This is crazy!
10 Reasons Why YouthHack Manila’s first international event was the craziest ever
“This is crazy!”
I thought to myself as I took the leap almost three months ago and decided to take the reins in organizing YouthHack’s first international summit, with no team, no money, and no headway. More than the lack of resources, there was also the difficulty of communicating the value of paying for a international summit, more so a summit focused on building student startup communities, which is a foreign concept for many students and schools. It wasn’t hard to find people who agreed with my own thoughts about the venture.
Two months later, I succeeded — or at least, I didn’t fail. I leave the judgment of success up to the participants who also took a leap of faith in this event. What I’m sure of is that the YouthHack Asia Startup Summit did not end up like the nightmares of failure I had. While we were not able to meet targets in terms of participants and scale, what transpired over the five days of summit activities challenged my definitions of success and what really matters when it comes to building communities. It was nothing short of a paradigm shift, and a timely one as well, given that YouthHack Manila is also welcoming a new Executive Board and generation of members.
Below is a list of the 10 reasons why the YouthHack Asia Startup Summit, because of, and not in spite of, all its faults, turned out to be a revelation — about student communities in general, YouthHack as an organization, and even myself as an outgoing YouthHack member.
1. YASS was an unconference.
On the second day of the summit, we had scheduled two panel discussions on startup ecosystems with the same prompts. After the first panel composed of our guests from Belgium and China went in depth into their experiences and insights, the second panel, composed of Filipinos, sat down and Ace, one of our speakers, asked to change the line of questioning as the first had already said most of what needed to be said on the given topics.
I went off-script, using the panelist’s answers and delegates’ questions to guide the discussion. That was the first of many instances when the conference turned into an “unconference.” It was unexpected, and under different circumstances, would have made for an awkward situation, but it turned that session into an engaging one, as both the speakers and audience felt more comfortable and straightforward knowing the discussion was informal.
Later on, what was supposed to be a quick discussion to wrap up the marshmallow challenge activity (which was a backup activity as our original speaker could not make it) turned into a full-blown geek-out on blockchain, tech companies, and even effective pitches. The discussion was no longer unidirectional — insights and questions came from all directions. My concept of what a summit should be was completely turned on its head. What was remarkable about the whole mess that day was that the delegates became more invested in their learning — they took ownership of the summit.
Realizing this, I continued the unconference until the last day. This accidental environment gave the delegates and the guests a platform to let their voice be heard, and the courage to have conversations with people they would otherwise never be able to talk to about issues and topics that otherwise would not have been discussed. In this way, the unconference shifted our priorities from putting the event first to putting conversations first. After all, having conversations is the first step to building a community.
2. YASS was uncomfortable.
Naturally, I felt uncomfortable. The summit was not going the way I had planned. I had to make adjustments to program and even the logistics in order to keep up with the unconference. Add to that all the instances Murphy’s Law played a hand. We were not prepared for all this happening at once — how can you prepare for this anyway? (Pro-Tip: you can’t.)
That wasn’t the only cause for discomfort. The very discussions themselves disturbed me as we talked about Filipino habits and problems that hinder collaboration and the growth of the startup community. The informal and intimate environment of the summit allowed these topics to come up. At one point, the work YouthHack had been doing the past three years was put in the spotlight, and my whole YouthHack experience was called into question. “What was the point of all of this? What are you guys really doing?”
For many people, it would have been the epitome of embarrassment. It was for me as well, but I realized that that was the point of it all and decided to use it as a learning opportunity. In my opening remarks addressed to the startup community at Kickstart Ventures, I told them that the youth learn best when pushed out of their comfort zone. That’s what happened. I was pushed out of my comfort zone, and I learned to take a second look at the things I take for granted — from my identity as a Filipino to my identity as a YouthHack member.
3. It was a culmination of 3 years of learning.
I always like to tell people how my YouthHack journey began in high school, when I joined the very first hackathon for high school students in Manila. That experience changed who I am. Only when I began preparations for YASS did it really hit me how much had changed since then. YASS, from the moment I took ownership of the project, became a channel for me to share and apply everything I had learned as a participant and member of YouthHack.
My three years with YouthHack was an education, and YASS was like a final exam, or thesis. I executed all the plays I had learned in putting together YASS, and had to re-learn some of them too — like bringing together a team, securing participants last minute, handling issues partners and guests, and finding opportunities to turn unfavorable situations around. In bringing everything I had to the table, YASS also became a denouement of my journey with YouthHack, an unraveling that revealed my strengths and weaknesses.
With all the effort I invested, I had a message to convey through the summit. I wanted to prove that it is possible, even for a student, to make things happen. The first thing I learned in YouthHack was that as a student, I had the capacity to turn my ideas into reality. YASS started out as an idea, and through sheer grit, the support of the team and partners, and a substantial amount of luck, it became real. A lot of students, given adequate resources, will shy away from opportunities like these because it has been impressed upon us that we are not yet ready for the real world and its consequences — at least until we get that diploma or achieve certain milestones. There’s no better way to be ready than to just do it.
4. It was one brainstorming session after another.
The environment of YASS became a breeding ground for ideas. Thanks to the unconference, the uncomfortable discussions, and the mindset of turning ideas into reality, brainstorming sessions happened throughout the summit — especially during lunch and coffee breaks.
Brainstorming is one of the items in this list that I really intended to happen, although I didn’t expect it to happen the way that it did. During the design thinking workshop I facilitated, I prepared the Stanford design school framework to guide them through ideation, but as soon as I realized they were already in their element, sharing stories, deriving insights, and formulating responses, I took my hands off and let them do their own thing.
The different teams presented the results of the ideation session the next day, and during the question and answer portion of the last group’s presentation, the judges suddenly took over and facilitated a brainstorming session to integrate technology into the group’s proposal and turn it into a business. We were pumped up and exhilarated by the exchange of ideas, so much so that we are currently working on the startup idea that came out of that discussion.
Through those instances, I realized that the most productive brainstorming sessions are those that come out of nowhere, without any frameworks or preparation. The delegates just shared rants and stories with each other, and that opened up a lot of possibilities in terms of ideas. Even our guests found the coffee breaks and down times productive — it’s fascinating where simple, uninhibited conversations can lead.
5. It was a collaboration and community effort.
No matter how many plans I drew up or how much will I had to make the summit happen, it would not have been possible without a team and partners. While I began without a team from YouthHack, I enlisted the help of several members who I knew had specific skills that could complement what I lacked and bring value to the summit. Even those who weren’t members at that time but had expressed their intention to join when I met them, I invited. (They are now members.) Most of the support I got from YouthHack revolved around marketing, given the summit’s branding as a YouthHack event, and finance. Even then, the team wasn’t complete.
Coming into this summit without a full team from YouthHack meant I had to look to other places for more manpower and volunteers. I realized that this was a great opportunity to exercise collaboration among the different student startup and entrepreneurship organizations in Metro Manila, which gathered a few months earlier to unite towards a vision for the student startup community. I asked for help from the leaders of these organizations, and some members who I knew had experience organizing events like Startup Weekend. Having them onboard helped delegate logistics tasks, from accommodations to printing, and rally engagements online to secure participants, guests, and even funding. Given what we were able to do faced with insurmountable odds, I’d like to find out how much more the student community can do with more time, planning, and involvement.
In securing international participants, I needed a larger base of support, and that’s where YouthHack’s chapters abroad, the Asia Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Society, and networks from previously attended summits came in. Getting their support required sending messages to different countries using a range of platforms from Line to WeChat. While the success rate was close to zero and it became more and more difficult as our window of opportunity closed, I found sending those messages an opportunity to catch up with an acquaintance or to get to know someone new, albeit online.
Finally, even with a team and a network, I wouldn’t have been able to bring the “startup” into our “startup summit” without the support of the Philippine startup community, from Kickstart Ventures hosting our opening ceremony to the organizers of the Techtonic 2017 conference to our panelists and judges who spent their mornings and afternoons with us. All these people made what then seemed impossible, possible, and it all began by daring to ask.
6. It brought people together.
Not only was YASS organized by students and partners that came together from different organizations, but YASS was also a venue for people from different backgrounds to come together.
Even though most of our delegates were local, I soon found out just how diverse the backgrounds of the delegates were through the conversations we had. Though it was just three days — or even a day — for most of the delegates, it was refreshing to see them become closer with each other.
Even the guests were able to expand their network by talking with each other, and hopefully this created more bonds within the growing startup community.
Witnessing all of these happen over the span of three days made me realize that the people who come to an event, with their experiences and energy (or lack thereof), all contribute to the vibe and atmosphere of the space, no matter if they’re a VIP or a WIP (walk-in participant). While watching people get together is something I’ve become used to with all the events YouthHack has, being able to see these relationships go beyond the gathering itself was definitely a new experience.
7. It was a huge risk.
With the growing popularity of startups, the glamour often precedes the reality. A lot of communities and events are popping up, designed to inspire and promote startup entrepreneurship. Working at a startup is the cool thing to do, and startups make sure to highlight the benefits and perks of working with them as they compete to secure talent and promote a positive work culture. However, it’s often not as a pretty as it seems, and inspirational talks and events won’t really give anyone looking from the outside a full picture of the harsh reality of the day-to-day grind.
At the core of this reality is the risk of failure, and a very high one at that. 90% of startups fail. This is something I’ve heard countless times in talks, but it became real for me when I got a taste of what that risk meant with YASS. Not only was YouthHack’s name on the line, but also all the partners and people who vouched and volunteered for us. This riskiness of the summit was in large part due to the two month timeline, and time weighs more on those who have it less. By bringing together a team and reaching out to the networks we had access to, the risk was reduced but remained a considerable threat. The team’s academic and personal commitments didn’t help.
In the last two weeks leading up to the summit, though my summer semester had finished, I was worn out. After all the successive blasts, emails, and messages, we had only three delegates paid by then and none of the logistics was finalized because we had no inflow yet and I didn’t want to spend YouthHack funds unless absolutely necessary. It was clutch time, and in my mind, it was either do or die, pivot or perish. We pivoted so many times in the last two weeks with our programs and logistics in order to manage risk while still maintaining the level of value we wanted to provide those who did sign up for our event. I also made sure to communicate with the stakeholders the expectations and adjustments we had made. It was uncomfortable, but necessary.
In the end, two things helped us pull through the trough — pivots and communicating expectations. These made the risk more manageable, and not by removing the risk directly, but by changing the situation. It was not the ideal solution, but it was the realistic and practical one, and in hindsight, made the event what it is today.
8. It wasn’t supposed to happen.
Before I took over the project, it wasn’t YASS. It was the YouthHack Asia Startup Bootcamp, and we had a team, a plan, and initially, a six-month timeline. The plan was to bring teams from our different YouthHack chapters for a one-week bootcamp to develop their startup ideas. My initial role was to coordinate with the other chapters to secure participating teams, and I soon learned that the chapters weren’t ready to provide teams. We pivoted to inviting individual students instead, but by that time we had become preoccupied with other projects. Before we knew it, we had lost three months, and the team became uncertain about moving forward with the project.
After a meeting that really sold me on a collaboration with the Techtonic conference for our bootcamp, I was told that it would be best for the team to discontinue the project and focus more on internal matters, with recruitment and transition around the corner. It was such an anti-climactic moment for me, and I was devastated. While I really wanted it to push through, I didn’t want to force the rest of the team. For me, however, it wasn’t the end. I still had a choice.
9. But it did anyway.
Ever since I learned about our founder’s vision to have an Asia event in Manila by 2017, it was a vision that I wanted to be a part of. When I became part of the YouthHack Asia Startup Bootcamp team, I thought that this was finally it. I later realized that this vision was also shared by many in the Philippine startup community, with Startup Project PH, TechShake’s Ignite Conference, and Techtonic — all startup focused conferences designed to showcase the Philippine startup scene to the international community. I felt that it was the perfect time as well to showcase the student startup community.
That’s why I didn’t want the project to just die out. I told YouthHack that I would still continue the project, not just because of my personal interest in the project, but also because of the value and opportunities it would bring to YouthHack and the student startup community, specifically in getting the word out about YouthHack and student involvement in startups. In my mind, the opportunity cost of not pushing through with this international event was too high to miss out on, and so I made my choice.
10. It doesn’t end with the summit.
When I decided to push through with the project, my first decision was that it would no longer focus just on building startups, but on building communities. One of the things I learned talking to the different chapter leaders of YouthHack was that the reason they weren’t ready to field teams to our bootcamp was that they had not yet settled into their locality as a community. I took that insight and used it as motivation for the event, turning it into the YouthHack Asia Startup Summit: Building Student Startup Communities.
That’s what we ended up discussing through the three days of activities and presentations, and my biggest takeaway from the discussions was that perhaps I was looking at this the wrong way. A startup ecosystem and community exists because of startups, startup founders, and their teams. It wasn’t a difficult chicken or egg problem — the community is meaningless without startups coming first. So why weren’t we working on startups? Our guests asked us that question on the last day, and that really got me thinking about what I had been doing the past three years in YouthHack.
That’s why the summit, inasmuch as I wanted it to be a fitting end to my YouthHack experience, isn’t the end. It’s only the beginning of a larger effort to encourage more students to take the leap and commit to turning their ideas into reality. With my good friend and YouthHack colleague Jerick, I am now currently working on an online game that came out of the brainstorming sessions we had in the summit. We’re currently putting together a team of hackers, hipsters, and hustlers to turn our online game into a scalable business that can help organizations and students grow. As much as we want the startup to succeed, the real value in what we will be doing is the story we will be able to tell other students as we build on our idea — a story where students went out of their way to create a dent in the universe.
I may be leaving for an exchange semester in Korea in the next few days, but just as I had with YASS, I’ve found this opportunity to be worth the risk. Perhaps we won’t be as lucky as we were with the summit. Perhaps we’ll exceed the wildest expectations. Whether or not it succeeds or fails, the experience will definitely be valuable for everyone who becomes a part of it. But I’m not going to lie.
“This is crazy!”
You can reach out for collaboration at email@example.com and learn more about me at www.linkedin.com/in/paulojoquino.
This article was based on and inspired by talks I gave at the Young Entrepreneurs Society Conference in DLSU and at the YouthHack 2017–2018 Orientation.