Developing a Startup in High School – My Year as Scrummaster, Manager and Impressario

Developing a startup is a monumental task. I cannot think of a more relevant learning experience for the age we live in. It sure feels good to ship a piece of hardware that will be used for years to come.

Last year, a scrappy group of blossoming student engineers and programmers got together and began forging ahead.  I honestly cannot remember how I became their go to guy.  Perhaps it was my passion for technology and entrepreneurship?  Or maybe it was my impressario skills.

Whatever the case, last year, we began to do interesting hardware work for VIATEC and Limbic Media that you can see here and here.  This year, we continued to strengthen that relationship doing more work for both organizations.

For Limbic Media, we focused primarily on building a water level sensor with a web component for the aquaponics system at Mason Street Farm.   You can see it here.  This was a very complex project that had many moving parts.  It required sensors that sent information to a server and a web page that updates constantly.  From a technical standpoint alone, the team learned a lot about sensors (which are the future in my opinion!), hardware in adverse conditions (water is so tricky!), server deployment, website heartbeats and much more.

Mason Street

As Manjinder Benning, Director at Limbic Media, says in the video link (see above!) – it really does come back to making important connections that are beyond just the tech sector; for example: global food security.  The world is facing many difficult problems and these high school learners are beginning to help develop solutions.  It does not get much better than that for school.

Mason JankManjinder Benning by the way is an awesome guy. I can’t say enough good things about him and Limbic Media. They are very community oriented and while this may be a bit biased, I think they are doing some of the coolest tech stuff in Canada.  Keep your eye on Manj and the team at Limbic.

For VIATEC, the team began developing a cube prototype to pitch to Dan Gunn, the Executive Director. The idea was that it would be audio-reactive and respond to different environments.  VIATEC are big supporters of many different cool events in the area and we wanted to make something that would stand out and accentuate their vital role in the tech sector of Victoria.  It was super janky at the start, but after a few months of experimentation and design, we had ourselves a prototype. Check it out:

Dan pitch

Dan dug it and gave us $3000 – 1000% more than I was expecting.  It just goes to show you that you might as well think big.  Dan gave us a budget to get creative.  Thank you Dan!

Dan Gunn by the way, gave us a lot of support and help over the last 2 years.  He is such an important figure in the startup scene of Victoria helping build it to a $4 billion industry.  We can’t thank him enough for the commitment to our little school.

With that budget, Dan was excited to see what the team could do. And did we ever get creative…

The team sourced components from all over the place.  Liam, a rising star (more on him in a moment), designed the boards that we then got built in China (among other components that came from there). It is truly amazing what can be done now.  Major disruptions are coming from a couple of guys in their garage designing things that add tremendous value to people’s lives (think YouTube).

We then wrangled a connection with Camosun College’s Enterprise Point  – an amazing, under cover team building awesome things for the world.  Matt Zeleny, Applied Research Specialist, graciously gave us his time helping us laser cut and etch the acrylic panels.  He saved us a lot of money and we are very grateful.  The etching was such a time consuming process and we simply could not take up anymore of Matt’s incredibly valuable time, so we got them engraved elsewhere.

engraved cube

All of the joints for the cubes were 3D printed from Liam’s design which demonstrated innovation and creativity.  Another student, Hugh, designed and printed the stands and when assembled, looked very, very cool:  cube stands

So cool in fact, that they were chosen to be center stage at the 2015 VIATEC Awards and I earned myself my second Tectorian of the Week.  They really popped in the ballroom:

cubes at VIATEC

And because they showed PSII’s committment to supporting the tech industry of Victoria, we were nominated for a Creative Excellence award this year.

Developing both of these projects was such a crazy process – as anyone who has ever built a piece of hardware knows, we ran into many problems that required lateral-thinking solutions.  And as anyone who has ever built something that needs to be shipped, we ran right up to the deadline with the engineers still wanting to makes changes at the very last minute.  Of course, they felt that they could have done and offered so much more.  More can always be done, but at some point, you just have to ship!

We learned a lot this year.  I would argue that we learned way more about how to and how not to work as a team more than any of the technical complications.  We worked in Scrum methodology.  It makes way more sense than the old waterfall style of project management. If you do not know about Scrum, I highly recommend you read this and get going on it.

They learned team work.  And Leadership.  They understand the importance of working together.  But, they sucked. The entire thing broke down many times.  However, in the end, there were some clutch moments and the team pulled through.  Stressful and exciting.

I learned that we must stick with the agile process the entire way.  The process can evolve – for example – we moved from the classic scrum board on the wall to Trello – which is a fantastic tool.  I learned that I will need to bring doughnuts to the end of sprint retrospective meetings to ensure a good turn out (I still owe the team pie).

We all learned a lot about how to develop a startup.

That is one of my main M.O’s. I am hellbent on developing local talent and making teams succeed.  This is most important to me because I strongly believe that we are in an age of exponential creation and it will require strong teams that can be super nimble and learn incredibly fast.

Einstein famously remarked that, “I don’t teach anyone, I just provide the environment in which they can learn.” That is what I have tried to do.  In that environment, it really is up to the learner to make the most of it.  Some take the bull by the horns, others…require guidance…

One learner who embraced his learning freedom was Liam.  Absolutely none of this would have happened without him as lead engineer.  He held everything together stepping up and doing work for everyone on the team.  He is an excellent speech giver, dancer, musician, sailor, and of course…engineer.  He is also now my close friend.  Because that is how you really get to know someone – by doing and building things together.  He has earned himself a spot on the mayor’s Economic Development Council, landed a job with Limbic Media straight out of high school, has a scholarship to the University of Victoria for Engineering, and knows how to build a startup and lead a team.  He has also connected a deal between the City of Victoria and Limbic Media for a project worth $180,000.  He has learned to be an entrepreneur.

Everyone talks about what learning should look like in this century.   A lot of talk.  I am doing it. Vive le Revolucion!

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