When we decided to apply for Launchpad, getting in seemed simple. In order to qualify for the class, we had to build a working prototype of our proposed product in 7 days. Our product idea was a phone charger powered by a BBQ fire.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t so simple. But we made it into the class, and have since founded Stower, which lets you power your mobile phone using no more than a candle and water. If the idea intrigues you, you can help us out by backing Stower on Kickstarter.
But let’s go back to Launchpad and what we learned in the class and the years following. Four lessons stand out above the many we received about building and launching companies and products. These might be normal lessons to the seasoned entrepreneur, but I’m not a normal guy. I’m a scientist. So if, like me, you’re not a seasoned entrepreneur, these lessons may be useful to you too.
Lesson #1: Complainers lose
Sometimes, the best lessons aren’t learned in the classroom but well after you’ve left. That’s how we learned this lesson, which turned out to be the single greatest piece of design advice. And, yes, it came from a Launchpad professor about a year after we left the class.
“Andy,” he wrote in an e-mail reply, “you’re a whiner. And for that reason you will lose.”
My professor wrote that to me. I’ll let that sink in.
I ranted for a few days and simmered for weeks on how I’d craft my wrath-filled response before I realized his simple, brutal sentence was the most valuable guidance I ever received during my time at Stanford -- maybe in all my life.
A designer makes things that work well. They look at a problem and make an excellent solution. Engineers do the same thing. Scientists do too. Good designers don’t complain about things. Instead, they look at something that isn’t working and fix it.
I’ve stopped complaining. Things are better. That’s all the proof I got, and it’s all the proof I need.
Lesson #2: Prototypes = Fun & Details = Devil
The best business decision I think we’ve made so far was getting a world-class design for manufacturing group to turn our prototypes into something that can actually be built. We’ve seen a lot of companies get rocked pretty hard, just because the great thing they want to build can’t really be built.
The old adage holds true: the devil is in the details. If you’re designing a new product to sell to people, find and work with people who are experts in the different components of your product. Electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, marketing, whatever you need – find people to help you who are good at the skills you need. If at all possible, get those who are the best.
Lesson #3: Don’t quit on building the right thing.
If something doesn’t feel right, then stop everything and rework the design until it feels right.
Trusting our guts and turning up the volume on our opinions so that they are heard is something we work on almost daily. It takes unique people to design unique, excellent products. We’re getting better at listening to and trusting our gut instincts as well as standing by our opinions, but we still have room to improve.
Lesson #4: It only gets harder from here.
My co-founder, Adam, and I were talking a few weeks back.
“You know,” he said, “when we started this I thought, ‘Man, the hardest thing is going to be to get this working.’ But we got it working. Then it was manufacturing: ‘Manufacturing! That’s impossible! How in the world do we get something manufactured!’ Then we did it. Then it was raising money, then marketing and sales…everything we’re doing next seems to be the hardest thing.”
For human-centered design, focus is valuable and understanding user needs, wants, concerns, etc. is a given. But perspective is equally important. You must have an appreciation for all the components involved in bringing an idea to life.
For me, that’s some of what it takes to make good designs.
Andrew is the founder of Stower and a graduate of Stanford with an MS in Materials Science and Engineering. Stower is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter.