Off come the rose coloured glasses…or, what happened when the boys’ club closed ranks

When the announcement came at the end of the startup weekend pitch competition that I had won with my idea for Textocracy, I really couldn’t believe it. I had had so little expectation of winning, particularly after becoming a team of one early on, that I hadn’t paid any attention to the prizes that came with the win.

I was told I got a three-day design sprint with developers and designers to bring my idea to life, a small prize fund, and a chance to pitch at a two-day Europe-wide conference at the end of the week. I couldn’t believe that, either!

I was so excited, and I was getting so much positive feedback from the judges on the panel, I couldn’t wait to get started on making my ugly flow chart and basic mockups into something that would actually function. My mind was racing ahead to all the things I needed to do to clear my calendar and make arrangements to stay in town. So imagine my surprise and disappointment when the organiser approached me and said I didn’t need to be there for the sprint. He said he would make sure the tech team built something that worked and reflected my idea. It felt a bit like “don’t worry your little head about it, let the men handle it….”. I assured him I wouldn’t miss this opportunity for the world, and that I would be there not only for the three day build but also for the additional two days to pitch it to local governments from across Europe. I was as excited about all the things I was sure I would learn from the process as much as the outputs.

I got into the workspace extra early the next morning. But when I got there, the organisers were in a huddle. It became clear they hadn’t banked on me seeing this thing through. It turns out they had promised the design and development resource that I had been awarded by the judges to a graduate student friend of theirs. This young man needed help finishing his project for his dissertation. And they had arranged to let him use it while I wasn’t expected to be there.

There were some super incredibly helpful people in the design sprint who made all the difference.

This was a big reinforcement for me of the lesson of Just Turn Up- especially when someone seems to be trying to keep you away.

I was told that if I decided to stay on, I would only get half the resource as I would have to share with this guy. Their reasoning was that they figured they should have made us merge our teams during the weekend. I had noticed every time we had a group update, that guy’s idea got more and more familiar-sounding- only a really high-tech glossy version of mine that required internet access and a smartphone and that emulated an existing national service. The reason the judges liked my idea was because it ticked all the boxes in the call to action- including near-universal accessibility. It had what they called “simple elegance”.

Many of you will immediately know that sinking feeling I got in the pit of my stomach. You instantly know when you’re there- in a no-win situation. If I stood up for myself, I could get all their backs up and they would be immediately on the defensive and treat me the rest of the time as the difficult, obnoxious woman (or some variation of that), and could very well undermine my use of the resource and my position at the exhibition. Not to mention that these are small communities I’m describing here, and they could share any version of the story they chose, not all of which might paint me in the most flattering or even accurate light. If I didn’t, I couldn’t live with myself and I would be cheated out of the chance to take this idea to the next level, and my rightful prize. Rolling over and taking it wasn’t an option for me.

So I kept calm, went for a bit of logic and reasoning, and made it clear that this was neither acceptable nor fair. I also made it clear I was staying on, and that I would be working with the developers and designers to see my idea come to life. That’s all I could do. If they chose to limit my access to those things, then there wasn’t much I could do about it. They couldn’t argue with my reasoning, but they could be punitive.

And they did exactly that. I managed to commandeer a developer, but ended up getting a fraction of a designer. I should have had a second developer, and the first one- who was tremendous and totally naffed off on my behalf- kept me posted of all the things we could have been getting done beyond what we did had I had my rightful allocation of skills and time.

We still managed to build an MVP in the three days. And it even looked ok. Because of the lack of help I had to teach myself to build a website quickly- which was a great thing- but it also looked like a newbie had done it in three days.

I presented the product at the conference and had lots of interest and feedback from representatives from local government organisations all over Europe. I was in the press and made some great contacts.

Of course, the whole time the grad student was next to me, sharing the space with his very impressive product that did look awesome and functional because of his use of my prize resource over that past three days. I didn’t blame him, but I was very disappointed in the organiser for taking off my startup rose coloured glasses and stomping them into the dirt. Everyone down to the person had been so fantastic so far on my journey, up until this point.

I made the best of the deal, got my MVP that went on to get me support and a place on an accelerator and perhaps best of all, traction. I’ll tell you more about that next time. That’s when it started to get real.

As I said, I’m not so sure I have much learning to share here. I don’t know that I responded as best I could or even as I should have to having my prize taken. Maybe I should have pitched a giant fit and gotten my full entitlement even if it then had to be in a very acrimonious atmosphere. So I guess all I would offer is don’t give up, don’t settle for less than you deserve, assert your rightful place in every situation, and don’t once think you are less entitled to something than someone else. Though sometimes that is easier said than done.