“I’ve just had a great idea.”
Dangerous words in our office. The two of us run a small business (www.nautoguide.com) aiming to change the world of digital mapping and “great ideas” often lead us astray from the path we should be formally treading. But I just couldn’t keep quiet; I’d been reading the challenge laid out by the GeoVation team and immediately saw how we could make a compelling case.
The challenge centred around the theme of housing and asked, “How can we enable people in Britain to live in better places?” I mulled this over whilst grasping a cup of coffee and asked myself who best understands the needs and issues of the community? Is it the powers that be? Is it those servicing the community? No, it’s the community themselves. They always know what needs improving and often know the best way to go about it, why not give them a tool where they can describe their needs, describe their solution and let the good ideas gather momentum? Surely this would enable people to live in better places by giving them a tool to facilitate change.
I turned to my business partner Richard and we began to develop our thinking further. We saw how a well annotated map that could be easily shared across social networks would go a long way to describe the needs and ideas a community may have. We also saw how these ideas could be seeded in a form of consultation by the powers that be, asking communities what they thought of plans and allowing interactive discussion with the map as the basis.
A few hours later I was furiously typing into a GeoVation entry form before turning to Richard and asking, “Shall I?” He nodded, I pressed submit, and then we went back to our day jobs. Lost again in the maelstrom of running a start up.
We were genuinely taken aback to receive an invitation to the GeoVation finalists camp as other ideas had received many more public votes. However, it appears that the judges had seen merit in our pitch and along with eight others we made preparations for a hectic weekend of thinking and pitching. This included thinking of a name, so I quickly knitted together “geographic” and “survey” to get “Geovey”.
Richard and I were clearly over-excited, exhibited by us being the first arrivals at Ordnance Survey HQ on the Friday evening. The hours passed in a flurry of introductions, presentations and chat. We met Nikki, Ben, Paul and Dean who had been assigned to help us prepare our pitch.
The process was clearly laid out in front of us, underlined by a simple mantra “Innovation = Problem x Solution x Execution”. This is how we were required to elucidate our idea through a discreet set of analysis tasks. How we did this was entirely up to us. But the judges needed to see that we’d taken a clear thought journey from problem through to delivery.
On the Saturday we began in earnest, working closely with our Ordnance Survey and Land Registry helpers to get to the nub of a problem statement. Within an hour our idea had improved; we’d jointly wheedled out new problems that Richard and I hadn’t thought of which allowed us to focus in on the core issues that Geovey would solve. Whiteboards and flipcharts were decorated in my urgent scrawl as I fought to capture a series of great ideas ricocheting around the room like genius shrapnel.
The GeoVation agenda focused us hard through the day. Each session was rigidly timeboxed and we knew that dwelling too long over unnecessary debate would hinder our progress. Fortunately our supplied helpers were sympathetic to the cause, allowing us to make decisions and move on as need be.
The facilitators had clearly spelled out the requirements for our final pitch. Six slides, each slide lasting exactly thirty seconds on screen. Exactly three minutes of pitching that must cover introduction, problem, solution, execution and delivery. This was hardly any time at all to get across an idea and how it should be delivered. Yet it focused us relentlessly upon squeezing the key messages out of our brainstorming and analysis.
Sunday morning we learnt that our pitch was to happen at 1.30pm. There weren’t many hours to practise and we also had a slideshow to prepare. The team was divided into two, half working on the slides, half on the pitch and by 11.30am we had our first draft.
Two pieces of advice drove us on from this point. The first came from a previous winner who had advised that the best way to describe a concept is often to tell a user story. We saw the beauty of this and Alice became the centre point of our pitch as she struggled to cross a busy road when getting her children to school. The other was to practise. Three minutes sprints out of the room unbelievably quickly when you are presenting to a crowd. We’d done plenty of presentations before but never this short. At 11.30am we attempted our first presentation to our helpers. It was an unmitigated disaster, feedback telegraphed across the room by their worried looks. So we did it again, and again and again, relentlessly.
After nearly 20 repetitions it began to feel more natural. We’d both learnt our cues and were able to talk with the slides as a backdrop. A practise run in front of a number of the organisers went down reasonably well instilling a degree of confidence. This bled away as we finally stepped onto the stage and faced a real audience.
I can’t remember a single second of the actual pitch; it was a near out of body experience that seemed to go well as nobody fell asleep or left the room. I think it went well as we finished on time and hopefully said all the things we meant to. We faced a flurry of questions from the judges and then took our seats. There was nothing else we could do now but hope that the two of us had done our team and our idea justice.
It turns out we had. After an agonising few hours of waiting, Geovey was announced second in a list of four funding winners. I wanted the other six teams to be chosen as well as I knew they had fought equally hard to win a funding prize. But the atmosphere remained incredibly supportive as teams congratulated us on our success. This reflected the whole weekend which had felt more like a shared cause rather than a competition.
It’s tempting to think that each winner leaves the weekend clutching a fat cheque. However, the GeoVation team are savvy benefactors and are clearly keen to ensure that the funds are spent well and wisely. A few days after the event we received a template venture plan that they required us to complete. It had been constrained in a similar manner to our pitch.
Five pages maximum, five distinct sections: introduction, problem, solution, execution, and next steps. A minimum font size and a series of “hints” as to what should be in each section. We worked as hard on our plan as we had on the pitch. Many hours were spent staring at single sentences to ensure they properly conveyed our message. We constructed a huge spread sheet to underwrite our cost projections and more importantly ensure that Geovey could sustain itself over time. The office became a sea of post-its and sellotaped project plans and I made a myriad of phonecalls to recruit pilot users to help us get the service off the ground.
As I attached the plan to an email directed at the GeoVation team I reflected on how far we had come. Geovey had morphed from a simple idea to a business plan that had legs. Richard and I had changed as well. The “problem, solution, execution” mantra had become embedded in our working life. Instead of just working on things because they were “cool” we’d focused much more on the problem that needed to be answered. GeoVation had done more than accelerate a good idea; it had helped us think differently within our own business.
The real hard work is shortly to begin as we make Geovey a reality but having gone through the process we now feel better prepared and supported to deliver it than had we set out alone.