By Jekhan Aruliah
Shhh! Here’s a secret for all Yarl Geek Challenge (YGC) competitors. If you thought YGC is about creating great products you’d be right. If you thought that great product is a gadget, an app, an IoT thing, or a great online service in my opinion you’d be wrong. Actually you yourself, the competitor, are the product!
YGC is the brainchild of the Yarl IT Hub (YIT) itself a gathering of IT professionals with links to Sri Lanka’s North (Yarlpanam is a traditional name for Jaffna). A group whose stated aim is “to make Jaffna the next Silicon Valley”. A decade ago when YGC was being conceived the Sri Lankan Civil War had only just ended. Thousands of refugees were still held in camps in the Northern Province, many thousands more had only recently been released into the most basic living conditions. Across the nation communities of all ethnicities were still traumatized by the brutal war, the destruction, and the loss of loved ones. The YIT team brainstormed how to ignite a new fuse. A fuse that would encourage young people across our nation to exercise their creativity, to focus their aspirations, to develop technological products and services. Products and services that could bring a boost to our battered economy and society.
2020 is the ninth year of the Yarl Geek Challenge. In every previous year YGC’s competition started with a 3 day hackathon held in Jaffna. In 2020, the year of COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions, things have changed. The Hackathon will be entirely online via ZOOM, the internet video-conferencing service. With the new ZOOM format, the 3 day hackathon has evolved into a 3 phase competition leading to a ZOOM Grand Finale.
PHASE 1: 12th & 13th September an online ZOOM Bootcamp in which you will be shown how to put together your presentation. You will be advised on what should be in the presentation, how to structure it, how to make it attractive and compelling. There will be sessions on Business Modelling and Financial Modelling. You will then have two weeks to work on your proposal before PHASE 2.
PHASE 2: 3rd & 4th October, a weekend of mentoring by experts from around the World who are donating their time and skill to support and develop you. These will include experts in technology, product design, marketing, and finance. Over the next two weeks before PHASE 3 you will have time to think about the experts’ advice, and improve your proposal before facing the judges.
PHASE 3: 17th & 18th October, you will make your presentations to the judges and to a worldwide audience over ZOOM.
GRAND FINALE: 31st October and 1st November. The judges in PHASE 3 will select the finalists, who will make their pitches to a judging panel made up of successful technologists, entrepreneurs, and investors.
COVID-19 and ZOOM have created a whole new opportunity. The competitors can sell themselves and their ideas to a worldwide audience. There will be viewers watching purely to see the young talent in Sri Lanka. Viewers who have not been mentors and not been judges and have no connection with YGC, but are just scouting for talent. Perhaps to invest in, perhaps to recruit into their own organisations.
For YGC your idea can be at any stage of development. Your business could be already running, and you are showing the judges how it is going and where you want it to go. Maybe your pitch will include a prototype of your product that is still only an idea in development. Maybe it will be a presentation on the state of the market for your service, showing your competition and market demand, and how you can beat the first and capture the second. In this competition as you develop your presentation, what you are really developing is you.
YGC provides mentors during PHASE1 and PHASE2. People with experience in just about everything you need. Tech experts to help you find a better/faster/cheaper way to click your gadget together. Marketing consultants to advise you what the customers want and how to catch them. Veteran managers to show you that a ‘dead end’ is neither ‘dead’ nor an ‘end’ but a signal to pivot to a new direction. You can be sure these experts have between them made a whole load of mistakes, and lost a lot of money. Failure after all is the best teacher, because you examine and learn from the cause of failure. With success you only compete for the credit. You can be sure these experts learned a lot from their mistakes because they have survived to grow to become experts. They can help you not to make those mistakes yourself.
Quite frankly, I think it is worth entering the YGC just to get access to this free training and expert consultancy! A true entrepreneur recognizes and grabs good opportunities when they come.
YGC makes you work closely and intensely with your chosen teammates. You will learn the importance of a well balanced team. A great cricket team isn’t made up of eleven brilliant bowlers, nor is a tech team made up only of a gang of geeks. You need the true geeks who love the fine/tedious details, you need the leader with the strength and charisma to hold the team together, you need the clown who lifts the team spirit when it has been punctured by bad luck or a bad idea. And let’s face it, perhaps the most important member of your team is the one who gives the presentation to the judges. This Presenter maybe wonderful engaging and charming or she maybe ignorant, annoying and lazy. But if she can stand up in the Finals for 4 minutes and talk fluently and confidently, and she can field 3 minutes of tough tricky questions without a stutter, then she will be the one who scores the goal. Before you sack all your geeks, remember the judges have seen hundreds of pitches and will know empty hot air when they see it. The winning team will be a blend of geek, guru and grace.
At the end of the YGC competition illustrious judges award prizes. But the judges’ prize isn’t the real prize. The real prize is the confidence and experience you get from the YGC. Confidence to use your aspiration, attitude and application to lead to an interesting and challenging entrepreneurial life. It gives you a chance to show your parents and peers there is a great career in being an entrepreneur. Success is not about joining the public service to hang around for a few decades waiting for your pension.
In the last 8 years YGC has seen hundreds of young people from across Sri Lanka flexing their entrepreneurial muscles. In that time 25 YGC alumni have created businesses that today are employing over 200 people. I have already written about Senzmate and Arima that came out of YGC. They and others have become growing enterprises attracting investors, providing goods and services around Sri Lanka and internationally. In some cases the business idea pitched at YGC didn’t survive, but the team did by pivoting to a new and better idea. Many of those who didn’t setup their own businesses were still energized, and have joined other tech businesses. Some will build their experience working for someone else, and setup their own companies later.
In the Yarl Geek Challenge you are the product. A product you can sell to universities, employers, investors, customers. You are a product you can sell to team mates, who will join you for an entrepreneurial adventure. Most importantly, you are a product you can sell you to you, to give you the confidence to do what you believe in.
To see what the 2019 YGC finalist teams did, have a look at this article: https://www.readme.lk/top-10-ideas-yarl-geek-challenge-season-8/
To find out more about the next Yarl Geek Challenge and how to enter the competition take a look at the Yarl IT Hub website: http://yarlithub.org/ygc/ where you will find the Prospectus and the Online Application.
( — The writer Jekhan Aruliah was born in Sri Lanka and moved with his family to the UK when he was two years of age. Brought up in London, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1986 with a degree in Natural Sciences. Jekhan then spent over two decades in the IT industry, for half of which he was managing offshore software development for British companies in Colombo and in Gurgaon (India). In 2015 Jekhan decided to move to Jaffna where he is now involved in social and economic projects. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org — )