You’re right, this wasn’t covered in your journalism degree

Looking back, I can see why the founders of the Walkleys innovation program’s shortlisted projects left each day of our bootcamps pumped but also exhausted. The workshops were intense and, for many, involved exploring entirely new mental terrain.

The idea was to cram as much design thinking training, startup skills development and pitch prep as possible into the two-day bootcamps before the project founders pitched to our judges at the end.

Kath Dolan, the founder of shortlisted project Why Thank You I Made it Myself, described the journey through the two-day bootcamp as daunting but also empowering.

“The conversations initially felt very blunt, and almost discouraging, but by the end of the two days, I realised more these are the realities we all needed to face,” Dolan said. “We are mostly from journalism or media backgrounds, and some of us have limited exposure to the startup world, but ultimately we will all need to understand this world if the projects are to succeed long-term. The most useful element of the two days was the continued practice of the pitches. This meant I learnt very quickly to better communicate the core aspects of my project without being distracted by the fine details.”

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The workshops were helmed by Yvonne Leow, the youngest-ever John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University and founder of Tangy Media, a digital media consultancy for tech and media companies. Her priors include news groups Vox.com and The Seattle Times as well as venture funds Sequoia Capital and North Base Media.

Yvonne Leow (standing) in-action during the Sydney bootcamps.

Leow led the shortlisted projects (you can read about these projects here) through some of the touchstone strategies of startups — such as identifying product-market fit (easier said than done), business planning and goal-setting.

Product-market fit sounds like corporate babble, but it’s the neatest way to describe making sure your product genuinely matches what your target users want the product to do. Many fantastic products and companies don’t succeed because they struggle to find the right fit.

But working it out can be gruelling. It’s especially difficult (and important) for projects built around ideas that emerged in the way that many of those in the workshop did — with the product or storytelling idea first, rather than with a problem they wanted to solve. Because the goal is to find a real problem that many real people have, and solve it.

“Almost nothing else matters in the life of a startup,” Mike Nicholls, Newscloud.io founder and bootcamp participant, said. “Just about every other startup function — growth hacking, recruiting teams, fundraising, scaling, advertising, marketing — is premature unless a segment of users really wants your product.”

The team from The Conversation, which had two projects in the program, dig into their customer persona and explore their product-market fit assumptions during the Melbourne bootcamps

But the biggest focus of each two-day program was human-centred design thinking.

This can sound very buzzwordy, but it’s the not-so-secret sauce of many absurdly successful companies. It’s a way of approaching problems and products that prioritises the person the product is for. By thinking about your audience/reader/user as a complete human and understanding what they want and need from you — and how they will use it — specifically how to genuinely understand and cater to your audience, users or customers.

A big breakthrough for several participants in the bootcamps came after Leow got the group to create customer personas — where you describe an individual person in great detail. By making your target user real, you understand them better and stop designing your product for everyone. Particularly helpful for many was mapping out their target user’s day, and then having to think about when this individual might realistically use their products.

One of the most interesting elements of this was the exercises on how to interview target users. Leow recommended every project invested the time in finding five or so clients and then mentored the founders through how to do these interviews effectively. What was most interesting about this was how different these interviews are conducted compared to journalistic interviews, so there was a lot of unlearning to do.

“User-centric design was such a natural fit for what I had been trying to do for so long,” Tiny Moguls founder and bootcamp participant Sheree Joseph said. Tiny Moguls is a news site for progressive millennials that shares information and ways to volunteer or get involved with social issues.

“It was a revelation to learn that in-depth user interviews are encouraged, and how they help to find out if your idea of the problem is really a problem for the people you want to target and to get an unfiltered idea of what they really think of the ideas before you start working on them.”

“I also learnt that it’s about exploring emotions and paying attention to what users are saying,” Joseph said. “You’re not building something for everyone, and your project needs to have focus.”

Legal stuff, setting up companies and protecting your assets

We were lucky enough to have LegalVision’s cofounder and chief executive Lachlan McKnight at each session to talk the shortlisted projects through big foundational issues such as company structure, minimising risk, setting up equity pools and working with investors.

LegalVision cofounder and CEO Lachlan Knight speaking to the Sydney bootcamp.

“The correct business structure allows you to protect the business by separating key assets such as intellectual property from the operational arm of the business. The best business structure isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition, but a dual company structure often works well.”

LegalVision works closely with many of Australia’s leading startups and is the legal service recommended by most of Australia’s venture capital investors, so the group was particularly attentive on McKnight’s advice about when startups should take on investment.

“A lot of early-stage companies we see have two things: a great idea, and a desire to raise capital. The strength of your idea is always going to be critical to your business’ success, but raising external capital isn’t always so important,” McKnight said.

“The moment you raise capital you become answerable to someone other than yourself and your co-founders, so make sure it’s the right thing to do before going down this path. Some businesses will need a capital injection to become successful, but it is possible to build a fast growing, profitable business without external capital. If you do raise external capital, make sure you’re not giving away more than you need to, and try to choose the right kind of investor for your business by looking at what else they can bring to the table other than cash.”

Yvonne Leow, top left, in action during the Sydney bootcamp.

And finally, the pitches

It’s tough to condense an idea you’ve been thinking about for months or years into just three minutes. But the teams did really well. Each team was offered the opportunity to submit a supporting one-page document and a filmed three-minute pitch if they couldn’t attend the workshops or really wanted to after the event (most went with their on-the-spot pitches filmed during the bootcamp).

Each pitch was followed by questions from our expert panels. In Melbourne, this was Leow, as well as veteran startup mentor Scott Handsaker and Startup Victoria’s Georgia Beattie. In Sydney, this was Walkleys innovation judge and CEO Jacqui Park, Walkleys judge and Blackbird Ventures cofounder Niki Scevak and key program sponsor Google Australia’s Nic Hopkins.

A few brave project founders have agreed to share their project pitches below. This is only four projects, make sure you check out the rest of the shortlist projects here. A huge thank you to the pitchers below, and good luck to all the teams.

The funding recipients will be announced at the Walkley Foundation’s Mid-Year Awards Celebration on July 26.

Nick Drewe is the cofounder of Publishthis.email, a tool that turns emails into webpages in seconds. The project was inspired by headlines sparked by leaked emails, and inspired Nick to create a tool that would enable anyone, anywhere with access to an email account to leak documents or emails. Nick chose to file a video after the original pitch.

Cas McCullough’s Writally enables bloggers and independent journalists to create original, compelling blog posts in half the time by providing customised structural frameworks that are matched to the user’s content creation needs via an algorithm. McCullough was unable to attend the bootcamp after she broke her wrist, so filed a video a few days afterwards (and apologises for any wobbly editing, given she was down her main hand).

Ivan O’Mahoney and Niall Fulton from IN Film are veteran documentary makers and were behind the Walkley Award-winning documentary Hitting Home, with Sarah Ferguson. They were in the Northern Territory for the workshops, so emailed in a recorded pitch for their J-Project.

Erin Riley’s project, No Hat No Play, seeks to fill in a gap in the parenting site market. She explains more below, but believe there is a sound commercial strategy for a parenting site that foreground evidence-based, problem-solving coverage. Erin’s idea grew and grew throughout the program, so she chose to submit a second video pitch after the event.

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