“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
– Vincent van Gogh
Dear Future Self,
About 8 months ago, you embarked on this entrepreneurial journey. The intellectual growth and unceasing lessons thus far are amazing. To my future self, I have had many experiences and ‘Aha’ moments that I am telling you never to forget.
I am a budding entrepreneur with banking experience. I have always dreamed of being an entrepreneur and establish my own business in trade and commerce (Fast Moving Consumer Goods). My passion and desire to acquire knowledge and skills took me to Kingston University where my entrepreneurial journey began. When I started the design thinking module, I did not know what to expect but judging from my experience, I had a convergent thinking mindset -closed minded, more analytical, linear and systematic in my approach of doing things.
Like Edward de Bono counselled; “Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way”, – it occurred to me that to learn and make this journey worthwhile for my future self and business, I had to forget what I thought I knew and be more open minded which would influence my creative and design thinking abilities known as Divergent thinking. Divergent thinkers are problem solvers and think of all possible ways to reach a solution. They are more creative, flexible and open minded in their approach to business. Conversely, convergent thinkers think of a final solution to a problem, are more analytical, rigid and closed minded.
Divergent thinking is solutions based just like the systematic Design thinking process that I learned as an effective process for product or service development. According to Brown (2008), Design thinking process transforms the way one develops products, services, process and even strategy. This is the process that my team (DT4) adopted as inspiration for our start up business to create a product to solve the problem of loneliness and depression (Book called the Journal of Memoirs). Admittedly, it was a really tough but rewarding experience. The process started with Empathy by understanding the user’s situation, Defining and understanding the problem, Ideation by generating many solutions to the problem where we brainstormed several solutions before narrowing down to the most suitable that was Journal of memoirs. Onto Prototyping which is the first early product used to experiment if it could solve the customer’s problem and then test for feedback for further improvement.
It is an impressive process of imagining solutions that are desirable to meet explicit needs (Brown, 2008) that I intend to imitate in my trade and commerce business.
The design thinking process significantly influenced my understanding of product development. We started with empathy mapping as a vital model to aid our understanding of the customer’s feelings, what they think, hear and understand what they are going through to have the right solution to the problem.
Realizing the goal and commercial benefit of designing great products and services is notoriously hard, Benedict, S., Hugo., S, Garen., K. and Fabricio Dore (no date). So we were getting confused at everything and we decided to adopt a simplified model for a better understanding of the startup, the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop approach for product development Ries (2011) which is the “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP). According to Ries (2011), a Minimum Viable Product helps entrepreneurs start the process of learning as quickly as possible with the minimum amount of effort as compared to the traditional product development that is longer and tedious.
I found this concept intriguing and applicable to my future business because it involves incremental product development basing on the underlying need. It is a learning process through testing and receiving feedback from customers to be able to learn what works and what did not work. The idea is to learn more and measure actual progress on product development but to also find the simplest and cheapest way to solve the customer’s problem.
According to Maurya (2012), most startups fail because they fail to have a proper understanding of the problem from the start (cited from blog leanstack). This is true because the confusion we were facing then was because we had not broadly researched and understood the problem, we were basing on what we thought we knew. To understand the problem of loneliness and depression better, we researched about the problem and used the Lean Canvas to have a better understanding of the startup.
Lean Canvas was a simplified and easy to use model that we used to develop all the aspects of the startup business. Understanding the problems facing the potential customers was important to generate the right solution to the problem which aligns well with the concept of a “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP). And we further built onto the other features of the model like our unfair advantage, cost structure, channels and revenue streams.
This fascinated me as a very simple yet powerful and easy to use model that captures a startup business in a snap shot and will be my blueprint in building up my startup from ideation to building the business.
After experiencing all the processes and using the models above, it eventually led to MVP/Prototype stage as the first early product for experimenting to the customers to test if it could solve the problem of loneliness and depression.
After months of sleepless nights and hard work putting together content and the graphics designs for the book, we were excited to have the MVP/prototype. According to Marc, S. and Jakob, S (2012) prototypes are built and tested in terms of functionality, usability, production, feasibility, cost and pricing and market response.
Our product was called the ‘Journal of Memoirs’, a highly interactive book of 53 activities for the elderly that are at the risk of being lonely and depressed, finally ready to be tested in the trade fairs at Kingston University and Eden Walk Shopping Centre respectively.
Our intention was to test the product on the customers and get their feedback for further improvement, to learn more and measure progress. We received a lot of feedback that we used to improve product development.
Some of the customers were an indirect target group who preferred online or e-version of the book to hardcopy. This was not our focus as our target customer was 75years old and above who are more comfortable reading and writing in the actual book than using online because the idea was for it to be interactive.
I learned that validated learning as was the case involves users or customers in product development through the MVP/Prototype. Customer feedback helps improvement of product development which makes the process customer oriented. This is the approach that I will deploy in my business to reduce the product development cycle and to get as much feedback as possible from customers for improvement.
I also learned that if there is a target market that I have already identified for a business, some feedback may not necessarily be applicable and very careful decisions have to be made based on what is actually beneficial to the business, as was the case for e-version because the actual users are 75years old and above.
The trade fair gave me an experience of the selling process because selling is a vital skill that every entrepreneur needs to develop to satisfy customer requirements. My future self will therefore interact with customers with more confidence and experience. The experience also significantly improved my interpersonal skills, negotiation skills and also objection handling skills to be able to professionally deal with objection while maintaining a good attitude.
Networking is a vital ingredient for business success which introduced us to mentors that directly supported us in the product development process. We purposefully used networking workshops to share our product with mentors to learn from their experience and build the product/business better.
One of the events that we attended that transformed my thinking and propelled our progress was the sprint weekend that was organized by Enterprise Kingston University. We used this as opportunity to interact with various mentors and judges who tremendously helped us improve on our start up idea, their feedback greatly contributed to improvements in our product development.
I learned that as an entrepreneur I need to expand my network by building meaningful and long term relationships that are essential to my business. Having an established network will enable me leverage on a wider knowledge base and experience of mentors that I can learn from and they could potentially become my business investors.
My future self-strategy is to network with mentors in my line of business to build my capacity. I however interacted with several mentors many of whom have become my business mentors and are willing to support me when I eventually start up my business.
We had a good strategy to build a strong online presence through social media using Facebook and Twitter which we should have taken seriously. We seldom used it to hype updates on the business more especially the trade fairs. We were quite impressed that some friends turned up to see our product. However, we could have done more and been more aggressive on using social media as a powerful platform for marketing our business in the absence of marketing funds.
To my future self and startup business, aggressively take advantage of social media to build and maintain strong online presence and use it as a cheaper advertising and marketing platform for business. The platforms I intend to continue using to reach a wider network of customers is tweeter, blog, face book and LinkedIn.
Finance was an important aspect in our startup business and it guided our team to invest in a wise venture to minimize costs with an aim of achieving maximum profits. I happened to be the finance manager of the business and through this experience I learned how to manage funds, budget, reconcile funds and make accountability of the business funds as part of my roles and responsibilities and this experience developed my financial management skills.
However, we had financial challenges working on a tight budget which made making financial decisions tough. Some of the decisions that I made with the team’s permission were adhoc for us to manage turnaround time like the second trade fair we incurred a lot of expenses printing the prototype which could have cost less had we printed on time.
The strategy for my future startup is to minimize costs in the business through the basic financial skills that I have acquired. I am now able to understand basic financial analysis and interpret the financial performance of a business which will save me time and money of initially hiring a finance manager.
Presentation skills are mandatory for entrepreneurs especially if one must present a business case to potential investors. My presentation skills were greatly enhanced through the sprint weekend by Enterprise Kingston and two dragon’s den sessions. We had the opportunity to pitch our business before a panel of judges as feedback platform for further improvement but to also build our confidence and presentation skills.
Sprint weekend and Dragon’s den was daunting experience but understanding the business and preparation was always vital. To my future self, always be prepared for business presentations and be convincing to win over potential investors. Some important lessons learned that i will apply is having knowledge of the product which is vital and for which problem it is solving, understanding the target customer, market in general, having an achievable marketing strategy and understanding the competition which is vital for business.
Somehow, we always got branding wrong, there was always a mismatch in our branding and inconsistency and the brand personality was hidden. And while creating a video advert for our business, it was very much affected by this because emotionally the personality was lost, the physical aspect was not clear if the product works, cognitively did not show how the product works which was a weakness on our part.
I now realise that there should be consistency in branding, the advertising materials should synchronize with the business brand because customers see and judge brand personality and this realization i will implore in my startup business and avoid the blunders that we experienced.
Looking back, it was teamwork that made the journey enjoyable, made the learning curve easier and all the rewards achievable. Teamwork led to idea generation for the business, increased our efficiency and achievement of business milestones. Working as a team the first months was challenging as everyone had their own expectations however we quickly aligned ourselves to the business objectives and got along very well and completed tasks effectively.
My future self will build a team that believes in the business vision, understand that everyone’s contribution counts to building the business. In addition, good leadership skills are mandatory, practice good communication skills and good listening skills and professionally manage objections and disagreements.
“Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.” – Mary Lou Cook…
Learning was in every detail of my journey to making me a better entrepreneur.