You could boil it down to several things: Competition. Nerves. Imposter syndrome.

But never in a million years would we have expected this.

The lack of fanfare caught us off guard. It was a few heartbeats before we – four Malaysians, one Indonesian – registered that we were, in fact, Team Singapore.

And then it was complete pandemonium: hugging, screaming (“WHAT!!?!” for me, over and over), and an absurd amount of camera flashes. I remember my legs moving towards the stage on their own volition, my face still numb from the shock. Once on stage, we were presented with winter jackets; dinosaur trophies; a massive cardboard sign.

“$100,000,” it read in bright yellow letters. “WHAT!!?!” I screamed in response.

Five internal briefings, three interviews, countless of congratulations, and one teary phone call to my mom later, it was finally starting to sink in.

We were the MasterCard Masters of Code.

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What in the actual eff?

MasterCard sees itself as a technology company, and rightfully so – their commitment to innovation in commerce is awe-inspiring. Masters of Code is a result of that commitment, gathering developers from all over the world in a series of regional hackathons to build the next generation of financial tech applications.

Winning the Southeast Asian leg felt like a lucky break. We’d met at a coding bootcamp just three weeks prior, for god’s sake. We took a free bus down to Singapore, and walked away with a free trip to Silicon Valley.

But the Grand Finale? Well, that was a whole different ball-game.

12 cities. 3,067 attendees. $100,000 in cash prizes. 1 winner.

What were the odds that would be us?

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Dream team! (L-R: Leo, Jay, me, Daniel, Kean)

We didn’t have any form of special preparation. Heck, MasterCard announced the theme of the hackathon one week before the boys were due to fly out. Our team had to navigate two time-zones – San Francisco’s and Malaysia’s. We couldn’t even hop on a group Skype call.

For all the things that went wrong, though, there were a few we did irrevocably right.

I’d love to share them with you today. 🙂

Think inside the box

One of the first ways Masters of Code was different from any other hackathon I’ve been to is their focus on starting a ‘Real Business’.

“Now wait a minute, Gwen,” you pipe up. “Isn’t that the goal for ALL hackathons?”

Not necessarily. There are tons of epic student-led hackathons in the U.S. (and beyond!) that are committed to the exploration of brand-spankin’-new technologies. Winners are judged on creativity and novelty, not market viability. This is where MasterCard differed.

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For the Grand Finale, they gave us two themes to choose from: Social Good and The Next Big Thing. Looking at this, you can already see how the TNBT track would’ve been hard. Brand-spankin’-new tech already exists — it just hasn’t been brought to market. How was anyone going to do that effectively in 24 hours?

Talk all you want about the box, but sometimes, constraints are necessary for good design.

Play to your strengths

Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we have always had to tread the fine line between Eastern conservatism and Western consumerism. We’d speak English with our peers and Mandarin with our parents. Sit in traditional coffee shops and read on our Kindles. Sip Glenmorangie from ceramic tea cups. The dichotomies never end.

An unfortunate side effect of this tightrope walk is that we never really know our place in the world. Too traditional to be cosmopolitan; too worldly to be otherwise. It’s imposter syndrome at its best – playing grown-up at the adult table and hoping no one will notice.

Little did we know that very dichotomy would give us the edge we needed to succeed.

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Self-fulfilling to-do list

Southeast Asia is a region that’s ripe for disruption. Where else can you find problems so diverse that exist at such scale? Where the lines between classes are so blurred that you can sit down for a meal in the same space as a man five socioeconomic levels below you?

In fact, it was a casual everyday conversation between Daniel and his maid that served as the inspiration for our winning idea.

Think globally, act locally

My team and I were fortunate to have been raised in middle-class families and exposed to Western ideals from a young age. Based on this, we were able to develop our own unique sense of right and wrong; to understand when something desperately needed fixing.

Human rights isn’t anything new, but we were able to contextualize it for a local problem: maids. We saw them around people’s homes; met them at playdates; even grew up with them. They are one of the world’s biggest contributors to global remittances – a $200B market – but they also rake in the highest numbers for nonpayment, neglect and abuse. Because they are often kept behind closed doors, word rarely gets out before it’s too late.

It was an issue that hit a little too close to home – exactly why we wanted to solve it.

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MoneyRemaid is a software as a service (SaaS) for maid agencies to safeguard the rights of the 300,000 foreign domestic helpers they bring into the country. Through our platform, maids would have access to three things that were once out of their grasp: guaranteed salaries, financial education, and reduced remittance rates of up to 60%.

But maids are just the beginning. Think of all other foreign laborers who could benefit from this service. In Malaysia. In Southeast Asia. In the world.

The possibilities truly are endless.

Stick to your guns

In the Masters of Code hackathons, there’s the issue of not-so-secret secret APIs.

The big unspoken rule is that you should do your best to use them, otherwise you will lose out on an indefinite amount of points. Because of this, a lot of teams pivoted; some even going so far as to change their entire idea.

Another spoken rule? Your idea had to be a viable business. How were you supposed to validate it, get paying customers and come up with a revenue strategy in 24 hours?!

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Short answer: You can’t.

Once you identify a problem, be respectful of it. Don’t treat it like a means to an end – it is glaringly obvious when you’re retrofitting ideas to technology. The secret APIs MasterCard announced had absolutely NOTHING to do with our product.

What did we do then? Exactly that – nothing!

There was no reason for us to argue, pivot and freak out for the sake of a few extra points. We believed in our idea, and we were loyal to it. That paid off.

Do your homework (seriously)

Maybe it was our good fortune that we had an ex-consultant on the team, but our market research — and subsequent executive summary — were flawless. (Thanks, Dan!)

The devs also played their part, bugging the API guys to no end with questions like, “You’re sure your payment gateway will work in these countries, right?”

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Our first (and last) team meeting before the Big Day

Don’t discount the importance of due diligence. Remember, your app has to WORK in real life. What use is a functioning sandbox if the judges wanna know if your app is revved up and ready to go? Or a kick-ass demo if no one knows how to field the judges’ questions?

70% of the work really is done before the hackathon, and I’m so thankful I have a team who understands that… (And who collaboratively replies the judges’ comments on Hackathon.io when we do screw Q&A up!).

Keep the team diverse

I can’t count the number of times people have asked me: “Should I join a hackathon even if I don’t know how to code?”

My answer: YES. Yes yes yes. A million times yes.

Back in March when we joined Masters of Code Singapore, only Jay had a solid back-end background. Leo was an aspiring front-end developer, and Kean, Daniel and I were just three weeks into NEXT Academy (a Ruby on Rails bootcamp).

What we lacked in technical skills, however, we made up for in project management, product design, pitching and industry expertise.

Never forget the importance of a business or product person. As important as developers are, you need stats, words and an phenomenal user experience to back your claims up. Might as well embrace that diversity. 😉

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Taking time out to hang with Eric Ries #nobiggie

For every argument our team had, we probably experienced twice the laughter. I’d almost forgotten how much I enjoyed working with these boys: the inside jokes, the unspoken trust, the seamless delegation.

Sure, sometimes there were disagreements, but we always rose above it. Putting each other first. Supporting each other’s decisions. Having a grand ole time.

Look what that got us:

A picture with Lean Startup founder Eric Ries, for one.

And a $100,000 grand prize. 🙂

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I can’t claim to know what the real cincher was. There were probably a hundred different factors that influenced the judges’ decisions that day. What I do know, is that when it all comes down to it, you can’t go wrong with a great Product, Pitch and People – three things I’m proud to say we had.

Final words of advice?

Be proud of your country. Embrace the icky, wacky idiosyncrasies that make home, home. If we weren’t, we would’ve never paid attention – and we wouldn’t have won.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we need to figure out those gosh-darned U.S. tax laws. 😛

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