design innovation startups

Find Product Market Fit Fast

Product Market Fit is one of the hardest things for an early-stage startup to achieve and it’s a critical step for companies looking to scale and be successful.

Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market

Marc Andreesen – Andreessen Horowitz

So the first thing you need to do is to understand your target market. Are you building a product for the automotive market, the food & beverage market, the software or technology market or something else? To find product-market fit, you really need to narrow your market and niche down. Don’t try to make your product solve the problems of multiple markets early on. Identify a core initial target market.

Once you know your target market, make sure you really understand and research it. You can’t possibly expect to satisfy your customers let alone a target market unless you really understand their problems.

In researching a market and the problems within that market many entrepreneurs will start to identify problems. Once you have a couple conversations you’ll see patterns emerge in terms of problems that people are experiencing.

In the early stages of a startup it’s typical to build early solutions to those problems. And when these solutions solve those specific problems you have product-problem fit. You’ve identified a problem and you’ve provided a solution… many entrepreneurs think that they are set and they stop there but finding product-market fit is more complex. You need to ensure that your product doesn’t just solve a specific problem, but rather it solves a problem that is repeatable and consistent across a large market segment.

To do this you need two core things:

  • First: You need a good cross-section of customers across your market. Not just your friends’ circle, but knowing that a good portion of any customers in your target market have a similar problem you can address.
  • Secondly: Your product has to be sticky enough that people are upset if you were to take the product away.

Finding and solving a problem is a great start but to really find product market fit you need to make sure that the problem you’re solving is widespread and impacts a large enough market in a scalable way and that the solution doesn’t feel like a NICE-to-Have but rather a NEED- To-Have.

It’s better to make a few users love you than have a lot that are ambivalent.

Paul Graham – YCombinator

You need people to care and the best way to find out if they do is to ask them. Ask your users how they’d feel if they could no longer use your product. The group that answers ‘very disappointed’ will unlock the product/market fit.

Sean Ellis, who ran early early growth in the early days of Dropbox, LogMeIn, and Eventbrite and adviced that if 40% of your customers would be “Very Disappointed” then you’ve found product market fit.

When thinking about product market fit, it’s worth also considering founder-market fit. Some founders have deep experience with a particular market. Maybe they spent a decade at a large company within the target market so they know the right people and they know the problems that are un-solved. Sometimes having a good founder-market fit can be a huge advantage and investors will consider how well a founder is aligned to a market. On the flip-side sometimes founder-market fit can be road-block. Consider how sometimes only an outsider to a market can realize just how broken a market is. If Uber had deep market experience in the Taxi market they may never have build as disruptive a company.

Finding product-market fit is both one of the most misunderstood and difficult steps for any growing startup. Keeping yourself focused on the customer and how that relates to the larger market will keep your company on track.

innovation startups

Ideas Are Worthless

You may thinkyou have the best, most amazing idea but I’m sorry to tell you that your idea is worthless…. But it’s Ok, most ideas are worthless.

Now before I get too deep, I’ve seen hundreds of pitches with a wide range of ideas and I’ve signed stacks and stacks of NDA’s to keep someone’s ideas secrets. Want to know the best secret idea I’ve ever heard?

There are none. We’re you listening at the beginning? Ideas are worthless and I’ve never been blown away by an amazing idea. Never! I’ve heard interesting ideas and clever ideas but most of the time amazing ideas are not the exciting part.

If you just think about the ideas behind the world’s most successful companies, the ideas aren’t that exciting.

  • A phone that doesn’t have any buttons
  • A car that uses electricity instead of a motor
  • A new search engine

These ideas by themselves have no value and even if you were able to rewind the clock 20 years, the ideas themselves weren’t worth anything without the entrepenours to drive them.

Nokia had phones without buttons before Apple. There were plenty of electric golf-carts before Tesla, and Google was late to the game as far as search engines go.

It’s the execution that creates value and these companies executed exceptionaly well.

While ideas are worthless, working on your idea is the thing that starts to create value. Some examples of value creation:

  • A list of potential customers willing to try or buy a finished product
  • Sales or purchase orders for a product or service
  • A prototype of the future product
  • Testimonials from people who have tried the prototype/product
  • Partners willing to stock or sell the product/service
  • Patents on the product/technology. (more on patents here)

You don’t have to be an engineer or designer to make progress on an idea, but you need to take action.

The other reason that ideas are worthless is that the idea instantly changes as soon as you start working on it. Once you put a pencil to paper your idea starts to spawn new ideas. Once you have a customer using the product you start to get feedback on the idea and what needs to change about it. Once you try to sell a product you learn all the reasons people don’t want it. It’s this learning/feedback cycle that creates real value because it’s based on real applications, not just theoretical ones.

The execution of the idea is the essence of the idea. Want to make something amazing, take action to make it real.

Why are ideas worthless
business startups

How to pitch VC’s and Angels

How to pitch VC investors and Angels

Startups often have just a few seconds to grab the attention of an investor and make a memorable impression. I’ve seen hundreds of pitch decks from startups and most are missing the critical elements needed to make their pitch stand out.

The most important thing for a startup, getting ready to pitch is preparation. If you’re planned ahead and rehearsed you’ll already be ahead of the crowd. The best pitches and presentations require a lot of preparation and rehearsal. You often have just a few minutes to make a great impression so every minute of presentation may require several hours of rehearsal and preparation.

Most pitches are forgettable, they lack energy and they lack soul. What I mean is that they describe a business problem and a solution but they don’t make me care. Great pitches should convey the founders’ character, they should tell a story, connect with listeners emotionally, and be memorable.

When I’m listening to a pitch. I’m asking a couple questions:

  • Why you? – What makes you unique, what makes you as an entrepreneur special and why would I be excited to work with you?
  • Why this? – Most ideas and successful companies capitalize on unique ideas, timed with when the world needed them.
  • What makes this special? How will you compete with other entrepreneurs, what will make your business stand out in a crowded field of so many other companies?

Many entrepreneurs make the mistake that investors are interested in novel ideas or clever inventions. Nope. Investors are looking for great people and great businesses that have huge potential to grow. Your idea is a part of that but a great idea, without a great business and without a great founder, isn’t going to go anywhere.

If you’re putting together a pitch. There are lots of templates but the key things you need to include are pretty universal. Sequoia Capital even put together a business plan outline of the things that they like to see:

  • Problem Describe the pain of your customer. How is this addressed today and what are the shortcomings to current solutions. Make me really feel the problem.
  • Solution Explain your aha! moment. Why is it unique and compelling? Why is your solution better?
  • Why now? The best companies almost always have a clear why now? Timing is as important as the idea. Why hasn’t this been done before?
  • Market potential Identify your customer and your market. How big is the market and how will you capture it?
  • Competition / alternatives Who are your direct and indirect competitors. Show that you have a plan to win.
  • Business model How do you intend to thrive and grow?
  • Team Tell the story of your founders and key team members. Most investors don’t want to invest in solo-founders so tell the story of your team and how you work together.
  • Financials What are the financial models that support your story/vision. Don’t skimp on this, really knowing your financials helps investors trust you with their money.
  • Vision  – And lastly, and perhaps most importantly. If all goes well, what will you have built in five years? What’s the vision of the company? Paint a picture of how you get there.

In addition to these basics, you may want to include much more information. Don’t.

The point of the pitch deck isn’t to answer all the questions, it’s to get you to access to a deeper conversation with your investors.

It’s for them to lean-in and express interest in learning more. Resist having too much information.

It’s Ok to have your own notes or backup slides to answer deeper questions. This will help keep you focused.

There’s always more you can include in a pitch so you have to tune the deck and the presentation to the audience and the venue. For example, you should have several version of your pitch based on your situation.

The most common versions of pitches should include:

  • Elevator pitch – A well-rehearsed 1-2 minute conversational pitch that can be done with no slides.
  • Lightning pitch – 5 minutes (some visuals but not too much)
  • Emailed deck – A variation in between your lightning and normal pitch that doesn’t require a voice-over.
  • Normal Pitch. – 10-minute pitch visuals/slides
  • Long Pitch – 30min-1 hour pitch tuned for Zoom or In-Person with backup slides prepped for any anticipated questions
  • Demo Pitch – A rehearsed and working walk-through of the product that can easily be reset for the next demo

The most important two things for a startup, getting ready to pitch are preparation & passion. If you can connect with your audience in a deep and meaningful way and if you prepare well you’ll be far ahead of most startups.

design innovation

Making Masks at Home

Making, Stitching, and Sewing Masks

There are a lot of at-home masks circulating the Internet and a lot of hospitals, doctors, and physicians trying to get their hands on them. For the last week, I’ve been designing, stitching, prototyping, 3D printing, and diving in and I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned.

First a warning: No home-made part or mask can curreently claim any certification and shouldn’t be compared or substitute for any official FDA tested product. Fabric masks and 3D-printed parts are prone to quality issues, poor seals and non-functioning filters. These designs should be used as a last resort and even then should be used with caution. Using any personal protection equiptment (PPE) without proper qualifiction and testing is dangerous and can give you a false sense of security.

That being said, we’re going to dive into three things people are making right now.

The first is sewn or stitched face masks. Such masks are generally not “air-tight” like a standard N95 mask but these masks are being used by doctors, nurses and staff for extending the life of a standard mask. They are also being used for patients and other staff that would traditionally not be given any mask to help protect them.

All it requires is a cotton fabric or a t-shirt, scissors and ideally a sewing machine. There are many instructions and examples that go into detail on how to do this. Here are many popular designs: Design 1, Design 2. Design 3. Design 4, Design 5, Design 6. There are many options in the designs but they are easy to produce and people are producing tends of thousands of these.

According to this article based on this research, cotton t-shirt fabric as the most suitable material however different instructions offer alternatives such as unwoven polypropylene, pillow-cases, microfiber, and dish-towels. What I’m hearing is that hospitals aren’t being picky but they are creating in-take procedures to accept sewn masks, sterilize them and clean them. At the very least, you can make yourself a mask for when you go out shopping.

There is a lot of experimentation for using an air-duct filter material, usually rated with a MERV rating of 12-15 but I haven’t found articles on the effectiveness of such a filter for personal use. Since these types of masks aren’t air-tight it’s unclear if this type of filter provides additional protection. If you’re using a filter material other than cotton, consider making it removable.

The second area of PPE innovation is around the area of 3D printing. This breaks into two areas, the first is what I’ll call ready for production and the other area is R&D. Since this entire space is only a few weeks old things are moving very quickly and I hope more things will get past R&D and move into production. (This could talk about how to make a prototype)

On the production side of things, 3D printed face-shields are the easiest to produce.

Face-shields protect the face, eyes, and mouth from large droplets such as sneezes and coughs. There are a number of great designs and they require just a 3D printer and some acrylic sheets. I’ve even included a design that can be made with just clear plastic and an elastic band. Here are many popular designs: Design 1, Design 2, Design 3, Design 4, Design 5 There’s a great video that goes into more detail on this. There are also face-shield designs made without a 3D printer using just foam and scissors and another from Bauer

In the realm of 3D-printed R&D projects, there are a number of explorations into applications of the technology to print more complex parts that are needed. I call these R&D because as far as I know they are still being validated. Validation and testing of devices is critical because of how small the Covid virus is…

Covid-19 Size is about 0.3 microns or less.

While sewn masks that are designed to block large droplets is one thing, trying to block something that’s that small requires a lot of testing and validation.

The idea of 3D printed masks sounds awesome and there are a ton of designs floating around the Internet but going from something that prints, to something that can actually seal and works for an eight-hour shift is really hard. There are thousands of people working on this problem and I hope we’ll get to a design that will work but for the time being, we are talking about prototypes.

There are three major problems that are being worked on.

  • Getting a reliable seal to your face for a wide variety of face sizes.
  • Getting a reliable filter and seal between the filter and the mask.
  • Ensuring that the filter media is any good and prevents air from flowing around the filter.

The first problem is that all faces are different. People’s heads come in all shapes and sizes and unfortunately, the most common 3D printing material is PLA plastic. This is a fairly common plastic but it’s also hard, so unlike silicone or rubber, it won’t bend much to the variety of faces.

Traditional masks and respirators often have bendable portions that fit snug around the nose and are made from a material that can conform to the face. People are trying to design around this issue with a wide variety of ideas:

  • Producing a wide variety of sizes
  • Trying to mold the plastic using a heat gun or microwave
  • Using a softer plastic for example PTU
  • Use of rubber foam to line the inside of the mask
  • Using an over-printed inner gasket or gluing parts of a silicone to the inner surface.

Each of these solutions is being worked on and I’m hopeful that one or several will pass clinical tests and validation.

The second problem is the filter. Some designs are using commercial filters that are available and click-in or screw into a design. Other teams are modifying anesthesiology filters to work with masks or attaching various HEPA filters and hand-made MERV/Cotton filter combinations.

The challenge with all these designs is that they need to be safe. Mass General Covid Innovation Group is passing designs through a number of validations:

  • Fit testing
  • Exhalation resistance
  • Inhalation Resistance
  • Filter Efficiency
  • Bacterial Filteration
  • Ability to scale production to thousands quickly
  • Failure mode effects analysis (FMEA)

In addition, designs are being evaluated for how the device can be sterilized and used/re-used for long durations of time. Such a design and product challenge would be aggressive for teams to produce in a six-month window. I’ve been watching teams bring solutions and prototypes together in the last two weeks working day and night.

In addition to respirator style-masks, there are efforts to print parts for ventilators, over the head -PARP-style respirators, and more. Teams from individual maker spaces and large companies are participating. Companies like New Balance and Gap are turning their sneaker, and clothing making machinery and skills into making fabric filters. Companies like Ford, GM, and Tesla are exploring how to rapidly-produce ventilators.

The R&D space is moving quickly and I’m hopeful that some of these solutions can quickly and safely helping frontline workers.

So if you have a sewing machine or 3D printer, please put to immediate use, you can start making masks and face shields today. If you still want to help but don’t know how to sew or have a 3D printer. You can help too… Stay Home!