Falling Hard, and Winning It: A Story of Unexpected Success in Junior Achievement

Advice from Songeun You, the President of Glow, a Junior Achievement company that won the Company of the Year award in 2016/2017.

The Final Product

A little backstory…

7 weeks into the Junior Achievement program, Glow felt like a failure. It was not even known as Glow at the time…it was Koben. And the product was not paper lamps, it was customizable lunchboxes. At a time when most companies were beginning to make their first batch of products, Glow found out that manufacturers were asking for thousands of dollars of down payment for the first batch. For a company that was funded by shares of $10 each, it was impossible to go through with the original plan.

Imagine seven weeks of effort yielding no results, and having to start from square one. That was Glow.

Glow had to change their entire company image, everything from logo to name to product, at the halfway mark of the company program. While other companies had begun taking pre-orders, Glow did not have a name or a product. 11 weeks later, Glow won Company of the Year. This article was written using the thoughts and words of Songeun You, the President of Glow. She hopes that her experience in JA and insights about entrepreneurship will help the future generations of JA participants to complete the program with great success.

Section I: General Entrepreneurial Advice

When you start working on building a company, there has to be a sense of ownership first and foremost. You have to realize that it is your company and whether you are the president or just a member of the production team, it will represent you in one way or another. It is your legacy on the line and you need to be accountable to yourself first. If you let down others, it’s easy to forgive yourself. If you let yourself down, it becomes much harder to forgive yourself. Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle, not a job. You have to be bold and comfortable with the idea of risk in your life in order to be a good entrepreneur. Live like an entrepreneur and you will be a successful one.

Section II: Failures of Glow

Let’s start with all the went wrong because there is no better way to learn than from the mistakes you make and the adversity you go through. Being the president of the JA Company of the Year, Songeun recognizes the value of the troubles that her team went through. She summarizes these concisely when asked:

  • Too Many Friends: It is very enticing to gather up a bunch of friends when signing up for JA. But sometimes, it is not always the best thing to do. Having too many familiar faces makes the environment informal and at Glow, it sometimes resulted in a lot of jokes which reduced productivity. Have a good mix of people you know and those you don’t.
  • Communication, communication, communication: As with any company, there were communication issues in Glow as well. People were not getting notified of certain tasks because of apps failing to send notifications and these were not being finished. One way to solve this and prevent this would be to send multiple reminders on days before the deadline using different means such as SMS, Facebook reminders, and even Snapchat or Email if it comes down to that.
  • Who are your leaders?: In JA, you have to pick an executive team of 5–6 people that guides the rest of the company. This year in Glow, there was a small blunder in picking the executive teams. Later down the road, the team realized that two of the executives were not suited for the job, but by then it was too late to change things. Always have a two week or a one week trial period for the executives before solidifying who gets the positions.

Sections III: Successes of Glow

That seems like a lot of problems and mishaps. So how on earth did Glow win?

The simple answer: they kept the issues within the company. Okay, there were a lot more factors that allowed Glow to come out on top, but one of the main ones was that the judges and those outside the company really saw it as a pristine and problemless company. It was like a car that had the inside of a Camry, but the outside of a Lamborghini. Glow had remarkable company image, and this was very important on two scales:

  1. Customers & Competitors: The customers who had heard about Glow had only heard good things about the lamps and the products. Their presentation at the trade show was clean and minimal, with the use of a black booth and white dress code to make the Glow members stand out. The customers and competitors saw only the polished image of Glow.
  2. Company members: While the company members were aware of the issues faced, there were also several instances where positivity was reinforced. Examples of this were the certificates given out to outstanding company members, weekly snack supply and a lightened mood. The members of the company saw Glow with a lot more positive attitude as a result, enforcing

The masterful way the change in product idea (the pivot) was handled also allowed Glow to come out on top. The members managed to build a new logo, a new product idea and a new name all within a span of less than two weeks. What’s more impressive is that the business plan had to be done within those two weeks, and any preparation made prior to the change had to be scrapped. Songeun considers this quick pivot as one of the other main reasons for Glow’s success. So what was the secret behind this quick pivot? Well, it was really quite simple:

  1. Using the wonderful internet!: Most of the ideas and brainstorming took place online, with people giving their ideas and pros and cons through the messaging app “Slack”. Meetings were used to simply vote. One of the things Songeun quickly realized was that having discussions during meetings resulted in people arguing for a long time on one topic.Thus, her insight resulted in discussions for Glow taking place online outside of meeting hours. Even voting was made quicker by using the online service called OpaVote. Everyone brought their phones so that they could vote with a single click. This was much faster than a secret ballot vote. Overall, a lot of time was saved by using these methods and it is the strong belief of Songeun that if these methods are employed from the VERY beginning, future JA companies can save a lot of time and have an advantage.
  2. Meetings outside of JA: Having meeting outside of JA time effectively gave Glow an advantage as compared to companies who only held meetings once a week, as more work could be done in a shorter amount of time.

Finally, once the company was in the top 5, the presentation to the judges was what pushed it further along to the top.

  • Songeun notes that in her previous years in JA, the performance of her team in the top 5 presentation was lacking because they simply presented information about the different departments and the roles of these departments in the company.
  • In Glow, the judges were informed about the values of the company and about the story of struggle and triumph. This was more beneficial in terms of making Glow stand out.
  • The details of the profits, sales and the other important stuff was all sandwiched within a presentation that primarily focused on telling the judges about the story of Glow, and its attributes displayed such as teamwork, resilience and tenacity.

The story of a company like Glow is not often heard in JA. It is very rare for a team with such a major disadvantage to turn the odds completely in their favor and clinch the top award. And the reason for their success is not singular, many different factors played an immeasurable role in allowing them to win and the significant ones are listed above. Ultimately, it is our hope that you will find this article valuable not only in performing well in JA in the future, but also that you get encouraged to explore the wide world of entrepreneurship.

Written and edited by Rudra Pandya and Songeun You.

More thoughts from Songeun regarding entrepreneurship and company building will be included in a future article on CalgarYouth, so stay tuned for that!