The first steps I took as a non-technical founder
Last week I shared a pivotal piece of advice I received from one of my HBS professors very early in my entrepreneurial journey; focus on the problem first before trying to create a solution right away. When I first set out to improve the pumping and milk storage process for moms, I wanted to immediately start drawing up new product ideas. I actually did start doing that. I figured I could create something that would fix the issues with the current process and then quickly shift my focus to how to make it. Looking back, that was putting the cart before the horse way more than I comprehended. Aside from needing to learn so much from other women about how they experienced the problem I felt existed (or maybe did not experience it), I also had to figure how to navigate the fact that I am not engineer!
Because I had only a few months off from class between my first and second year of business school, when I was focusing my professional bandwidth entirely on the business, I wanted to try to fast track as much as possible. So while I did heed the advice to slow down and learn about my problem, I also began to parallel path figuring out how you create a physical product. Things I thought about stemmed from research on the problem- for example, what is a material to be using that is superior to single-use plastic? Which then led me to question ‘how are products of that material made?’ ‘How do you make just one of something but not thousands?’ ‘Once I know how to get just one made, how do I create the very first one?’ You get the point.
I knew I wanted to be able to leverage the Harvard community to support creating this product and I was very fortunate to be included in the Havard Venture Incubation Program based out of the Harvard Innovation Lab (the iLab) starting in the summer of 2018. Within the iLab there is a Maker’s Space including access to several 3D printers. I knew nothing about designing products using a CAD program and I had never even seen a 3D printer, let along used one. It forced me to learn enough to know what I could handle doing myself and what I needed to hire someone else to help me with. I ended up getting connected to the Harvard College engineering lab coordinator and eventually to the first engineer I ever worked with. He was a fantastic resource and created CAD files from my hand drawn ideas that I could 3D print and hold in my hand and eventually get feedback on.
Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot that happened in between these steps. I didn’t just find an engineer immediately that took my paper and handed me a 3D printed model bottle the next day. It was actually months’ worth of work where I learned how to use the printers myself and researched what came next after printing one bottle out of a material that was just a stand-in.
The value of me sharing my process is not in those nuances though. The valuable lessons were to identify what I could realistically learn to do on my own (and dive in and do) and to find someone else with the skills I lacked to do what I couldn’t. I have a background in finance/ business – I’m not a mechanical engineer. So from the earliest stages of creation, to this day, I have someone else do the engineering work. Push yourself to learn new things and make sure if you aren’t technical that you learn enough to speak the language. Recognize where you need help and find the right person(s) to partner with. In the future, I’ll share my broader thoughts on taking on a co-founder, as well as, ideas for finding help without the community I had access to.
As always, reach out to me if you have interest in learning more about what I am working on or if you would like to be involved in beta testing firstname.lastname@example.org