Story of how Heelies won the first Garage48 Hardware and Arts: “Don’t even breath on it until we get the pitch done!”

Seren Eilmann, life-long heel-wearer and aspiring wantrepreneur working in Tartu Science Park, came to Garage48 Hardware and Arts hackathon with a dream: to solve the mismatch between shoes and feet that cause pain of wearing high heels -  problem every woman is familiar but men can’t so easily sympathize with. In this guest post she shares the challenging journey of turning one idea to having a team, prototype and lot’s of ambition to fuel the future.

Having only 90 seconds on stage on Friday, Seren needed first to convince the communities of engineers and design consisting mostly of men that pain of wearing heels is a real problem which needs a solution. And then - IF there’s a team to work with - survive the emotional rollercoaster of what trying to design and prototype something so ambitious in less than 48 hours really means.

Seren did just that. Team Heelies delivered jaw-dropping presentation on Sunday (literally - you could hear crowd awe when Seren stepped into the shoes to show how pressure on the soles is measured real-time, on the screen) and won the competition. The demonstration went perfectly, but the road leading up to that defining moment wasn’t smooth at all. In fact, it was far from effortless. Here’s how Seren tells the story.

6:57 pm on Friday evening: it’s my time to pitch now? 

Sitting among the crowd of engineers, programmers and other techy people, mostly male. Well… this is going to be difficult. Sure, I’ve practiced my pitch, validated it among men and women, techy and non-techy, but what I’ve learned so far is - I need more time to get my idea across.

It takes around 5 minutes to explain to a man what insoles are and how they can help make life better. Another 5 to have a personal connection: “Ah, yes, my mother’s feet have the same issue” or “Oh, right, my son also needs to wear orthopedic insoles”.

Here I have 90 seconds. The best I can hope for is a traditional feedback of: “Don’t buy high heels then!” which is about the same as to be telling a fishing enthusiast who’s complaining about a lousy catch, that you saw salmon fillet on sale in Rimi yesterday.

Heels make women feel beautiful and powerful. So there’s really no point in trying to change how we act now, is there? Let’s make wearing them easier instead.

Oh, is it my turn to pitch already?

4:27 am on Saturday morning: the first attempts

One word: excitement! Think we just had a breakthrough.

The first night was long starting from slightly stressful hour of team formation - which was as hard as expected, but not as easy as I hoped for.

There were girls, connecting with the pain instantly, and guys looking at me with blank eyes, wondering what the hell am I trying to achieve here. Or yes, the polite ones did say it’s an “interesting” idea, but it’s just that another idea of producing snowflakes or making teddy bears talk tickles their fancy more.

But I managed, I got a team. The long night of brainstorming taught me a lot about team dynamics. We had a long search for the answer, some miserable fails, a few non-satisfactory solutions and a feeling of hopelessness when I sensed there was no sparkle. The focus had somehow shifted to cutting corners: the 3D scanning solution we were aiming for just did not work, no matter how hard we tried.

As we were about to call it a night, we had a sudden flash of inspiration to search elsewhere. Other ways, other methods: let’s skip the damn scanning and measure from inside! Let’s use the knowledge we have the way it works! Let’s use materials that are so over the board it could actually work! I mean - really… mixing silicone with graphite from pencils!? Whoa! Too genius? There was only one way to find out.

Guys ran for more equipment, we measured every material we could get our hands on at that hour, mixed some own and had new ideas emerging every minute. Pure magic! That was the moment we really formed a team - bunch of people with the same goal and thrive to succeed.

9:02 am on Sunday morning: half a day left

I had a good, solid 6-hour sleep that was well needed after only 2 hours the previous night. Sleep probably wouldn’t have been as good if I had known that only moments after I left our room on the 4th floor the night before, guys managed to short-circuit the damn electronics in insoles that we had spent the whole day putting together.

“No worries,” said Toomas behind the breakfast table, eating cinnamon rolls and drinking coffee, looking kind of tired, “new parts will be here in half an hour, replacing takes an hour max and we will be all ready and tested by the second pitching session.”

There’s hope.

7:20 pm on Sunday evening: it’s going to work... right?

The day of the presentations was an emotional rollercoaster. Guys sticked to their story while we did the morning checkpoint with mentors. And the first pitching session after that. Even lunch went by without seeing the insoles work. 

Second pitching session was simulated with the first ugly-ish prototype and clear idea of how we are going to present if it works. IF. It still didn’t work and we had only 2 hours left until the big show. There was progress - getting bluetooth to function via mobile phone. And then there were setbacks - the visualization code didn’t work. Just. Did. Not. Work. Gosh! I have only biggest respect towards our team who maintained their nerves and did not freak out.

We got the prototype working only 10 minutes before final pitches started. And it was beautiful. It was everything I expected. It was so totally cool and amazing I was about to jump around and clap hands like I was a little, happy kid. Surely I felt like one and I wasn’t alone. :) 

I went to the auditorium, well prepared and ready to… wait… no? Noooo! The room was so packed with people and portable devices that mobile was having hard time connecting to the computer. Real-time picture lagged more than 10 seconds. That was not good enough!

Feaverish discussions, attempts, trial and error, but still no good. Someone came up with an idea to connect the mobile with USB, so we borrowed one from people around, plugged it to computer… and the program crashed! Just 5 minutes before I was supposed to go on the stage. 

My face turned white, opposite to guys who were red all over. The minute it took computer to restart lasted forever, but it got up and running again eventually. “Please don’t touch it, don’t tilt it, don’t even breath on it until we get the pitch done,” I heard myself begging. 

And so, off the stage I went.

3:47 pm on Sunday afternoon: one week later

It has been an incredible week that feels like a month. There are lots of people asking us what’s next? My answer is: we’re not going for anything less than what Sara Blakely did with Spanx - redefined the whole industry of shaping underwear. We want to redefine shoe industry, reshape how people feel about themselves - make insoles for people, not for orthopedists. And thus make the world a tiny bit better place. Sure, we can fail. But then again - I’d rather fail an attempt than succeed a surrender.

I certainly got what I came for at the Garage48 hackathon: the team, validation, media attention. Thank you, Piret-Klea, Toomas, Eero and Karl Aleksander for making it happen! Truth be told, I made my mind before the event that I will ditch the idea if I am not able to get a team behind it. Now there is a team. There are many ideas how to make it happen. There is a will. And one more important thing - there’s ambition. I believe we have all that’s important. :)

Epilogue: lessons learned

One might ask - what did I learn during the process? Was it only a fun way to build a team? Surely not; and I’ve got a few pieces in my mind to share with future hackathonists.

First of all: there is no such thing as a silly idea. Even if it’s a niche nobody knew existed. Even if it has been done before. And definitely even if you do not believe in your idea as much as you should. Find your inner cheerleader to boost the motivation and go for it!

Second: prepare your pitch. The pitch is not only about getting team together - a good preparation and several pitch versions will help you a lot during the whole weekend. For instance - that time early Saturday morning when you have had your first sleepless night and organizers ask for the intro of the project. Saying honestly - I just froze. We had so much going on that putting together a readable sentence seemed mission impossible. Re-use, re-phrase, re-think - this will give you marketing power. Trust me, you are going to need every shortcut you can find along the way.

And finally - don’t overdo it. Hours are limited and despite the pink-ish dreams of what the idea is going to be in all of its greatness, you really should be realistic about what can be done during one weekend. This means choosing. Yes, we made some heart-breaking decisions ourselves. Did I mention guys joined our team mainly because 3D-printing seemed so damn cool? That was the essence of the idea - to 3D-print insoles. Reality check: we were one of few teams (if not the only) that did not use those awesome machines. We’re still in tears… The decision was to focus on delivering one part and then, when enough time, try the rest. But time - that is one precious thing during Garage48. You really-really need to take good care of it.

This was my 10 cents worth on how to survive a hackathon. If you have an idea, that no-one can help you with, you should go to the Garage48 weekend. After all - this can be a whole new beginning for the idea that’s been itching in the back of your head for months.

If you liked Seren's story, find team Heelies in Facebook to show support. You can also see her talk about Heelies in Estonian morning show Terevisioon (in Estonian), 
read more about the Garage48 Hardware and Arts 2014 or find the next event happening near you.