How did we win the Imagine Cup?

Here are few of my views from our three year journey at Microsoft Imagine Cup. This is the post of mistakes we made during those years, how we learnt from them and steered clear of them.

Think of the start-up, not the project: We always dreamt big. We wanted to start the company with the project we’ve built for Imagine Cup. Infact, we never even planned to compete this time in 2013. We always focussed on the project with respect to kick-starting the company. We thought about people/consumers and customers who will use the product, thought about how will we make money in the real world, talked to few potential customers and users, done a few beta launches and got the feedback, iterated and pivoted the product few times before submitting it to Imagine Cup.

Hire best and diverse people around: We picked the best people who believed in the team. That’s important, People in your team should believe in you in order to work with you. They should have a crystal clear vision that you’ll lead them to the right place as a leader. People in your team should be passionate about the problem you’re trying to solve. They should believe in the project. Most of the Imagine Cup teams make this mistake of hiring all developers into the team. We had a team of three, one was excellent at Business, talking to customers and marketing. We had a UI/UX designer and I was the only developer to work in the team. Always hire diverse skillset because you need to have various and diverse views on the project you’re building.

Pick the mentor: We had one of the best mentor in the world. Before picking a mentor, we made few goals. We needed the one who can guide us on Windows Azure (because our project had the requirement of the cloud) and we needed someone to guide us to kick-start our company and our mentor was the perfect for this. Rainer Stropek was the CEO of his company Software Architects and was the Windows Azure MVP at Microsoft. Mentor has to believe in the team and you have to trust and believe in the mentor as well. We used to update our mentor every week and He used to reply back with his feedback. We had Skype calls sometimes, but please don’t expect your mentors to get into nitty-gritties of your project. He is the one to point you in the right direction and you are the one to point your team into the right direction as a leader.

Innovate: Build something that is not there in the market today, I cannot even remember how many times we made this mistake. In 2011, our project Buddy Connect was similar to foursquare. In 2012, our project Nutri Leaf was similar to Fat Secret. Build something that does not exist in the market today, or if you’re building something that is in the market — make sure you build it better. Solve the problems which actually have the pain point of the market which you target.

Never give up: This is one tough lesson we learnt from the past 2 years of failure in Imagine Cup. We participated in Imagine Cup 2011 when the world finals were happening in New York. Our project “Buddy Connect” never made it to the world finals, but we were one of the top 3 teams in India local finals in Software Design. Next year in 2012, when the world finals was happening in Australia. Our project “Nutri Leaf” which was your complete mobile nutritionist never made it to world finals either. But we were one of the top teams in Southern and Eastern Africa locals. I was depressed for sure. I lost all hope. I knew I fell down, face down… but what do you do when you fall down? You get back up don’t you? It was tough. But you got to get up and try again, and again and again. We formed a team and tried again. Some people in the team left when the project was half done. But we did not lose hope. We recruited more people in the team, and more importantly — passionate people who would take this project forward and the company forward.

There is this one question that I will never forget in my life and which actually motivated all of us towards success. It motivated all of us to get up again and try again. Even when we lost all hope, even when we were depressed and thought we wouldn’t make it ever. This question is what haunts me. WILL YOU FINISH STRONG?