Prizes Help You Get Noticed (a response to Kevin Starr)

Kevin Starr is a good friend and someone I respect a great deal. He’s a surfer, doctor turned investor focused on impact over monetary returns. He’s got one of the best heads in the business, and I tend to agree with most of his assessments.

I don’t completely agree with his recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled, “Dump the Prizes: Contests, challenges, awards—they do more harm than good. Let’s get rid of them.”

Let me caveat this by saying that I do agree with most of what Kevin talks about with prizes:

  1. It wastes huge amounts of time.
  2. There is way too much emphasis on innovation and not nearly enough on implementation.
  3. It gets too much wrong and too little right.
  4. It serves as a distraction from the social sector’s big problem.

If you’ve read his article (please do), then you’ll notice that I agree with Kevin on every salient point he makes. Where we disagree is due to the blinders that come with Kevin’s position, an omission due to perspective, not intellect or experience.

Why then are prizes worth it?

Simply because prizes serve as a filtering mechanism for new, young and unknown startups to be found. A method for recognition when a voice is too small to be heard.

It’s hard for people with money to understand this. It’s hard for companies that have had some success to remember it.

When you’re brand new, have a prototype and just a small bit of penetration with your new idea or product, it is extremely hard to be taken seriously or to get noticed. Being at the award event gets you in front of people. Winning it helps validate the concept and people with money start taking you more seriously.

This outlook comes from my own experience. As Ushahidi, way back in the early days of 2008, we were part of the NetSquared Challenge, where David and I walked onto a stage and pitched Ushahidi for a whopping 2 minutes (crazy short!). A day later we walked out with $25,000 – which allowed the newly formed organization to become a reality. It tided us over until we received real funding from Humanity United 3 months later.

Ushahidi wins the NetSquared Challenge in 2008 for $25,000

Ushahidi wins the NetSquared Challenge in 2008 for $25,000

I’ll add two more points of my own – one of contention, one opinion:

Contention: I remember, when Ushahidi was just 8 months old, winning a prize. This was the last prize we ever applied to be a part of, as I realized that it was only $10,000 and that the cost of the award ceremony alone was more than all the prizes added together.

Opinion: When an organization gets the initial recognition and wins a prize or two, they should remove themselves from that world of smaller prizes. Applying (and even winning) a bunch of small awards takes time and energy, and it has decreasing value over time – both for recognition and for bottom-line value.

A Pivot 25 Retrospective

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Pivot 25 was a blast! Over 100 teams from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda applied to pitch their startup over a 2-day period. We named it “pivot” because we wanted to play off of the word, often used in the startup scene to denote a need for a startup to nimbly move in a different direction (plus it had a good sound). We did the event for 2 reasons:

  1. To bring attention to “what’s next” coming from the vibrant mobile startup scene in East Africa.
  2. To support the new m:lab, a mobile incubator that launched yesterday, where all profits from the event went to sustain.

This wasn’t your ordinary conference, it was a pitching competition mixed with lively fireside chats with the regions top business and government leaders in the tech space. Larry Madowo, a TV news personality in Nairobi, did one of the most amazing jobs I’ve seen with the fireside chats, keeping them lively and (best of all) disagreeing with each other. The event with 300+ attendees was smoothly MC’d by AlKags, keeping the pace fresh and upbeat.

Each category of finalists consisted of 5 companies, with an independent panel of judges (in other words, the organizers had no say in this). The finalist pitched for 7 minutes, followed by some very pointed and tough questions by the judges. Each judge scored the presenters on their pitch, business viability and model, an average of all these scores was tallied to find that session’s winner.

The Winners

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Prizes of $5,000 were awarded to the winners of each of the 5 categories, and the overall winner was picked from these and will go to pitch at the DEMO conference in California:

A massive congratulations to all the winners, and we expect to hear great things from the MedKenya team of Mbugua Njihia and Steve Mutinda when they head to Silicon Valley in September to pitch on an even bigger stage.

Big Thanks!

The real reason this event worked was due to the team behind it. Countless hours spent getting sponsors, working with the finalists and designing the space. I want to thank the guys who really put the work in behind it, making it such a huge hit: Jay Bhalla (producer), Tosh, Joshua, Ryan and Jessica, the Sprint Interactive team, the Ark for the video, plus a good dozen volunteers from the iHub community.

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I’d also be remiss if I didn’t thank the guys at Afrinnovator for live blogging the event, and for CapitalFM for live streaming it to the 3000+ people who tuned in from all over the world. Zuku provided us with 100Mbs for this to happen, though we will make sure we have more, and more robust, access points next time.

Finally, thanks to Nokia, Equity Bank, Samsung, Google, Tigo and Elma for sponsoring the event and helping us pay for what was a very costly exercise.

For those who want to know, the full revenue from the event was $145k, with a cost of $110k. Leaving $35,000 to put into the m:lab.

Stay tuned for where Pivot will be next year. Thanks everyone!