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How to create a hype with next to nothing: How we turned an empty table and 500 folders into 200 inspired students @ InnoVasion

What a long yet inspiring day!

If you don’t want to read the story, check out a quick summary video below or here. Apologies for the shaky camera.

And here’s what some students thought of us:


Usually, those who are most successful don’t focus on what they have or don’t have – they focus on the unseen potential.

I had a terrible start to my day:

As a result, I arrived late @ InnoVasion and came to the VSEA table with Robin sitting tired and bored beside an empty table. Things weren’t looking much better.

I did a quick scan at the other booths and the students that were attending. Doing my initial rounds, I overheard many students moan about how boring things were, they weren’t really impressed by anything, but happy that they could skip a day of school

That was the last straw.

At this point, we could have just given up and gone through the motions of any trade-show: sit at our tables, answer questions, get students to sign up.

But we didn’t.

This is where lesson 0 comes into play. (called lesson 0 partly because of it’s importance and partly because I forgot to add it till 1 and 2 were written, haha)

There’s no doubt in my mind that without Robin & Winnie we could not have accomplished what we did.

After speaking with countless entrepreneurs, I’ve found a similar theme with successes: they have a good team.

Paul Graham gives two responses of entrepreneurs:

“You haven’t seen someone’s true colors unless you’ve worked with them on a startup.The reason character is so important is that it’s tested more severely than in most other situations.”

One founder said explicitly that the relationship between founders was more important than ability:

“I would rather cofound a startup with a friend than a stranger with higher output. Startups are so hard and emotional that the bonds and emotional and social support that come with friendship outweigh the extra output lost.”

I have worked with countless other team members where my energy and passion was simply drained. Any ideas I come up with, no matter how crazy or plausible, would usually be turned down.

If you’re in a team like that, take the advice of Yu-kai Chou, CEO & Co-Founder of “Get Out.”

He later explained to me that if your potential teammates or co-founders are the types that:

  • a) you don’t click well with
  • b) would rather apply for jobs and use this startup as a backup

you simply need to get out.

In the tough times ahead (and there will be many of them, Yu-Kai warned) they won’t stick by you.

Robin told me later how tired and unexcited he was to be there initially, but that my passion and energy really got him going. After that we just continued to play off of each other’s excitement.

That’s the kind of team you want.

Find a good team. It’ll be worth it in the long run and save you a world of headache (*or heartache, you never know).

To summarize, it was the team that brought this idea together. Here’s a paraphrase of our conversation and how the idea started.

  • I brought up a live stream, interviewing high school kids.
  • Robin thought, what about pitching live on the spot?
  • Winnie thought about buying chocolate bars, and using that as a prize. (later , we got them to even pitch those bars to us!)
  • Then we thought about competing students together.

The rest is, as they say, history.

Admittedly, we did not do this as well as we should have. And many times we found ourselves changing our “goals” slightly as we talked to different students.

Basically, in the end, they revolved around
a) getting students engaged & excited about entrepreneurship
b) helping students realize that innovation and creativity are essential skills for life
c) teaching students these concepts by letting them DO IT (not hear about it)

Know your goals. Make sure you’re working towards them with every decision you make.

More than once, I got sidetracked and wanted to add some “cool features” to the site (like let the online streamed videos loop for visitors to see, make them full screen, add the link the front page of, etc) but I needed to constantly remind myself to work towards the goals of that day.

Once you start building hype, people get excited and you risk doing things that, though they may be great features, don’t directly help you achieve what you set out to do.

But of course, remember that your goals can be clarified iteratively as you learn more about your customers & market (in this case, high school students)

When I told Robin how I wanted to do something unique and different to engage the students, he said: “We don’t have the resources or manpower!”

That was it!

It was like an epiphany.

I realized what all successful startups & underdogs realize in the face of overwhelming odds: No, we did not have the resources or manpower, but I challenged him: “What do we have?! Let’s use that to our advantage!”

This wasn’t my idea. I was inspired by both Dominic Or’s talk on“Competing with Giants: It’s All about Speedat Stanford as well as Tina Seelig’s challenge in her book, “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20” to see all problems, big or small, as opportunities.

But what an empowering idea that is! You’re not limited by your meagre resources – any problem, no matter how small or big, can be turned into an opportunity!

I actually had the same attitude as Robin earlier.  But let’s be honest, anyone can make an excuse. Negativity and pessimism are base human instincts. It’s easy to say what’s wrong with your situation. What’s rare & difficult, and what builds energy in a team, is a positive attitude that’s able to say: “but here’s a creative & innovative way we can solve this problem.”

I met an amazing 3rd year double-major commerce and computer science student, who was also on exec of 5 clubs at UBC named Nader. We got to talking about this and he told me:

“I’m sick of hearing people make excuses and tell me they don’t have time. I’m an executive on 5 clubs taking a double-major and I still found time to come out today.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.


This point was definitely one of the keys to our success.

In other words: don’t try and copy big companies with their resources. Figure out what limited resources your team has, find out what your strengths are, and merge those in a way no other team has!

What did our team have that morning?


What does one do with 500 nice silver-gray folders that were printed on the wrong side? (they opened the opposite way than how normal, north american folders are opened)

The average answer would be to beg people to help us get rid of them.

All the other booths had great stands, pamphlets, and amazing aesthetics. We had 500 folders printed on the wrong side. How were we creative?

a) We made a curved display out of them:

b) We started advertising them to students with these “appealing” and almost laughable features:
– aesthetically pleasing to the eye
– unlike any folder your friends will have
– a folder that locks (because people will try to open it normally, by trying to open the folder on the right side, and it will not open! haha)

Our “lockable” folders actually became a hit and we even had students coming to our booths asking us if they could have one!! Who would have thought?

c) We cut out lettering in our folders to advertise using a good design:

I had experience streaming my iPhone live and we used that to our advantage. We knew students would love to be online, especially live, and it would help us build hype and remember the events!

We also wanted to show the students using my laptop and we needed internet. Enter Robin’s iPhone to stream/tether so students could actually see themselves online as well!


Don’t be afraid to learn while doing. This is oftentimes the most effective and fastest way to learn!

A good friend of mine and entrepreneur, Mack Flavelle, told me his greatest advice to young entrepreneurs:

“Fail fast and fail often”

To build off of Domnic Or’s talk at Stanford, startups & budding young entrepreneurs must user their speed and nimbleness to their advantage. Imagine you start to cross a “bridge of opportunity”, if it starts collapsing your team must be quick enough to pull out and try another bridge asap. This is what Mack was eluding to. Failing fast and often.

However, if you invested so much time and energy into a bridge and it does collapse, you are either a) dead or b) at the bottom of a deep valley or stream, injured, discouraged, brokenhearted, with no real motivation to climb back up and try another bridge. Though admittedly, if you’re not too injured, you can climb over to the other side, but we won’t go there.

We tried many ideas, and quickly stopped them if they weren’t successful. This allowed us to innovate very quickly.

1. Giving folders out for free, and “selling” them with the features above. Not too effective though some became interested.

2. Engaging a real entrepreneur to do a “quick pitch” in front of our booth. Got a crowd for sure.

3. Engaging students one-on-one to do “pitches” for objects. Not enough buzz. Though effective. (see pitches @ 1:01 time left)

4. Engaging two individual students to compete against each other for chocolate bars. Chocolate = excellent idea. We didn’t have a big enough crowd, and the quality of the presentations wasn’t as high as we’d like. (see pitches @ 1:43 time left)

5. Engaging multiple schools, with individual representatives. Schools would then cheer their own and build off of each other’s energy. Finding an official judge (thanks to Darren Frew from Vancouver Entrepreneurs Toastmasters Club) who could articulate clearly what the students did well and didn’t do well. Students could also learn what they could have done better to improve as well as get encouragement for doing things well. This was one of the funniest pitches and starts at 3:34 time left.

6. We wanted students to engage their creativity. “think outside the box” we told them – you have 30 seconds to convince the judge. Some students even sang a tune and worked brought the team in at the end. We also engaged some friendly competition between the schools at the beginning, while also raising awareness of VSEA. This is also when we realized sound quality was a problem, so Robin actually held my iPhone headset mic towards their mouths. (didn’t work for the first guy @ 2:30 time left)

If we had more time, we would have kept innovating. We had just bought new speakers and were planning on paying $15 for WiFi at the VCC, and use Robin’s iPhone as wireless microphone to amplify and project everyone’s voices… Would have been sweet! 😉


If we ever do this again (and we will), here are some improvements we could benefit from. Most of them revolve around better planning.

1. More visibility.
We should have gone up to the stage, to quickly announce to students the competition we were holding. And raise more visibility. The students we impacted definitely appreciated it, but we found many who did not even hear what we were doing!
3. Better sound
iPhone microphone: enough said.
No one could hear us. So Winnie ran to buy speakers @ London Drugs – of course, she got back and the students had left, but darn that would have been great at the beginning. We also would have benefited from being able to connect a microphone to those speakers so more people could hear the pitches.
4. Better quality
A better quality video camera than my iPhone: enough said. No reason for people to watch shaky, bad video quality camera. No fun in that. Next time we go DIY steadycam like this $14 one or this one
5. A technical guy
We wanted to embed it to the front page of right away instead of going to But I had to run the camera, MC, find people, as well as get it working over in the first time, that I had no time! Imagine if we had a technical guy running all that
6. Better social media
We didn’t leverage our twitter followers to help and take part! That’s also because we don’t have a twitter account. brutal.

Don’t wait to be told, just go and try it out for yourself! Need more help & guidance? Check out or for links and guidance. Tell us how you do as well!

Any other tips? Comments or suggestions? Would love to hear them in the comments below!



Jon Chui (pronounced "chew") has been building iOS/Android apps for the last 7 years, the last 3 working on Google Maps, Inbox by Gmail and Google's Search App. Though he grew up in a Christian family and to parents who would end up giving up their 25 years of hard-earned comforts/affluence in Canada to go back to China as missionaries when he was 14, being a Christian was always in his head, and he would constantly struggle with trying to unify the sacred and the secular - until last year. However, through a radical transformation[] @ work last year (which he can't take ANY credit for), he & his wife & 2 young boys have decided to leave Google, sell/donate everything they have so to serve the poor & marginalized with Jesus’ love as missionaries with's Family DTS in Kona, hawaii then to the Philippines. Read more about their family journey @, and reach out to him @ If you're a recruiter with freelance jobs or have tech projects for jon feel free to reach out to him -

One thought on “How to create a hype with next to nothing: How we turned an empty table and 500 folders into 200 inspired students @ InnoVasion

  1. It was an entertaining experience at Innovasion 2009. Was expecting a little more entrepreneurs but I guess they were all working. On the flip side, it was heavily attended by students. The key attraction was the key speakers besides seeing a hype being constructed from scratch by Jon. The tailored market segment for this event is towards students and youth in high schools.

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