A cool product by itself is not a company. And being a military veteran is great training for starting up.
The importance of using customer feedback to shape Minimum Viable Products and why world-class founders are disciplined were topics discussed by the guests on the latest episode of Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on SiriusXM Channel 111.
Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:
Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern, on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup - from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.
The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.
While studying electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo, DJ Jayalath and his co-founder, Chris Wiebe, devised the Athos workout gear to address their own fitness needs. Interest from a VC catapulted the two, post-graduation, into doing a startup.
One thing DJ learned is that inventing a cool product doesn't equal having a business:
You can develop whatever you want to develop (but) until you have customers giving you feedback, none of it counts.
... The product's great but you really need all the feedback you can get so you can improve on it. You want to move as fast as possible to be able to get that feedback and that might not be the perfect product you wanted to build. You want to have at least some of the earlier versions of it out there like ... a minimum viable product that at least demonstrates a key component so that people can start like giving you feedback. ... it might inspire some of the things you're not doing and also validate some of the thoughts you had before.
Mark Hatch is one of the leaders of the Maker Movement. Prior to co-founding TechShop, the former Green Beret was an exec at Kinko's, Avery Dennison and Health Net. Author of The Maker Movement Manifesto, Mark was recognized by as one of the Bay Area's Most Admired CEOs and by Popular Mechanics as one of 25 movers and makers reinventing the American Dream.
Mark explained why being a Green Beret is good training for entrepreneurs:
(I learned) confidence, leadership, discipline, stick-to-it-iveness, the ability to function on very small amounts of sleep.
...Discipline (is most important for entrepreneurs). ... I think most successful entrepreneurs are very disciplined at some level. ... even if you're not necessarily disciplined with your schedule, you're always running in the back of your head, "here are the important things that have to get done," and there's really nothing that's going to stand in your way between getting them done and not getting them done. ... You have to get them done, so you'll find a way. ... Failure is not an option.
... I think I had part of (those traits) in me, but the military really helped unpack it in a very substantial way. Becoming a Green Beret is not a really easy feat. ... 5 percent graduate, 8 percent graduate, something like that. At the end of it, you know you can do just about anything that you put your mind to, and in (Special Forces), in particular, we've got a lot of really bright guys. ... You have a decent IQ and then you have to be able to operate in extreme environments for extended periods of time.
... It's a perfect ... training ground for an entrepreneur.
To hear the clip, click here.
Before college, DJ dreamed of making robotic prosthetics. An internship set him on a different path:
... I thought I wanted to study mechatronics engineering... to make robots, because robots are cool.
... I wanted to make intelligent prosthetics. (For example) a leg that bends at the joint, that's actually smart enough to adapt to you. ... (However) I quickly realized I liked making cell phones much better.
... I worked at Qualcomm and RIM at the time ... for my internships. ... I worked on Android there and it was cool. ... That was definitely a thing I was really interested in, hardware design. How all these things went together and how you can work with manufacturers to help you do all the work. ...
Steve: So much for making limbs to make people's lives better.
DJ: Exactly. ...This is way cooler.
DJ and Chris created Athos' technology to fill a personal need:
All the time that we spent at the gym, not knowing exactly how to get the most out of the time. We'll go there for an hour and lift a bunch of weights, but how do we know that's the most we can get out of that time? Being engineers we wanted to optimize that.
We couldn't really afford a personal trainer; for us $50 an hour was a ridiculous amount of money. .... We started looking at what type of information we could get that was really valid about what is going on with your body. ...
(At the time, it was less about building a company and) much more about we needed a project for our final design project. ... We wanted to do something that was a little more ambitious. ... it needed to be a product that we wanted to use. ...
(This was important because) when you're able to relate to the problem you ... get to make the trade-offs very easily because you understand, OK it needs to be like this otherwise it's not going to be really useful.
... We recognized ... that we were lazy. We forgot to take a pen and paper to take notes as to what kind of workout we did. There was no chance that we'd take another piece of hardware to go to the gym, so we had to build (the technology) into something that was already a part of our existing routine. ... We (built it) into gym clothes because we already took our gym clothes. ...
(We thought) let's make it as easy as possible for people to use something, so that it increases the likelihood for them to adopt it, because you don't have to build a new habit or routine to use it.
Here's how their idea became a startup:
We got lucky. ... We were demonstrating this at our final year symposium. ... Somebody ... came by who talked at us for about 10 minutes. We had no idea who he was (but) he was better dressed than everybody else was. That was a hint. ... He said, "Really cool guys," and ... walked away.
(Turns out he was a VC.)... a couple weeks later he sent us an email saying, "... I'm really interested in what you guys are doing. ... I want to fund you guys, and keep working on this. Can we talk some more?"
Steve: ... while you are thinking this just happened, I'll suggest entrepreneurs make their own luck. If you hadn't ... noticed this guy with the nice clothes, and you probably spent another extra couple minutes with him, rather than someone else. ... You made a connection in a way, that while you think it was just luck, I'll contend you actually influenced the event.
DJ said developing a founder's mindset was challenging:
When you're an engineer, you're always used to working towards the right answer or the correct answer, but (for a founder) there is no concept of a correct answer. It's more like writing an English essay where you can do your best job, but you never know if you've had the right answer until you're looking back when you got the graded paper.
... You just can do your best (but) you don't know that you're doing the right thing or if you're doing the best thing until ... later on.
To hear the clip, click here.
TechShop, Mark said, is Kinkos for geeks:
(TechShop co-founder) Jim Newton... built (TechShop) for himself. He built a 20,000-square-foot facility with every tool you need to make anything on the planet.
... Machine tools ... mills and lathes ...It had every tool you'd need to make anything. ... You (can) build (an) entire (prototype) from the ground up.
Steve: If it's something mechanical, this was the ultimate toy store.
Mark: Absolutely. ... the Kauffman Foundation says that 50 percent of all successful companies come out of the founders' personal need. This happens to be one of those stories. Jim needed access to these tools ... because he had ... 200 new product ideas in his inventor's notebook. ... He sat down and said, "Here are all the tools I need to do every single one of these," and that became the minimum set, which was magical.
Nobody else on the globe had come up with this concept for a minimum set for an inventor's paradise. ...
He explained the Maker Movement's impact on entrepreneurism:
I talked to three different entrepreneurs back to back, and each one of them told me that they had saved 98 percent of their startup costs by using the TechShop platform. ... (this) quote came to mind: The future is already here; it's just not evenly distributed. ...
... if you can reduce the cost of a startup by 98 percent, you've completely changed the economic reality for a very significant piece of the economy.
Mark added that founders should take the media's fairy-tale startup stories with a grain of salt:
It's a lot harder than it looks. Don't believe the magazine articles. ...The magazines always tell you the success stories. They don't tell you the 95 percent of the other people who failed.
Steve: Right, and your co-founder quitting and your biggest customer going away. ...
Mark: ... And firing your best friend, laying people off. If you're not prepared to let people go, then you're just not really setup to be able to do this. ...
...The enterprise tells you what it needs, and if you're not prepared to listen to it, and give it what it needs, then you're probably going to fail at some point.
You got to listen very carefully. Listen to your customers, listen to your staff, and then make the modifications as early as you possibly can. That's a hard thing to learn.
To hear the clip, click here.
And he offered this advice to other founders:
Focus on your strengths as an entrepreneur. (The management consultant) Peter Drucker talked about this in one of his classes. He ... said, "Nobody ever became great working on their weaknesses."
... the intriguing thing is that ... if you're in a big company and HR talks to you, they typically use that conversation around what you're bad at as a reason why you didn't get a promotion or whatever. Then they tell you this is what you need to work on. That's the worst possible advice. ...
Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111.
Steve Blank's blog: www.steveblank.com