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The Asia Pacific ICT Awards – To Bangkok, Pattaya and beyond – The Journey begins

Considering the last time I boarded Emirates the check in counter had closed, janitors were sweeping the floor and the flight had less than 30 minutes to take off, this evening I am in the lounge a full 90 minutes before scheduled departure time.  Certainly a personal best in over eleven years of flying as a frequent flier.

The day is also interesting. It is only when you get to the airport and you are done with the formalities do you realize how much are you leaving behind. Even more so on Eid evenings, in Ramadan and on birthdays.  Fawzia, Ammi, Abba and kids. The younglings are now old enough to ask why I can’t find work in the city and the reason why I really have to travel so much.

While the rest of our nation is busy celebrating (and digesting) the feast of forgiveness, sacrifice and prayers that follows Hajj, a few hardy souls are making their way across four cities to put our best foot forward at the Asia Pacific ICT Awards.

Then there are old friends and fellow judges.  Competitions we have judged and won together, in Singapore and Indonesia. Who will not be joining us this year in Thailand. Friends like Imran Zia who made such a mark in his first year as a judge and a mentor that we still rely on him to guide our teams from Islamabad and Lahore every year for every competition; friends like Sultan Humdani, whose dark secrets are forever sealed in the ballrooms of Hangzhou, Shanghai and Dalian.  We shared the  search for one thousands islands off the coast of Jakarta; late hours polishing rough pitches; the dream for our teams to do well and get noticed in the region.

You wonder, if this chubby 40 year old, is ever going to get to the point.

Like all things worthwhile this journey didn’t start earlier this evening when I landed at the Emirates check in counter. It started six and a half year ago at the same airport with a similar late night flight.  The roles were reversed, I was travelling with six fellow Alchemists as a contestant, not as a judge. We were travelling to Thailand but rather than head towards Pattaya we were heading towards Chiang Mai. The common denominator was the event – The Asia Pacific ICT Awards; and the Economy Coordinator – Jehan Ara, the President of [email protected]

As Jehan would tell you, we were very confident about our chances, the quality of our pitch and our presentation and when we lost and didn’t show up on the winners list it broke our collective hearts. She was there on the same table with us in Chiang Mai and saw expectations transition to hope; hope turn into disbelief; disbelief into despair. When we came back home we started chatting about what we could do to help improve the chances for our member companies and why economies like Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore did so well at the event.  It wasn’t rocket science. It was  a game of numbers, preparation and answering the right questions.  Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore did well because they brought more companies to the event and they prepared them well.  They brought more judges so that the economies could understand what winning companies and entries looked like and could do a better job of picking, mentoring and presenting the right candidates at the event from their country

If we were to move up the ladder of medal tallies we had to do the same.  We had to bring a bigger delegation, start the selection and mentoring process early and ensure that our companies not just took the competition seriously but also took out the time to prepare for it.  Thailand was followed by Macau where we first  put some of these lessons to work and failed. It wasn’t that the delegation wasn’t large enough or we didn’t prepare and prep them it was just too soon after Chiang Mai and we had a lot to learn. Next year it was Singapore. We grilled our companies and put them through the grinder; the tally improved by a bit and  we made an impression.  But it was in Indonesia the year after when it all came together. Three entries from our delegation – Kraysis, Pixsense and TPS – picked up gold. I stood by the stage and cried and I am sure there were others that night that shared the same emotion.

I missed Australia in 2009. But Zayd Enam, the 17 year old sensation in the secondary student category and Mindstorm studios, the team behind Cricket Revolution didn’t.  Zayd hit APICTA with the commitment of a fire and forget missile and for the first time showed what happens when preparation and a good pitch meet opportunity. Between him, Adnan Agboatwala of Pixsense and Shahzad Shahid at TPS we were getting a good sense of the formula that worked; of pitches and teams that had a shot at winning and those that didn’t.

The formula that worked was simple. As we had suspected in Macau and Singapore, it wasn’t rocket science. Pick a good product idea that deserves to win. Pick a team that wants to win and is willing to put in the effort required. Pair them with a mentor who has either judged or pitched at APICTA. Review their presentations and get through at least two iterations before you hit the airport. When you land at the venue, book a conference room for two nights. Lock nominees and judges together till 2 am in the morning and don’t let any contestant sleep till their mentor is happy with flow and the slide deck. Repeat if necessary.

With Petrsonas Towers as our backdrop we almost pulled a coup at KLCC in Kula Lumpur in 2010. Our teams picked up seven silvers and the event didn’t go noticed at the Exco and the Head Judges meeting.  In some categories the difference between the winners and the silvers was just a notch. And that really bothered us as coordinators and judges behind the delegation.  It showed that while our ideas were just as good as our friends from the region there was still that last bit of perfection left in our pitches; the final touch that means the difference between bringing home a trophy versus a certificate.

We had to figure out a better and more efficient mechanism for bringing our companies up to speed; pushing them harder and faster than they had ever been pushed before; cajoling them, abusing them, complimenting them but most importantly driving them all the way upto the edge so that when they finally walked out of the presentation rooms on 9th and 10th November, they would remember it as the pitch of their life.

Every year there would be someone who would walk in the shoes of Zayd Enam, Adnan Agboatwala, Shahzad Shahid and the wizards (Jadogars) from Kraysis (now Kualitatem). These crazy nominees wouldn’t stop pitching, presenting, rewriting the perfect pitch; rather than driving themselves to the edge, they would drive mentors and judges into hiding. But the sad part was that a large number of our delegation would only get to see their pitches in the final stretch; the day before the event when we would lock everyone in the conference room at the executive floor.

So this year we tried a number of new  ingredients. The first ingredient was the [email protected] e-learning course on pitching for startups. We did a 3 hour pitching course followed by a 55 minute Pitching case studies lecture. Delivered remotely, online directly to your browser window.

The second change was the mandatory YouTube pitch. While [email protected] ICT awards required an optional YouTube presentation once you were nominated to represent us at the Asia Pacific ICT Awards you were required to submit at least two iteration of your dry run presentation.

The third element was brining mentors and judges into the picture after the first presentation was done. Three rounds of mentoring were held in three cities followed by a free for all.

The YouTube pitches made it possible for some of the frequent flying judges to pitch in with their comments and suggestions literally from their aircraft seats.  If you thought being a Karachi company would save you from the wrath of Imran Zia in Islamabad – guess again.  As pitches came in they were dissected, commented on, shared across the mentoring network and redone. Today despite being Eid, Imran, Jehan and myself were reviewing and commenting  as early as sun up. My first comments went out before the Eid Namaz, my last just before I left home for the airport. In between it was a juggle between my one day at home, the family invitation for lunch, visitors and a little time with family.  While I write this note from my aisle seat on the Emirate A-340, Badar and Zafar will be picking up the mantle tomorrow morning in Pattaya.

The last and final tweak was to share the best pitch of the lot with the nominees who had already submitted their YouTube presentations as soon as it was ready. This year the best pitch and presentation was shared 48 hours before D-day – Day one of judging.

While it appears unbelievable and a feat that had never been accomplished before, this year before we land in Thailand, before we check in to our hotel rooms, before we even unpack, most participants from our delegation would have gone through atleast one cycle of rewrite and mentoring.  One crazy group has done five, the most common number is two.

It will make our job over the next two days a little easier as we wrestle with judging schedules, time, jetlag and sleep to put the last finishing touches to our pitches.

Oh and if you are wondering how come you haven’t received a copy of the best pitch of the year to come through our delegation this year despite burning the midnight oil in three time zones, there are only two possible reasons why.

a) You have either not completed your homework of submitting the one mandatory rewrite or,

b) You were it. Yup, you know  who you are, you were the best pitch.

So while the hard work is in and it took 6.5 half years to come together, as is the case with most competitions, it is too early to call it.  The next two days of judging will determine if everything we have done so far and this year will be enough.

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