Product & Company

How we won 50.000€ at the Telekom T-Challenge 2023

A retrospective and story of our unlikely journey to winning T-Challenge 2023 as the "Most Customer-Centric Solution".
The Prize for the "Most Customer-Centric Solution"
March 4, 2024

This is a retrospective of what turned out to be the starting moment of our startup Datapods. When we applied to T-Challenge, Datapods was an idea that we (Lukas, Finn, David and I) occasionally worked on in our spare time.
After winning, we took the plunge and started working on Datapods full time. Fast forward a year after the T-Challenge, Lukas and I have been working on our app for a few months, we are working with the most distinguished data law professor in Germany, Louisa Specht-Riemenschneider, and have secured 270k€ in funding.

Let's start at the beginning.

What even is T-Challenge?

The T-Challenge is an annual innovation competition hosted by Deutsche Telekom and T-Mobile US. Theres a different "theme" each year, when we applied the theme was around Web3 in telecommunications. Anyone, be it an individual, a company, a research group or anything else, can apply online.

The challenge works as follows:

  • First, there's an open application process. In our batch, there were almost 400 applications. Each application consists of a pitch deck presenting the idea and some information about the team.
  • Second, after review, the best applications are selected to move on to the development phase. In 2023, there were 18 chosen companies to advance.
  • Third, there is the so-called "development phase". This is a three-month period during which the teams work on their idea and bring it to life in some form. The goal is to have something presentable for the in-person demo and pitch.
  • Finally, there is the actual "Demo Day," where all teams convene at Deutsche Telekom headquarters in Bonn, Germany, to demo and pitch their ideas in an open forum. The jury, consisting of senior executives from both DT and TMUS, listens to each team's pitch and decides on the winners.

Last year, when we competed, there were a total of 6 prizes, 3 Grand Prizes of €100,000 each and then 3 Special Category Prizes of €50,000 each.

With that out of the way, let the story unfold.

We entered the T-Challenge with just an idea. We'd been toying with the concept of personal data wallets and data marketplaces for some time, so the rough idea of what Datapods would become was already born.

You can read our current vision and mission here.

The application process works by simply uploading a pitch deck.
I'd like to say that we spent many sleepless nights on our deck, but the reality is that we threw together a pitch deck in a day and went with that. This wasn't because we were lazy, but because we only found out about the T-Challenge about a week before the deadline and didn't immediately decide whether or not to enter.

Since we only spent part of a day on it, the pitch deck we uploaded wasn't perfect. It did a weak job of presenting our idea, and we even accidentally switched languages on some slides (the entire deck was in English, except for our team slide, which was in German).

Finally, 4 months after applying, we were selected as one of the top 18 teams to advance to the development phase. That's out of nearly 400 teams from around the world that applied.

This was in February 2023. The demo day would be in the middle of May.
So a little over 3 months to prepare for the demo should be easy enough, right?

Unfortunately, the development phase is where things got a bit rocky. As part of the program, each team was assigned a mentor to help bring their idea to life.

We were paired with a senior executive from T-Mobile US. Let's call him John.

Until now we only had contact with the organizers of the T-Challenge, two employees of the Deutsche Telekom AG from Bonn, these two were very chill easy-going organizers. They were just happy to do their job, and thus didn't really scrutinize our idea all that heavily, or at all actually.
I knew these types of people very well, having worked at Deutsche Telekom for 3 years during my studies. The headquarters in Bonn functioned almost like a government agency, slow, steady, and very focused on communication and compliance.

John was different. He was a deeply technical leader with a clear cut-the-bullshit attitude.
Up until that point, we were just cruising along with our nice idea and our pitch deck. But he saw through that, he saw that we were really just four guys with nothing to show for it but a big dream.

In reality, all we had was an incomplete website and some designs of how our product would work.
(The designs were the result of a $20 Fiverr gig, and all the designer had to work with were some hand-drawn sketches of what I thought might be a good interface).

This is what it looked like:

This is what happens when you have a backend engineer draw sketches and then pay some poor soul to convert them to figma.

Looking back, it was actually really good for us to be roasted by someone like John. We had 3 months until the demo and nothing to show for it. If we were going to have a serious chance of winning, we really needed that slap in the face to wake us up.

So we set 2 priorities for the demo & pitch at the finals:

  • We needed a working (ideally web-based) visual demo of what the product would look like to users. This had to be beautifully designed to make people gloss over the fact that there was no real functionality.
  • We needed a good-looking and, more importantly, concise presentation and pitch that we would deliver as our centerpiece on stage. Since I was the one holding the pitch, I'd be the one writing the copy.

With three months to go, we had none of that.

And since we all had full-time commitments between jobs, school, and life, we didn't really have much time to do it ourselves.

So we decided to double down on the magic that is Fiverr. The problem with this strategy was that getting people to work on your problems for you usually costs money. And as 4 students with an idea, we didn't exactly have a lot of money.

But there was one available, albeit small (for a company), amount of money we did have. A few months prior, my co-founder David applied to the HSG Entrepreneurial Talents Program, a startup incubator program of the University of St. Gallen, and as part of the program, we received 4000 CHF.

Okay, so we had three months and ~4k€ as a budget to produce a compelling demo and pitch, with no prior experience in design, pitches or frontend development. Easy Peasy, right?

So what was our plan?


Talk to experienced founders who have built products in short time frames? Recruit friends who are good at design and front-end to help us? Spend some money to get 2-3 sample designs from different freelancers and choose the best? Talk to the jury and our mentors to get some insight into what the jury really wants to see?

Or just blow half the budget on a single freelancer to design the entire application without ever having worked with them before, and just give them hand-drawn sketches of the application that we designed without much feedback at all?

...

You guessed right, of course we took the gamble. But only after sitting around for 2 months and not really accomplishing much that we could have presented. We spent those two months digging into the technical and legal components that would underpin our project.
Once we had a better grasp on that, we started the first gig to design our product at the very end of March, 1.5 months before the demo.

To really maximize our chances, the designer would need all the input he could get. So, of course, we sent our pitch deck that we had applied with, a link to our website, and a few hand-drawn sketches of what we thought the application should look like.

Yup, thats what we did. For reference, this is what our website looked like back then, while functional, it wasn't exactly well designed.

So we waited for 2 weeks for the first design to come in. And damn! Our guy delivered some quality. This is what he conjured up from just this hand drawn sketch:

Okay, this was something we could definitely work with. We now had a real design.

All we had to do was turn it into something the judges could actually interact with, which would be best done as a web application. But all my front-end experience boiled down to building crude Flask-based websites, and with the limited time we had, I couldn't just take the time to learn something like React to build this.

Our savior, of course, was once again Fiverr. We paid another freelancer, this time a front-end developer, a total of $896.42 to take the design and turn it into a deployable web application.
Again, many things could have gone wrong, and by the time we started the development process, it was mid-April. So we had absolutely no margin for error.

If this gig went wrong, we would probably have had about 2 weeks before the demo and no money left to try anything else.

But against all odds, the developer came through and delivered a great looking demo, and more importantly, a demo that was actually interactive enough for us to use at our booth on demo day. (And he only took a week, great guy)

If you want to check out the demo, it's still live here: demo.datapods.app

Okay, one goal down, we actually had something to show at our booth.

With 3 weeks to go, we finally focused on getting the technical architecture down and working on our pitch. Crucially, the pitch was only 5 minutes long, with 2-3 minutes of questions, and the judges would come to our booth for the demo **before** the pitch, so we didn't need to spend time explaining the idea or business model in the pitch itself, and could just focus on storytelling.

This was very much against the advice of our mentor john, who wanted us to focus on the technology and product. He told us to demonstrate that we could actually execute and build a product like this, which of course we didn't have any evidence to support.
In a move that proved correct, we completely ignored his advice and focused on storytelling.

As with any good story, we needed a villain. So naturally, the first slide of our pitch deck featured a large picture of none other than Mark Zuckerberg:

The goal of our pitch was to communicate the need for our idea, i.e. what problem we are solving, and how our solution would work in conjunction with the DT/TMUS product portfolio. We had to convince the jury that there was a real need for our solution and that Telekom would gain something by working with us. And all that in a 5-minute pitch.

This is the pitch deck we ended up with. I think it captures both the problem and the potential collaboration quite well, without being too overloaded with information.

The week before the pitch, we uploaded the deck. With the pitch deck in place, we were ready to go.

Demo Day

The day of the demo came, my co-founders Finn and David traveled to Bonn and we went to set up our booth.

And it went... absolutely flawlessly! The jury was immediately sold on the idea. In our second demo, Claudia Nemat, Board Member for Innovation and Technology at DT, even jumped in and explained how our business model works to her American colleagues. Armed with our visual demo and prepared with some great storytelling, we went out guns blazing.

Here's a picture of a part of the DT board of directors at our booth:

The next step would be the Pitch on Stage, and since we were the second team to pitch, I knew we really had to make a lasting impression to have a chance at the prize. There's a full video of the pitch if you're interested:

And that was it. After the pitch, the heavy lifting was done. All we could do was wait. We had about 3 hours to wait for the judges to decide on the winners, and the ceremony would take place later in the evening.

Of course, you already know what happened. In the end, we won the award for "Most customer-centric solution" and a prize of 50.000€. Here's the winning moment from the live stream:

Looking Back

In retrospect, our success in the T-Challenge was the result of a magical combination of good fortune and making the most of our limited resources. Without the prize money, we probably would not have had the resources to pursue Datapods full-time.

In a way, the prize actually enabled us to deliver on the promises we made in our pitch.
Now, about a year later, we've accomplished a lot: We've raised over 300k€ in total funding, we're working with the most renowned data law professor in Germany, and we're about to release the first version of our app.

If you're interested in being one of the first people to try out our app when it goes into beta, go ahead and sign up for our waiting list by clicking on the "Sign up" button at the top of this page.

If anyone stumbles across this blog post and is currently working on their own T-Challenge entry, feel free to drop me a line on LinkedIn, I'd be happy to help.

Best,
Jakob

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