Making the Dream Work

400 members. 20 events. 14 months. Welcome to BizTech.

Chris Bolton
Mar 30, 2017 · 11 min read

If you need some information about UBC BizTech before you read this, check out our 2016 report.

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On January 28th, 2016, Alex Lee, the then current co-VP Marketing for UBC BizTech, approached me over Facebook. Alex and I had worked together briefly during my time as BizTech’s First-Year Rep, but this was the first time he had messaged me privately. While the conversation was vague, I could see what he was hinting at — so I cleared my schedule for the next week.

What I didn’t expect was for that week to turn into fourteen months, hundreds of Skype calls, a few fights, more than a few chipotle meals, and a hundred thousand Slack messages (well, okay, it was just 98 thousand).

The joke amongst the team is that Alex is the longest relationship I’ve ever had (or maybe that’s just my joke). And while I could never say I fell for Alex’s romantics (you should see what he bought me when he left), I can say I have never shared such an awesome vision and such a powerful drive with anyone before. Two years ago, BizTech was coming off of 42 club members and a purple-tinged brand (I’m sure it looked great in the context of 2007). Today, BizTech has 400 members and has executed 20 events in the 2016–17 school year. Alex and I have played a small role in this success — the 30 or so current and former executives from the last couple of years have formed into one of the most functional student teams at UBC.

So, while Alex and I don’t want to take credit for the work that’s been done with BizTech, I think it’s pretty important to share the story about how this journey happened, and how we took a slide and turned it into more than a year’s worth of experience.

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Slide 9 from the very first #allhands meeting on May 9th, 2016

Beginnings

Something I realized late into my co-presidency was just how well-managed the club was when we inherited it. Going from the original 42 members to 283 and winning Top Big Club of the Year in 2016 set the tone that BizTech wasn’t messing around: we were here to make a splash and if wanted to join us you would have to be up to the challenge. The previous’s year team also left us with a list of great, established partnerships and an even greater list of potential leads. The club also carried with it an excellent relationship with the Commerce/MIS Faculty and a sizeable surplus. Our club values were even solidified in clear membership commitments — this was the equivalent of having perfect weather for a rocket launch (maybe I’m being a bit too bold here. I think there’s a good argument in saying that the rocket had already launched).

For the months of April and May, Alex and I recruited for passion and experience, building out a team of 18 to join us. I also got to negotiate a position while not-exactly-sober, in a frat house. It felt like a scene straight out of HBO’s Silicon Valley (or, at least, so I thought).

We also decided that the scope of the club wasn’t broad or ambitious enough, and set our sites on building out relationships with other organizations and faculties. This proved to be an intense challenge — we once spent several days in the summer worrying about a mission statement for the newly-formed alliance. I’m not sure if I remember what we eventually settled on…

With August ending and school approaching, we had a plan. Sort of. Mostly. It was a plan made in PowerPoint and at best, it was beta-tested once in the year before. There was no data to support it, only a gut feeling and a number of management books that told me to trust that feeling with my life.

70 percent

Alex and I started September with an aggressive mindset — we thought UBC should know just how ambitious BizTech was going to be for the rest of the school year. Although we had scheduled our first event for the end of the month, when the opportunity arose to host a virtual reality showcase during the first week of school, the team moved fast to execute the event in under a month.

This involved talking with dozens of partners and rolling out our logistics plans before they were completely finalized. Alex and I both felt a bit bad for pushing our team so quickly, but the team responded with an equal force. By the time the event ended, it felt like we survived our first test. Over the course of the year, it became clear that it would not be our last.

Event logistics is an interesting subject — it is fairly easy to pull off an average or above-average event, but nearly impossible to execute a perfect one. You can nail down the big tasks: finding partners, securing venues, controlling the budget, but there always seems to be something that you forget: a gift for an unscheduled panelist, a specific dietary request, a task you delegated to a partner but they forgot about it.

One of the ways we tried to mitigate these unforeseen issues was to closely track event attendance and feedback. Attendance tracking went great — as I write this, I can tell you with confidence that we should expect a 70% attendance rate from those who registered for an upcoming event. This made ordering food, finding suitable space, and setting partner’s expectations way easier. Feedback, on the other hand, is still something I’ve yet to fully grasp. No matter what we do, it seems, BizTech can never collect enough post-event feedback to give us meaningful insights. I’ll leave that challenge to next year’s team.

Finding a pace and achieving (some) balance

Alex and I get asked about BizTech’s success a lot. In my view, this success comes not from Slack (which was great), or Trello (which was not), or the format of Alex’s or my 1:1s (no comment). I think BizTech’s success has a lot to do with our pace — we liked to move fast and produce a lot, which set up a culture of professionalism and grit. BizTech has always acted as if we were a little bigger than we actually were, meaning we were always chasing bigger and bigger aspirations.

To put the importance of pace another way: when you run nine events in a month, you take things very seriously.

Just like any fast-moving object, intense pace at BizTech required a lot of balancing. Some theoretical questions about balance are pretty easy: do you prioritize finishing a design or studying for a midterm? Do you reply to a late-night text or catch-up on missed sleep? The specifics, however, are horribly messy: what if that design was for a partnership document that was already late and required to get funding? What if that text message was from a big sponsor who was asking for immediate action? These battles of priority happened every day. In fact, there is probably not a day since January 28th that I haven’t woken up and gone to sleep thinking about BizTech. How could I not? It’s my (and Alex’s) baby. If things go bad, we’re the parents. Every problem is our problem.

This environment has made me learn about what’s important and what’s really not. Does this effect members? Will our partners be hurt? No? Okay. We can deal with it when it’s not 3:00am. It also made me realize that even though every problem is my problem, not every solution will be my solution. Asking my team for help is something I wish I started doing much earlier.

I also can’t say I’m perfect with this balance now — I doubt I’m even half-way through my journey of figure out what I’m comfortable with. Every day I make a few mistakes, especially around school. Based on how many colour-coded sticky notes I go through, I’m beating school work with BizTech by a three-to-one margin. There’s just something way cooler about running a team than there is about calculating manufacturing overhead.

Two in a box

When I first read Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Things About Hard Things and its chapter on “Management Debt”, I freaked out a bit. One of the debt concepts covered was called “putting two in a box”: it was a paragraph or two about all the negative things that can happen when you put two great people in the same position. My thinking went a bit like:

Alex is a great person. I’m a great person. We share the same position.

Oh no.

Are we really going to lose our sense of ownership? Am I going to step on Alex’s toes. Is he going to step on mine?

Alarmed, I spoke to Alex about this. We agreed we were going to be co-founders, not co-managers.

We shared ownership equally. If I screwed up, Alex would also take responsibility. We wouldn’t get (too) mad when this happened either, because the situation could have easily been reversed. This agreement relied on a lot of trust, and while Alex and I liked to joke about who the better co-president was, I never once doubted his intentions or commitment. At university, we like to talk a lot about being “jaded” — because I was so new to school, I opened up and implicitly trusted Alex (his charm helped too). It worked out great for us, but after being submerged in university culture for a second year, I’m not sure if I’m fully capable of doing that ever again. University culture, in my opinion, likes to pit students against each other a bit too often. Who’s the best faculty? What’s the best major? Man, those Sauder kids are such snakes. This loss of trust among my peers is a big reason why I’ve taken a position within the Commerce Undergraduate Society — If students can’t be vulnerable and trust each other, we’re going to lose out on a lot of great partnerships and community work. My work as VP Student Engagement will centre around rebuilding that implicit trust that I think a lot of students lose.

So, Alex and I may have been pushed into a box, but I can’t say I ever wanted to leave. Even if I did, I now know what it feels like to have someone who can finish my sentences, push all my buttons, and get me free parking anywhere.

#WashingMachineMafia

Of course, Alex was just one person in the ever-expanding BizTech team.

Finding a great team is a mix of luck, gut, and something called a screening matrix. The truth is, I have no idea how Alex and I found our team. Maybe it was something about our vision, or the club’s reputation, or maybe our dumb puns that attracted them to the club. What ever it was, I have a tremendous respect for all of them including (perhaps, especially) the ones that had to leave prematurely.

Excuse me while I take a moment to address them all:

This team is destined to do great things in their careers and in their communities — so much so that Alex and I coined the term #WashingMachineMafia to describe the ability of BizTech Execs (both past and present) to go do amazing things outside of the club (this was shamelessly stolen from the #MapleSyrupMafia, which itself was stolen from the #PayPalMafia). If you don’t understand why I’m talking about washing machines all of the sudden, take a look at our logo.

I wouldn’t say BizTech changed my life, but these people certainly did.

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2017–17 cohort of the #WashingMachineMafia | Not pictured: Lydia, Hailey, Arkie, Ali, Rory

Reflecting

When I read through the blog post I made in September about BizTech, I see my perfectionist side play into the months of organizational design Alex and I had just completed: we had a plan, a great plan, and it was going to work and that’s what made BizTech special. What I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t the plan that made BizTech special, but our ability to deal with all improvisations and all the challenges that we faced during the year. The execution of our Gantt charts was easy — it was in the fight to preserve our vision in slide 9, when dealing with cancelled competitions, missing equipment, and disinterested partners that BizTech really showed what we were capable of. It was the team that saved Alex and I’s butts when our plan went south. It was their base-level of care and commitment that kept everyone coming back to meetings, even when we didn’t have pressing matters. Slide 9 would be proud.

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The 2016 Christmas card that BizTech gave out to Execs and partners

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