Top Application Questions
“The President’s Innovation Challenge application can be intimidating – but we don’t want it to be. We want to hear people’s ideas and solutions – both big and small – to the problems they see in the world,” says Howard Kaplan, Director of Advising and Technology at the Harvard Innovation Labs (and one of the President’s Innovation Challenge application judges). Here, he answers the most common application questions as the January 2 deadline approaches.
1. Is my idea good enough?
“If you’re serious about driving the venture forward, and actually want your idea to come to fruition, then you have no reason not to apply,” says Kaplan.
“It’s OK if there are holes in your thinking,” he stresses. “We get incomplete ideas all the time. We can handle it. What we want to see is not that you have all the answers, but that you have the questions and realize that it’s your job to answer them over time.”
What if you’re still not sure whether your idea is worthy? Or if you can’t imagine winning the Grand Prize in May but are still passionate and serious about your concept? Remember the Ingenuity Awards – and the fact that, above all, this process is an opportunity to test your idea sooner rather than later.
“This is the first step on a journey, not the last step toward securing funding,” Kaplan says. “Even though $75,000 makes a huge impact, the money is not what’s most important. What’s far more valuable is that if you get involved in our programs, and you’ll have 12 weeks to improve your idea.”
The bottom line: going through the application process itself will push you ahead in your thinking. Why not you give your idea the benefit of the doubt?
2. I have a few days left before the deadline – what should I do?
Whether you have a week or a day left, the answer is the same: “Validate, validate, validate,” Kaplan says. “Get out there and talk to people about your plan. Test the market. Find out what still needs more thought.”
You might think that your idea is brilliant and be reluctant to share it. Or you might question whether it’s worth sharing at all. Either way, the only way to get from an idea to a viable venture is to question, learn and iterate.
“If we get an application that says, ‘This is my plan’ versus an application that says, ‘This was my plan, but I talked to some people and know I need to change these things because of their feedback,’ the second application is always going to be the stronger one,” he adds. “And that’s not because the idea has been shaped, because the customer
feedback may be wrong, but because almost all successful ventures are executing a variation or evolution of their initial idea. What we’re looking for is founders who will be open, curious, and unafraid of the truth – not ones that assume they have all the answers.”
The more you can do to talk to the market before the January 2 deadline, the better. “Get out there and talk to customers, competitors, influencers – anyone you can,” says Kaplan. “If you have just a couple of days left, go talk to people at Starbucks, or get on LinkedIN, make a list of relevant contacts, and email them your one-paragraph value proposition with the simple question: Does this idea hold water?’”
3.Which questions matter most?
“We want to know your traction,” says Kaplan. “This doesn’t mean you need to have paying customers. But we do want to know that you’ve made an effort to gauge the market interest in your idea.”
What process have you used to get your venture to the stage that it’s at? “This does not need to be an exact framework that you read about,” Kaplan adds. “This is a chance to show your thoughtfulness and explain the process that’s gotten you from day one to the present.”
4. What if my team is incomplete?
“The reason to apply is so we know who you are, because chances are someone is doing something similar in a similar space, and the more we know about you the more helpful we can be in connecting you,” says Kaplan.
Acknowledge the missing pieces in your application – but don’t let them stop you from getting your idea in the game.
5. Do I need to make a video?
While a video is not a required part of the application, it’s in your best interest to submit one. “We don’t care about production quality,” says Howard Kaplan. “What we want to see is your passion for your idea. We want to see your eyes light up as you discuss its story and potential.”
So prop that smartphone up on the table, hit record, and tell your story of what makes you uniquely qualified to solve the problem you see – and why it matters.
Also: Wear a shirt. (Yes, this is based on past experience.) And be aware of what’s behind you. (Ditto.)
For more Frequently Asked Questions, click here.