch a startup for fun or profit.
Bringing together budding entrepreneurs with experienced business mentors and technology experts, Sync the City is a bit like an episode of The Apprentice, followed by an episode Dragons Den, all condensed into two and a bit days.
The event has been running for 5 years now and this year attracted the most pitches that there have ever been, with over 40 ideas being shared. There was then a vote by the judges to select the top ideas, then the crowd got to vote for the final 12 ideas that would progress through to be worked on during the main event.
As a first timer, I was feeling a bit terrified before the event if I’m honest but knew there were some really good reasons to participate. I wanted to learn more about building a business and put my skills to use outside of my usual role and work team. It would be interesting to see if I could convey my ideas and the UX process to people who don’t work in the same way. I expected a challenge, but I had no idea what I was in for.
On the first day, I felt out of place. The team formation process freaked me out a bit. I had visions of being that person who isn’t chosen and is just milling about like a loose end. This was mainly because I’m a UX researcher and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to explain my skill set or how I’d be useful as easily as those in the Designer or Developer categories.
I needn’t have worried though, I was grabbed by a mentor and taken to a team in a whirlwind of activity. The whole team formation process was pretty hectic with people chopping and changing and running around.
Happily, I was brought into a team for one of the concepts that had really appealed to me during the initial pitching stage. I was keen to be working on something I felt passionate about, so I wouldn’t run out of steam.
The idea was to create a simple app that can help you decide where you can recycle your rubbish, which we named Sorti. I was drawn to the idea because of my background in social psychology where I enjoyed looking at pro-social behaviour change.
The team was made up of our developers, Jack and Sophie, Evie our designer, myself and Taylor as what they term ‘non-tech/business’, and Maria, a UEA business student who pitched the idea. We were supported by other UEA students who were there as part of their university course.
For most of the event, I was going out and finding out what problems people had with their recycling, quickly sketching ideas and validating them, doing some market research and generally checking that everyone was pulling in the right direction as communication wasn’t always at its best.
I can’t begin to describe how tired I was by the end of this very intense event but it was a really valuable experience. The fast-paced nature of the event kept the pressure on and that helped when trying to challenge a few of the assumptions that were being made in design. You don’t really have time to argue, you just need to get on with it and do your best.
I learned a lot about working with people from different backgrounds, skill levels and professions. Another huge thing I gained from Sync The City was how to be assertive but still be constructive. But believe me, this was really challenging by day 3 when I was feeling so exhausted I could barely form coherent sentences.
Interestingly, what we noticed was that the three teams who were shortlisted as potential winners all contained UX or product design expertise. So why was that? My best guess upon having time to reflect is that the UX process helps you to be able to collaborate better and be able to foresee potential problems quicker.
I found that I was far more comfortable with quick changes to ideas and changes in direction than other members of my team. As a UX researcher, I was also able to stop people wasting time batting ideas around by quickly sketching out wireframes and testing them. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough.
The whole experience taught me more about myself than I’ve learned in quite a while. I realised that I’m not as afraid of sharing my opinion and I am capable of taking what I’ve learned in the past year at The User Story and transferring it to a different context. Ego hinders progress, and I realised how lucky I am to work with the people I do, but I wouldn’t trade the experience in for anything.
There has been a great response to the idea since we won. We’ve had lots of press interest from the EDP and we were on BBC Look East. The idea is being taken forward, but personally, I don’t have the time to fully dedicate myself to the team so instead, I’ll stay in touch and help where I can.
In the end, there was frustration, laughter and a few tears but I really couldn’t recommend the event enough. If you want a challenge and to be part of something special then I really urge you to go.
The very best thing to come out of my Sync the City experience, however, has to be my new chocolate Labrador puppy Lexi, which I bought with my share of the prize money! She’s simply adorable and is proving to be a great friend for my Vizsla Phoebe.
Photo by John Fagan