Accolade: In Retrospect

The purpose of this article is to detail my experiences working on my first startup, Accolade. Accolade was an online learning application developed from February 2015 — June 2017.

At the tail end of my university education, my good friend Daniel and I were tasked with the TechLauncher project. TechLauncher was a new program at the Australian National University that got students working on real world projects. Daniel and I decided to pursue our own project, an option for the entrepreneurially minded student. We named this project Accolade.

Accolade sought to showcase the skills acquired in university education. A report card detailing a score of 84 in 18th Century Literature doesn’t say anything about the essay writing abilities of the student. Accolade would turn learning outcomes into digital badges; these digital badges would capture the skills learned at university. Students could show their badges to employers, and Accolade would operate as a credible digital resumé.

Phase One

The development of Accolade can be split into three phases. I would characterise phase one by the qualities of ignorance, passion and naivety, embodied in the weekly yelling matches between Daniel and myself. These qualities aren’t necessarily negative and are probably typical of an early stage startup formed by a group of students.

Around May 2015, we nailed down the vision of Accolade:

Legitimising and enabling learning pathways by recognising all skills developed throughout life
Accolade infographic breaking down higher education, our first target market

We developed a relationship with the ANU lecturer Chris Browne, who would act as our key stakeholder throughout phase one. A few of his students used the phase one Accolade in a second year engineering course (I think around 15 digital badges were earned).

What we did well in phase one:

  • Maintained constant, passionate discussion in the team
  • A lot of big ideas
  • Adoption of modern technologies

What we didn’t do so well:

  • Market research
  • Having a lightning-hot sales pitch
  • Code quality
  • Interface design of the system

Note I do not discuss technological aspects of Accolade in this article, as I don’t want to confuse the business from the technology.

In retrospect, we spent a lot of phase one uncovering the core problem that Accolade hoped to solve, going wide and deep. What I am coming to realise is that for a product whose benefit will operate off of a cultural or operational change, the sales pitch and design of the system are probably the two most important things to nail. Furthermore, the digital badge idea suffers as it attempts to institute change in a space resistant to change, so buy in is tough. We needed greater incentive for a university lecturer to use the product in their courses.

Phase Two

The original Accolade team consisted of five members. The team went their separate ways after we completed phase one in late 2015. Accolade remained dormant until June 2016, at which point Chris Browne contacted Daniel and myself regarding a bespoke use of the system for one of his courses. This time students were developing their own ‘mini-lessons’, which he wanted to present on an Accolade-like system.

We coded phase two in about two weeks, having both grown as programmers. The system was significantly different from phase one as there were no digital badges. Instead, the lessons completed on Accolade represented your skills. For example, finishing the Pareto Principle lesson meant you could apply the Pareto Principle.

Phase two had greater incentive for Chris as it presented content in a logical and eye catching way, improving upon the design of phase one.

What we did well in phase two:

  • Met the bespoke needs of Chris
  • Interface design

What we didn’t do so well:

  • Maintained a solid vision for the product
  • Deployment — we accidentally deleted the live database several times

Ultimately, phase two acted as a stepping stone from phase one to phase three.

A prototype of Phase Two

Phase Three

Coming off of the success of phase two, Daniel and I were keen to get back on the Accolade bandwagon. We recruited two new team members, and decided to turn Accolade into a fully fledged learning management system, one in which a teacher could author their own lesson content and publish to groups of students. We reasoned this would be the best way to get buy in from lecturers.

This was also the first time I experienced burnout. This was related to my experience of depression at the time. My intense focus on coding was becoming obsessional, which led me to view things through a tunnel-like vision. A word of advice to the cautious, you cannot code yourself out of your demons! In many cases it will add fuel to any fires you have.

Given my burnout, phase three was never completed. We came close, even recruiting a team of 2017 TechLauncher students to help complete the product. Around June 2017 it became clear the product would not be completed. You can find the code of the phase three system here and here. Please contact me if you are interested in adopting the code for your own uses.

What we did well in phase three:

  • Restored vision, and pivoted the product in a good direction
  • The code was well engineered

What we didn’t do so well:

  • Too much focus on code being well engineered
  • Under designed
  • Building a learning management system is hard and there are a lot of open source systems we could have leveraged off. In retrospect I would have bootstrapped off of the popular LMS Moodle.
  • Ours sales pitch was still lacklustre
  • Team structure was not optimal

What is evident to me is that, as Accolade progressed, I became more and more the sole player in its development. This is evident when contrasting my above discussions; phase one is healthily business focussed, whilst phase three is introspective due to how much of the business rested on my shoulders by this point. I have realised no startup (or only the very rare few) is made predominantly by one person. You need a variety of people and an equal load between cofounders to maximise the chance of success.

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, Accolade was probably one of the greatest learning experiences of my life as a coder, entrepreneur and human being. There were some significantly hard times but I do not regret that I went for my dreams. I probably wouldn’t form another startup at this time, as my interests have changed and I’m still recovering from burnout. But I also wouldn’t be where I am today without the experience of working on Accolade. In the end, I earned one of the greatest badges of them all — learning from and dealing with failure.