Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Cambridge Start Up Weekend – outside the ELT bubble


To a not particularly EdTech-focused ELT blogger, what might be the most surprising thing about the Cambridge EdTech Start Up weekend organised by ELTjam and Accelerate Cambridge program?

The price? The fact that about 60 other people spent their bank holiday weekend working from 9am-midnight in Apprentice-style conditions? That experts and entrepreneurs from publishing, tech and finance gave up their time to mentor participants? That out of that weekend came at least three potentially viable businesses?

All those things are remarkable – starting with the price at £65 including all meals and snacks and a T-shirt. But the most surprising thing? The number of ELT attendees.


That’s 5% of the total number and fewer than the MBA students, entrepreneurs, educators from other fields and developers who made up most of the group. Bearing in mind that ELTjam readers are already interested in EdTech and have strong views on education and the place for technology within it, where were they?

Or, perhaps, why weren’t more ELT people involved?

It could be that they just didn’t understand what the whole thing was. I, myself, didn’t really have any clue what it was going to be like other than vague ideas from watching the targets of Alan Sugar’s scorn and feeling sure I could do better. But I was curious enough to go since I was in the UK anyway and I’m in the process of developing my own apps.

So in non-infographic form, I can describe what a Start Up Weekend is like.



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60 seconds – go!

Friday night is an introduction, ice-breaker and straight into building a potentially viable business by pitching an idea in 60 seconds. Everyone votes on the best ideas and the top ten ago through to the next round. Then those who didn’t pitch, or didn’t get chosen, join the team they think their skills or interests fit. I chose a team idea based on Graded Readers which was my first mistake but I’ll get to that later. Those teams then go off and start working on their idea and plenty of them stayed until midnight.

Saturday‘s kick off lecture explained the Business Model Canvas which is a tool for capturing all the factors you need to take into account when assessing the viability of a potential business. It’s not just academic modelling for the sake of assigning labels to stages and then arguing over the label. Not doing this is why so many businesses fail because they’re based on bad products that no one needs, or no one can find, or could never be profitable.

At this point any groups without MBA students start panicking.



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A mentoring session with Ben from Fi-Ware

The rest of the day is spent trying to turn the seed idea into something that could be a business and then having it torn down and rebuilt by a succession of mentors. I made it to lunch and then dropped out, but I’ll get to that later.

By Sunday, hopefully that planning stage has generated an idea that is already being turned into a pitchable proposal. It’s almost a given that that includes market validation, a burgeoning social media presence, a product development roadmap, and perhaps even the first steps towards an MVP (minimum viable product) – a landing page maybe or even a working demo.

At this point teams without tech people start struggling.

The team is also working on their pitch and getting more feedback from mentors. They’re also possibly falling out, having crises and avoiding their team mates at breaks. Too much work has been done to drop out now, however much they hate each other, so all the teams turn up to pitch to the expert panel of judges in the evening. A five minute strictly timed pitch and five minutes of fielding the judges’ questions is all they get to pour the last 48 hour’s work into.

At this point teams with educators start to feel smug.

To put it mildly, some of the business ideas had very little educational value. Apps were suggested that turned live university lectures into webinars by replacing the old fashioned technique of actually speaking to a lecturer, “solved” the problem of culture shock experienced by children when they’re dragged into expat life by their parents, or took away the hassle of teaching a two year old about gardening.

The judges go off and deliberate and the top three winners are announced. Now, it’s time for the teams who had excellent presenters to celebrate because one of those businesses I’ve just mentioned came second and another was given special commendation. Much more solid educational ideas that had been pitched seat squirmingly badly were completely overlooked. The overall winner was, thankfully, the idea of an experienced primary teacher who had identified and defined a literacy problem and how to address it.

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Read it – the winning team at Cambridge Edtech Start Up Weekend

Since one of the judges was the CEO of Cambridge University Press, that idea just got brought to the attention of someone who could make it happen – for £65 and two day’s work. All the participants with viable ideas have a much clearer route for entering the Accelerator programme, so much networking was done, the advice from the mentors will be useful for future projects and people learned a lot about themselves in the process.

Even me, and I dropped out of my team less than half way through. I learned I really am an ideas person and not suited to the business side of getting something to market so I need collaborators. At the weekend I made contacts with a developer and an amazing designer, I got an offer of work and I sold a copy of my novel!

I know how I’d approach another Start Up weekend.

My mistake was leaning towards an idea based on Graded Readers which is just too similar to what I already do. I know exactly what will happen to a e-platform for choose your own adventure children’s books. It has no more chance to succeed than a self published book.

That wasn’t what the pitch had started out as but, after four hours of endless morphing from one idea to the next and no-one really taking leadership, I decided having a floating overview of the weekend was going to be more interesting being locked into a group I didn’t want to be in. I’m not recommending this to anyone. The way to get the most out of these weekends is to choose your team carefully and go the distance. My interest ended up more journalistic than participatory but, then… blogging is my life!

What was clear from my overview perspective was that a successful business needs someone who knows the industry, someone who knows business, someone who can build software and someone to design. Then they need to listen to advice. One team in particular stubbornly refused to listen to the advice of the few educators there and failed because of it. And it’s worth noting that if you can’t present well, it doesn’t matter how good your idea is; conversely, if you can, it almost doesn’t matter how weak it is at the investment stage.

The best of the presentations was run like a classroom roleplay/demo of the product. Any ELT teacher could think of a hundred ways to jazz up the standard lockstep presentation format.

That’s what we do every day.

Anyone in ELT fits one or more of the essential start up team roles, yet only three of us were at the Start Up weekend. One of them had heard about it via his publisher and already earns a good living off his own EFL website and apps. The other heard about it through an entrepreneurial meet up group and came because “There’s no money in ELT.”

So many teachers already are entrepreneurs; teaching private students is running your own business. But it’s a very short sighted one. There’s a limit to how much you can earn when it all depends on how many hours you can physically be present.

There’s no money in ELT.

Get out of the bubble. Look for entrepreneur groups, hang out where developers are and bounce ideas off them, look where mainstream education is going and what educational needs are being discussed there.

The ELT bubble is a vacuum. Let some air in.






3 comments on “Cambridge Start Up Weekend – outside the ELT bubble

  1. Karenne
    May 30, 2014

    Hi Nicola,

    Came over from Eltjam, so thanks to them also.

    Your weekend sounds very interesting… I think you’re right about the “not understanding” what the Edtech start-up weekend is all about IS a key issue, and one of the reasons why I didn’t consider coming along…

    So, if you don’t mind, as this post doesn’t really answer those questions either, I’ll just go on ahead and ask the ones that come to my mind:

    What does it mean if your product is chosen?
    Do you get funded – to the tune of how much?
    Do the organisers keep the product and you just get a few pennies? Or, regarding your comment re Sugar, for example, is there an expectation that the organisers would get 50% of your company, for say, a mere 250k…(which to fund a business is peanuts in comparison to ownership)

    Also what happens to “ideas” that aren’t chosen – can ELTjam/Cambridge take one of these, later develop it and then keep all the profits, i.e. do you sign away your rights to your concept development for £65?

    Well…I hope these aren’t obnoxious questions, they’re just things I don’t really understand about these start-up weekends, which sound terribly exciting but as we all know so well ELT is filled with the “too good to be true” and the parasitic…and it makes us all a wee cautious!

    • Nicola
      May 30, 2014

      You’re absolutely right to ask all those things. I wondered too but didn’t write it since every start up event is different. So I can tell you what this one would mean for your questions.
      If your product is chosen you have won glory for the weekend. Any of those products can approach the Cambridge Accelerator programme but there was no funding or guarantee to be won at this event. I know other events like Hackathons where major funding and mentoring are part of the deal.
      We all get paranoid about our ideas being stolen by the organisers or judges but the truth is it takes hundreds of hours, hard work and commitment to turn that idea into a reality so there is nothing to steal. Especially if you yourself are going to take your new team and work on it, you’re much more able to suddenly accommodate this new product into your life plan. Think how long it takes a publisher to make a new product and put it in the publishing plan…no way they’re going to move on your idea.
      Companies approach and invest in start ups all the time. Getting their attention is the hard part. And this type of weekend could lead to an offer of investment. After that, take legal advice so you get the right deal and can’t be forced out.

  2. Karenne Sylvester
    June 2, 2014

    Thanks for your reply, very helpful!

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This entry was posted on May 27, 2014 by in Edtech, ELT.
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