Meet Sam Hirsch: Mind Riot Alumnus and Entrepreneur

Sam Hirsch is the founder of CleanFare, a mobile app that uses gamification to encourage users to take public transit. Sam originally developed the concept at Mind Riot in 2015, and continued developing his entrepreneurial skills in Idea Factory.  Using these programs as a springboard, Sam went on to win the Utah High School Entrepreneur Challenge and Innovation Idol, raising over $10,000.00 in funding and support services to launch the first version of his app and secure strategic partnerships.  “Mind Riot was a pretty big turning point in my life,” says Sam. “It was where I realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur and…has led to a lot of amazing opportunities for me.”


Sam Hirsch’s Speech for Mind Riot 2017

Hey everyone, my name is Sam Hirsch, I’m a local entrepreneur and recent high school graduate. I’ve participated in Mind Riot twice, over the last few years. Mind Riot was my first experience in the entrepreneurial world, and I quickly fell in love with it. My first time competing, my group actually won one of the awards, but we never ended up doing anything with our idea. My second time, however, I got really excited about our project. Our idea was to create a mobile app that tracks an individual’s use of public transportation and rewards them with points and discounts to local businesses. I remember, we created a prototype and I visited a couple businesses to see if they would be willing to offer discounts through our app. I was very excited to present it, and I was hopeful about our chances in the competition. We got up and gave our presentation and, in the end, didn’t win anything.

For a while that was it. I didn’t do any more work on the project that whole summer. But I kept thinking about it. When the summer ended, I got an internship at Sustainable Startups to learn more about entrepreneurship, I started a computer science course at school to get better at programming, and I started working on the idea again. To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing. This was my first time making an app, and really my first time coding anything outside of websites or basic programs. I just kind of messed around. I first built a UI that had a couple buttons that didn’t actually do anything. I was ecstatic with every tiny step I made in the development. I learned more about programming and I experimented a lot until I got a pretty functional app. I named it CleanFare and entered it into the High School Utah Entrepreneurship Challenge in 2016. But when I arrived at the presentation hall and saw all the other companies presenting, I was awed. They all had amazing projects and I couldn’t believe I was even among them. But much to my surprise, I ended up winning one of the grand prizes at the HSUEC.

I spent the entire next year working on the code and business behind this app. In February of this year, I entered CleanFare into another competition, called Innovation Idol, right here at the Leonardo. It wasn’t really until I saw who the other competitors were that I realized, this wasn’t another high school competition. I was competing against adults who had real businesses. I was terrified. After seeing all the other people pitch their companies, I nervously took the stage and presented to the audience. I almost couldn’t breath when they came out later to announce the winner. I was selected to win not only the judges’ vote but also the audience vote at this competition.

So, there was an important reason why I shared this story with you all. I swear it wasn’t just to pat myself on the back. There is one simple reason why CleanFare has started to take off. And it’s not because I’m an amazing programmer. I’d still call myself a pretty basic programmer now and I was even worse when I started working on CleanFare. The reason it’s still going is that I cared about it and I kept persevering and I was determined to make it work. I could have given up at the very beginning when the judges didn’t pick our project to win, but I didn’t. I could have given up one of the million times my code didn’t work, but I didn’t. I kept working and kept improving. As I’m sure you all have learned over the past few days, entrepreneurship involves a lot of failures and it can be really hard to keep working through them. The reason I was able to work through my failures was because I truly, deeply cared about my project.

Through my experiences, there are three main qualities that I’ve learned every entrepreneur should have. First of all, as I mentioned, you should be passionate about your project or company. If you’re just in it for the money, that’s all you’ll care about, and when there’s no money it’ll be hard to go on. But if you’re working for your idea, for your company, you will work tirelessly for it. And when you bring on other people to work on it, find people who share that level of passion because they will work the hardest and the best for your project. The second important quality is said a lot about entrepreneurs: willingness to fail. Or the nicer sounding word we like to use “prototype.” Right now, you all have amazing ideas for companies and if you keep working on them, I guarantee they will change and evolve. The product in a few years might look completely different from the one you have now and this change comes from failure. You have an idea, work on it, test it, see what works and what doesn’t work, and fix it. And repeat that again and again and again. There’s an exercise that’s often done with entrepreneur students where you build towers out of marshmallows and pasta. What’s interesting is that there’s always one group of people who regularly outperform college students, and lawyers, and professionals in this exercise. Kindergartners. This is because most people work with one goal in mind. So they spend all their time building a tower that might work, but it most often ends in catastrophe. Kindergartners, however, build a tower, test it, let it fail, and then they fix it. In the end, they have these ridiculous looking towers, but they’re very strong. Kindergarteners don’t have this fixed mindset where they have one solution that they work towards. They probably don’t even have an image of what their final product will be until they finish the tower. Instead, they prototype, they experiment, they fail, and, because of failing, they innovate and break the bounds of what a tower usually looks like and they end up with a stronger tower. Finally, entrepreneurs need to be good with people. They need to be leaders who can inspire amazing work, but at the same time, they have to listen to others and work together. You have to be able to express your idea and your passion to others. And you have to be able to meet people. If you want to find others to work on your project or if you’re just looking for some support, you have to meet people.

There’s one other thing I want you all to take from my story. The first time I competed in Mind Riot, my company was selected as a winner, but it never became anything. It didn’t grow partially because I didn’t care about it as deeply as I did with CleanFare. But also, I had the wrong view of Mind Riot. I saw it as just a competition for high schoolers to see who can come up with the best ideas. It is so much more than that. This is a true opportunity to start something. Even if your company doesn’t win, you’re already started down the road to entrepreneurship. Sure winning money is great, but there’s so much more that you can take from this competition. The people that you meet and the networks that you’ve started to form here are some of your most valuable resources. I owe a lot to Sustainable Startups, and I would never have found them if I hadn’t participated in Mind Riot. The ideas that you’ve created here can be grown and they can be the thing that takes off for you. I encourage all of you, if you truly care about your project, please keep working on it. Make it into something you’re proud of.

You might think that you’re unable to make a company successful because you’re young and you might not have all the resources you need, but the most valuable resources you can find are people. If you are passionate about your project and you show people your passion, you will find people to support you, people who will offer their aid and mentorship to you. You all have amazing opportunities in front of you, and I urge you to take advantage of everyone you can.