Guest Post by Ingrid Gonçalves
I was not excited for Startup Weekend Education. When I registered on a whim, it hadn’t clicked that I’d be spending my entire weekend—the kind of sunny, 70-degree weekend Chicagoans live all winter for—holed up in a National Louis University classroom.
But I sucked it up and took the bus from my job at the University of Chicago, already worn out from a long week at work. I hoped, at least, the weekend might be a fun experience and a good networking opportunity. Plus I felt bad backing out.
After pizza and introductions, 24 participants pitched their ideas for improving education. Teachers, programmers, and entrepreneurs tackled problems ranging from language learning to summer planning, each in less than 60 seconds. We all voted for our favorites, and began forming teams around ideas that made the cut.
I braced myself and approached the designated area for “Whipping Post”, a product pitched by fresh DevBootcamp graduate Ryan Spencer. As a former graphic design teacher, Ryan hated all the paperwork involved in reporting student discipline issues. He wanted to build an app to save teachers time. I knew student behavior management was a big challenge for many educators, so I got on board.
The next hour was a whirlwind of features spitballed onto a wall of giant Post-it notes. I’d barely had time to learn anyone’s name, but already our simple concept had morphed into a monster. (We want teachers to record video now? Why? How?) At some point we called it a night and went home. I lay awake for a long time despite how exhausted I felt. This is going to be a disaster, I thought as I finally drifted off.
The adrenaline kicked in the next morning. Whipping Post wasn’t going down without a fight. We regrouped over breakfast, and refocused on our immediate goal: winning Startup Weekend Education. We had five minutes to convince the judges we’d built a useful, marketable product. So we looked at the judging criteria and hashed out a game plan for addressing each one.
Luckily, we had a well-rounded team. Abhi Pillai and Ryan were both software developers. Nathan Conroy and Jeremy Peters had education backgrounds. Purab Kaur, Pat Doyle, and I knew a few things about marketing. We agreed on a less scary name—Carrot, to reflect our new focus on positive behavior—and got to work.
We started coding. We designed a cute logo. We surveyed teachers and principals and counselors, calling and tweeting all the educators we knew. We crunched some numbers. We argued. We researched the competition. By dinnertime, Carrot had grown into a coherent product with a working demo. I finished the pitch deck around 1am.
We spent the final day polishing our presentation of a simple web app to help teachers, administrators, and parents encourage positive student behavior. (The logo T-shirts were a game-time decision.) Team Carrot sat united in the atrium, anxious to see what the others had in store.
First up was Pairs, a tool for partnering students so they can learn from each other. Then we heard from Watch Me Work, a video library of experts practicing their skills in a non-tutorial setting, and Eternity Engine, which is like Google Earth but with history-related educational content. Fantasy Finance and Jock Games used sports-inspired programs to teach financial literacy and math.
As the judges deliberated, we already felt like winners. Carrot had been a team for less than two days, but we meshed as if we’d been working together for months. We had a blast regardless of the outcome—and we had a pretty cool product to show for it.
Carrot ended up winning both first place and people’s choice. We toasted our victory with fellow participants, including runners-up Pairs and Fantasy Finance, and the Startup Weekend EDU organizers. After working nonstop since we first met, we finally had a chance to ask each other where we lived and how many kids we had. But we knew we’d have plenty of time to get to know each other. This weekend was just the beginning.