SETsquared Blog

Microsoft Imagine Cup World Finals: Where geekiness meets the real world

Take one of the biggest tech companies in the world: Microsoft. Throw in 87 student teams from 71 different countries, all brought to the same hotel for five days to compete one against the other in three different categories. Money and glory await the winners, utter disappointment the others. Welcome to the Imagine Cup 2013, organised by Microsoft to promote their Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 platform by pitting these teams one against the other and rewarding the best ones.

My team, the only one representing the UK and from Exeter University, part of the SETsquared Partnership, had come ready: we knew we were going to pitch a ten minute presentation to a panel of four judges who specialised in our category (innovation, as opposed to games and world citizenship respectively), and we had been rehearsing in a classroom every day for days on end before flying off to Russia. The app was ready, we knew what to do.

The competition officially started on a Monday, during which we rehearsed and rehearsed some more under the watchful eyes of our mentor and our Microsoft representative. Correcting every slight detail, we practised to perfection. After, we were assigned the room in which we would be pitching, we studied it to know exactly how we would present, where we would be standing and then went to relax with the other teams.

For Microsoft had thought of everything to help the teams change their minds: drinks, snacks, fast internet connection, giant blackboards on which to write, bean bags and table tennis were all available on the 2nd floor of the hotel, where many teams gathered to work and play under the light of the Russian white nights (St Petersburg is so Northern that there is daylight up until midnight).

Our pitch was due at 8.50am, and we had to register at 8.30am. After waking up early and rehearsing one last time in pyjamas, we went to the room and pitched the best we could. Maybe not the best pitch we ever did - we missed our grand finale because we went slightly over the 10 -minute deadline - but one we could be proud of. With that out of the way, we then discovered that the following day, the four judges would come to our booth, where we would have 15 minutes with each of them to demo the app and answer all their questions. After a quick tour of the city and a noted stop at a McDonalds (yes, the Big Mac there tastes just like in the UK), the pressure was back on that night.

Our evening was filled with every type of question possible asked by our mentor, and our answering to the best of our abilities. Everything was covered: the tech itself, the business model, the customer channels, the compatibility of the app and so forth. When Wednesday arrived we were once again ready. The four judges came and went, and everything went smoothly. It was even better than the pitch, and a great piece of team work. We had prepared a lot of the questions with our mentor, but still we were surprised by a few of them (the most surprising one being maybe "when will the app be released". We hadn't given it much thought yet).

Thursday was our day off. Well, kind of. In the morning there were master sessions in which several people were presenting on a wide range of topics, such as creating a business plan, raising funds, reaching the media, or what was new with Windows Azure. Straight after these sessions another showcase took place in which the students of St Petersburg were able to come and see our apps, and during which the press kept interviewing us over and over again. For people like me who love meeting new people it was a lot of fun, and the people from St Petersburg loved our idea. Finally once the showcase was over, it was time to go to the awards ceremony. Two hours filled with beautiful Russian ballet, with having Doctor Who, Steve Guggenheimer, Alexey Pajitnov ( the creator of Tetris), and a Russian minister  a few meters away from me.

Two hours that culminated in our winning the innovation category, and $50,000!

If you enter the Imagine Cup, and go as far as the World Finals, this is what awaits you next year in Seattle. Don't expect to have much time to visit the city. You will be kept on your toes every day, and you should be if you want to win.

But most of all, come ready. For this was the key to our success: getting our presentation ready and rehearsed days before flying off. Covering not only the tech, but also having a sound business plan and idea of how to promote and make money with the app. Have a compelling story to tell. Relate to each of the judges by doing background research on them. And most of all, have fun despite all the stress and the lack of sleep. Every team there was highly talented. Everyone came with a great idea. But not everyone is a good speaker. Not everyone has a sound business mind. And it is worth remembering that the prototype itself was worth a mere 15% of the final mark. What mattered was how ready we were to take our idea forward into a business.

So if you want to participate in the Imagine Cup, remember this: don't surround yourself with geeks, as talented as they may be. Make sure someone in your team takes care of the business side of your idea, rehearse rehearse rehearse, take everyone's feedback into account and then, once you are all ready for the show, smash it! And if you're lucky, you will be flying to Atlanta to present in front of 14,000 people at MGX, just like I am as I am writing these few words.

Please click to view the video announcing the winner.

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