Malta is hot for startups

[As seen on Times of Malta]

On the weekend 17th to 19 July, Startup Weekend (a non-for-profit event), the Malta Communications Authority (MCA) and the University of Malta TAKEOFF Business Incubator put their heads together to organise the biggest startup event to date. The event brought in reputational mentors and speakers which firmly puts Malta on the map as a startup destination.

The event began on Friday morning with a conference entitled ‘DISRUPT. STARTUP. MALTA’. The aim of the conference was three fold: to highlight to the local corporate and public world that a vibrant startup community exists; to discuss the local and international startup investing world; and lastly to bring to light a few Malta based startups that are leading the front.

“The Friday morning conference was thrilling. Not only was it well thought through in terms of content and set up, but the vibe and energy in the room was felt on all four corners. Having speakers with backgrounds working at global brands such as Amazon AWS, Citrix, Soundcloud and Seedcamp helps of course, but we managed to balance the international names with local success stories” says Simon Azzopardi, organiser of Startup Weekend.

“The event began with a clear message. What we wanted to do is explain that the startup world is not about tech or software developers. What the startup industry looks to do is disrupt business models by thinking differently, and hacking industries that have always been a certain way. We look around us and see 3D printing, sharing communities and internet of things and businesses around the world should be thinking about what effect such could have on their own businesses,” continues Azzopardi.

Bernard Agius, Business and Innovation Development Manager at the MCA argued that “it is very important that we realise that disruption brings more to our economy than mere threats. This conference has given a taste of the opportunities that may lie ahead for a small economy if it can locate its niche in a disrupted environment. Being small and nimble can give us an edge in making our economy attractive to disruptive start-ups. This is the right time to talk about disruptive startups especially when one considers the push for a European Digital Single Market amid other global technology driven trends.”

“Malta’s startup scene is still relatively new in comparison to the larger centres, but what we are seeing is that with the little effort done by the local community, we have already seen early successes. Companies like HotJar, Reaqta, DiscountIF and Oulala have already achieved impressive traction and we believe that they deserve Malta’s support and attention,” says Andy Linnas, TAKEOFF Business Incubator Manager.

The event came to a close with Reinhold Karner giving a talk on what Malta should do over the next few months to realise its potential. He spoke about attracting startups, creating a platform that nurtures businesses, retention of intellectual property on the island, as well as building a foundation of trust and reliability within the ecosystem.

The Friday morning’s event came to a close in the afternoon, only to be followed by a second startup event.

“At 6:00 pm that Friday, the internationally renowned Startup Weekend began. From the Friday to the Sunday, we provided 10 ideas with coaching and support to create business models and live the startup experience,” says Azzopardi.

The event invited mentors from global brands such as AOL, Seedcamp, Amazon AWS, Citrix and Microsoft, to support the teams during this intense competition. Moreover, the event also included mentors from the Malta-based eco-system with several reputable entrepreneurs showing up to give back to the community.

“It was great to see early ideas with little substance become viable business models in a short period of time. Not only that, we saw personalities and characters being formed, with leaders emerging from the event,” commented Azzopardi.

On the Sunday, after the final pitches, four ideas emerged as having stood out from the crowd. The wining startups included HealthHero, a crowdfunding platform supporting individuals that cannot afford or are covered by insurance for key surgeries or operations; AirMeeting was a flight search engine that looks to solve the problem of multiple dispersed people looking for a destination that makes financial sense for all; Sure Guides, a startup looking to bring the AirBnB model to tour guides; and the winner SiteProject, a startup looking to translate customer requirements of a website into a functional specification.

“The winner was selected on a single criterion that is, if the judges had EUR 100,000 to invest, which would be the ‘investable’ company. HealthHero was awarded as the startup with the greatest social impact, therefore the judges agreed that they would invest though not for the sake of return,” concluded Azzopardi.

Startup Weekend was sponsored by Altaro, V&A Investments, TakeOff and the MCA.

Internal hackathons can lead to big cultural changes

Hackathons are those mini focused events where groups of people look at a problem and solve it in a free-to-do-as-you-please manner. Basically, teams hack a problem – i.e. manage to solve a problem, by proposing validated, detailed ideas. Some may involve code/tech, but not necessarily.

Hackathons come in many shapes and sizes. From the large public events where anyone can join, to the closed corporate event where employees can focus on new problems.

Hackathons are great. Not only do they break boundaries and get teams to work together, but results can be meaningful and very real. However, for them to have any impact on real improvements, you need to follow a few key steps. Here are a few things we need to keep in mind when suggesting an internal, corporate hackathon.

Safety – Employees need to feel that if they mess up, they will be fine. Failing is fine. There are no KPIs for hackathon participants under than experiencing and learning. And let’s face it, many failures were successful eventually (for example – bubble wrap was initially designed to be wallpaper!)

Timing is key – Look for that week where teams have more time on their hand. Timing is really everything. Setting up a situation where teams are focusing on a hackathon and yet loads happening at their office will result in greater stress and not much innovation.

Death by Frequency – I love prawns. Love them. Juicy succulent stuff. Give me prawns every day and will hate them very quickly. Hackathons are great but only do them as often as possible, and not more.

Hackathons are not lost development time. Hackathons held monthly may be overkill. Try and look for that balance and start small. Think about each hackathon as a big deal, and avoid letting them become another boring Monday innovaton thing that your staff doesn’t get. Keep them excited!

It is a priority – Let’s face it, if something is not made to be important, than it is likely to never happen. Is there CEO buy-in? Does your staff feel that what is being done is important? Is it appreciated? Is it easy to get out of it? Show that this is not a team building exercise but a strategically important event that aims to change the way you do business. (Yes, it can be that important!)

Give it a theme – Themes are great! It gives some focus. Do not give requirements.

You want to give themes a framework for the event, but you do not want to give teams a list of requirements. Themes allow teams to go down similar paths. Requirements ensures they all end up in the same place. Worse still, requirements lead to manager pointing fingers saying our staff is not innovative!

Winners are important – Let us face it, competition is a great driving force. We all want to win, or at least, no one wants to lose. Therefore have winning teams! Give prizes! Yes, give prizes!

Mentors work – Teams often come together by ideas and energy, rarely by perfectly matching skill sets. Give teams mentors. External mentors may add an extra spin. Give them energy to feed off of. Mentors go a long way!

Make it count – Hackathons need to be part of a process. In isolation they are great, but ideally you need to know what happens next. How do projects come alive? How are they managed? What happens to the employees that thought about the new ideas? How are they treated? How are they involved? How is the new idea reintegrated into the company? How should teams work on the new idea? How are resources going to be allocated? How are road blocker type of people going to conform to change and new ways? How are you going to make good ideas become a reality yet diminish risks?

Have you ever tried an internal hackathon? Was it a success? Would love to hear your comments below if it was grand or ‘meh’!