“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” – Peter Drucker

This year has gone by very quickly, and I’m sure everyone on the course would agree with me when I say it has had its ups and downs. While it was not entirely what I expected, I did, when all was said and done, learn an incredible amount. The purpose of this final blog entry is to take the advice of Peter Drucker and reflect on our lean start-up journey, sharing some of the experiences and lessons learned, within key categories.

Creating a team and generating ideas

Prior to sitting down and brainstorming, we had to form a team. Fortunately, this could not have worked out better for me. The group that ended up developing into team Little Steps is made up of people who I now truly adore and respect and I think of myself as fortunate to have met. Uh, I mean… yeah… they’re all OK, I suppose. As mentioned in my post linked to this subject, I didn’t really think ahead about the team formation and just went with the flow. While I did luckily end up on a solid, effective team, this was my first real insight into the start-up process and the importance of choosing the right team is definitely a crucial lesson. Our team was chosen based on personality but more so on skill set – who was able to contribute what. We ended up with a combined experience in interior architecture, graphic design, marketing, copywriting and new media management. This allowed us to cover all aspects of the product ideation and development process. This diversity within the team is a crucial aspect of choosing a good team (Elvekrog, 2014) and the fact that we all got along so well was also valuable as we were able to have dynamic and open discussions and everyone was able to both provide, and receive critical feedback. In addition, the fact that everyone can be creative, and everyone has ideas (Kelley and Kelley, 2013) meant that these ideas were being generated from a diverse source, which is important for innovation. As the Co-founder and CEO of 140 proof also said:

“You succeed or fail not on the strength of your idea or your product, but on the strength of your team. “ (Elvekrog, 2014)

Once we had established our team it was time to sit down and brainstorm ideas for our product. We began this with a strategy we had learned in class, that much like the Purdue Creative Thinking Program, involves fluency and just thinking of as many ideas as quickly possible initially, then narrowing these down to the best before elaborating (World.std.com, 2001). Our ideas ranged from a fashionable bag for the cycling commuter to a “smart” medical alert bracelet, and everything in between. The open and collaborative environment we had already fostered as a group meant that we were able to express ideas without fear of judgement from others, which is vital in the ideation stage (Brown, 2008). In the end, however, most these ideas were taken off the table because of the time and money restraints imposed by the course. At first we thought this was a little unfair and not necessary but later I think we appreciated it as it placed restrictions on our ideas – I have found that creativity is very difficult when there are no restrictions or challenges. Through a fair amount of brainstorming, market research and observation we finally settled on our product and team name.

team little steps

Developing a brand and persona

The next step, or perhaps simultaneous step, was to come up with a persona for our target audience from which we could then develop a suitable brand and marketing strategy. To do this we used several tools provided by our professor, in addition to other resources. These were of great help in getting us to think of, and answer certain questions about the type of people we wanted to sell to. With these aids we were able to create our persona, Jennifer, a new mum in her 30’s who is active, supports natural treatments, is health conscious and internet savvy.

This crucial step allowed us to relate to our consumer, and better understand them. We were able to role play as our persona during the entire process when discussing branding, marketing and product development in order to ensure we were always meeting the needs of our target audience. Coming from an architectural design background, empathy and designing for a need were concepts I was familiar with, but the use of role play in order to achieve them was not something I had previously considered. It proved very beneficial and ultimately created a greater sense of empathy with our audience, which leads to better, more authentic, and genuine design outcomes (Brown, 2008). Storytelling and role play are both definitely learnings that I will carry forward.

Once we had our persona finalised, we were then able to develop our branding and marketing strategies to best have an impact on our target consumer. We started by creating a logo that represented maternal instincts (elephants are amongst the most maternal creatures) but also expressed the modern aesthetic of Little Steps. This was followed by more research, learning, and development until we had a strategy that we believe fell in line with our ethos and also was most effective to create a brand behind our product. As The Ella was not really some completely new invention, we differentiated ourselves from the competition using this brand, and the support, personal touches, attention to detail, and buying experience that came with it. Developing this brand and using it to differentiate ourselves was a great learning experience. Being able to understand the consumer and what they want from, and value in a product is something that will definitely be useful in the future.

Our logo

Our logo

a quick look at some of the competition which lacks any sort of branding or considered design.

a quick look at some of the competition which lacks any sort of branding or considered design.

Developing the product

While we were developing the brand, we were also concurrently prototyping our product. Due to the iterative nature of this process, it was very time consuming. We were all very concerned with ensuring it met the needs of the consumer. The time we took to finalise the prototype meant that we were a little behind schedule in terms of actually getting it manufactured. Once we did get around to that, we began to encounter problem after problem. This did mean, however, that we also learned lesson after lesson. The first of these being the actual cost of producing any tangible product, especially in the UK. We quickly realised that our £1000 just wouldn’t cover the cost of a minimum production order. We knew we had to change something, somewhere and fortunately, at around the same time, our market research had uncovered another issue (getting the product to parents in time when the child is sick) and thereafter a solution that solved both our problems. It was at this point that we accepted the flaws in our original idea, learned from our mistakes, and pivoted the product slightly (image below). We then carried this redesigned Ella on to the final dragon’s den competition, where our understanding of the consumer and the branding around that were highly commended.

A large part of design thinking, to me, is being ok with making mistakes. In fact, I want to make mistakes (within reason, of course) because you are able to learn from them. If we were to have made the perfect product and never erred, we would not have learned as much from this course, or indeed from life in general. The controlled and accepting environment within which this course sits is perhaps its greatest feature. We were given the independence and space to make mistakes, then the advice and support to go about correcting, and learning from them. In an interview with Scott Adams he said that when starting a business one needs to be accepting of change, and know when to quit (Boitnott, 2014). Up until now, failure to me was not something I even wanted to think about. Now, however, it’s something I welcome (again, within reason) and I would like to think that in the future, I will make more mistakes, but out of those mistakes I will be able to achieve everything I set out to.

Ella v2.0

Success, Failures and future goals

Looking back after it’s all said and done makes it easy to see what we did well and what we did… not so well. I have already mentioned our initial design shortcomings and the reasons they came about, but that was not the only time we admittedly fell short. One of the biggest challenges we faced was manufacturing. We severely underestimated both the cost, and time that would be required to produce our product. Having spent a lot of time prototyping we then had to rush to find a manufacturer who would satisfy our requirements. We ended up having to pay extra to have products produced quicker, cutting into our profits during sales. Related to this is the variance in manufacturers. During our prototyping we tried to both make it ourselves and also have a professional make one. As we had not really finalised our design, this was perhaps the wrong approach as we ended up spending a significant amount paying someone to make a prototype that really was not of excellent quality, mostly because the materials and design we had at that stage were not conducive to that particular production method. Through this exploration into manufacturing, however, we did learn a lot, both about the UK manufacturing industry and all its variance, as well as about our product itself and the intricacies of its production.

So yes, we made mistakes, but the important thing is that we learned from them and we did also have some success. We did make a few sales, and put smiles on people’s faces (below) and we did also get commended for our product and presentation skills at the final dragons den. More than that, however, are the successes that perhaps are subjective, and depend on your definition, or measure, of success. As Miguel de Cervantes wrote “the journey is better than the inn” (Cervantes Saavedra, Jarvis and Riley, 2008) meaning the path to a destination/goal is better/more important than the destination itself. To me, our journey is where we found most of our success. We In addition to everything we learned along the way, all the new experiences we were involved with, and all the contacts we made with manufacturers and other external businesses, we also made friends. To me, and I believe with several others, our biggest success, and the most important take away from this course in particular is the network of peers and friends that we made. Every single one of us came from a different background, culture, and country and the fact that we all got along, developed relationships and an eagerness to help each other is going to be a great asset in both our future professional and personal lives. That, if your definition of the word allows for it, is what I think is my biggest success.

So where does this whole experience leave me? Our course professor once said that connecting thoughts to a future goal is the difference between reflection and reminiscing (Beaumont, 2014). This reference is more than me just trying to get an A, it actually struck a note with me because I’m usually the type of person who prefers to take each day as it comes, not really thinking too far in the future. On this occasion, however, I did think into the future, specifically how I could take what I have learned during my time at Kingston University and apply it to achieving my goals. My short term goal is to open a creative multimedia agency. The confidence I have gained in myself during presentations and networking events will be crucial to accomplish this as I will need to build my clientele from the ground up. As a more long term goal, I am aiming to open my own microbrewery and restaurant. My existing design background would have always allowed me to design the space and the experience but this course and everything I have learned about design thinking, branding and marketing will allow me to get a better sense of my target audience and so design a better thought out, more empathetic, overall experience, from start to finish.

 new owners

References

Abasov, M. (2013). Complete Guide to Creating a Customer Persona for Your Startup – Marketing Before Funding. [online] Marketingbeforefunding.com. Available at: http://marketingbeforefunding.com/2013/02/26/complete-guide-to-creating-a-customer-persona-for-your-startup/ [Accessed 23 Apr. 2015].

Beaumont, C. (2014). Assessments. [Blog] Designing a Business (design thinking + lean startups). Available at: https://macekingston.wordpress.com/assessments-201415/ [Accessed 23 Apr. 2015].

Boitnott, J. (2014). Scott Adams of ‘Dilbert’ on the Importance of Making Mistakes. [online] Inc.com. Available at: http://www.inc.com/john-boitnott/scott-adams-of-dilbert-on-the-importance-of-making-mistakes.html [Accessed 23 Apr. 2015].

Brown, T. (2008). Tales of creativity and play.

Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_brown_on_creativity_and_play [Accessed 23 Apr. 2015].

Brown, T. (2009). Designers – think big!.

Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_brown_urges_designers_to_think_big/transcript?language=en [Accessed 23 Apr. 2015].

Cervantes Saavedra, M., Jarvis, C. and Riley, E. (2008). Don Quixote de la Mancha. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Elvekrog, J. (2014). Finding the Right Team to Lead Your Startup to Success. [online] Entrepreneur. Available at: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/234648 [Accessed 23 Apr. 2015].

Esquivel, M. and Kleiner, B. (1997). The importance of conflict in work team effectiveness. Team Performance Management: An International Journal, [online] 3(2), pp.89-96. Available at: http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.kingston.ac.uk/docview/217105723?accountid=14557 [Accessed 23 Apr. 2015].

Kelley, T. and Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence. New York: Crown Business.

World.std.com, (2001). projects | purdue creative thinking program. [online] Available at: http://world.std.com/~mehopper/Pro/PCTP.htm [Accessed 23 Apr. 2015].

 

Group communication

Communication is always important in any group scenario and with the technology available to us today, it’s easier than ever. During our first group meeting we discussed the best way for us to communicate with each other for the duration of the course. For what we needed, there was several potential options, including but not limited to Trello, Facebook, Email, and Podio. Trello and Podio are essentially collaborative organisational tools and while they can be very effective, we felt that for our purposes, Facebook had us covered. It was already something we all had, new how to use, and used regularly as the course group was also hosted there. It allowed for group chats, sharing of documents and instant communication. We also set up a shared Google calender so that we can arrange meetings at times that suited everyone.

There are of course, many other tools available and through this I learned that there really is a requirement for some sort of collaborative communication platform. I will definitely be doing my research into them to find the most appropriate one to use for future endeavours.

Leadership. Do we need it?

Since the product part is all over and done now, it seems like a good time to reflect on how we worked together as a group and the organisational structure that formed (or didn’t).

In one of our other classes, we have been looking at traditional leadership, its flaws, and how to transform these dated methods and models to work better in today’s business environments. It was during this class that I first realised that we had not really appointed, or even discussed leadership within our group. This was not necessarily a conscious decision on our part, but more how it all just fell into place. We all had different backgrounds and different skills so we did assign roles and tasks based on these but there was no outright leader. During the course of the project we trusted each other to complete and/or take the lead on the tasks assigned to us (based on our skill sets) and were comfortable enough to provide feedback on the work of each person. For example, if we needed a pitch or a story to be written, we immediately turned to Kaitlin who has a content and creative writing background. We would then all provide feedback if necessary and once the changes were made that could then be handed off to perhaps Vania to insert into a visual presentation. Through the leadership classes we learned that this is somewhat of a Rhizome model – more organic and non hierarchical.

From this experience I learned that no matter what, there is always somewhat of a structure to a group or an organisation and leadership is always required to some degree. It may be dynamic and able to change and adapt based on the task, but it is still a structure of sorts. This is particularly effective in a creative task where the sharing of ideas, skills and backgrounds needs to be encouraged and free.

 image source: http://developingwriters.org/2013/07/28/making-connections-learning-pathways-rhizomes/

Taking steps towards our future

Now that we have learned from our challenges and mistakes we have a clear vision of where we could take Little Steps in the future.

We would definitely like to look into moving our manufacturing base to China as this would significantly reduce the production costs, allowing us to make more profit and which can then be used to strengthen our brand and marketing strategies. We would, however, have to consider the impact this move would have on our image, specifically, the loss of the “hand made in the UK” statement.

We would also like to introduce the option to customise the Ella during the ordering process. We would provide a choice of fabrics, patterns, dimensions and angles (while still maintaining our brand image and the product effectiveness). We would then like to use the sales of the Ella to build the Little Steps brand before then introducing more products, geared towards babies, mothers, and their comfort.

Lessons Learned

Now that we are all done with the researching, designing, prototyping, marketing and pitching we are able to look back and reflect on what we gained from the process. While we did have several struggles and challenges, we were able to learn a lot through these.

One of the issues we faced was production costs due to small volumes. The learning from this was that economies of scale plays a huge part in producing and selling a tangible product. Our £1000 budget and restriction to UK manufacturing meant that we could only afford to produce 50 items. at this scale our manufacturing costs were £19 meaning a profit of £9. However, if we were able to scale this to producing 100 items the manufacturing costs drop to about £15. This would mean that we could keep the same profit margin while being able to offer the product to the consumer at a lower price.

Related to this would be the issue we faced concerning sales. We quite quickly discovered that because of our tight margins, selling through traditional retail stores would be extremely difficult, if at all possible. These stores also need to make a profit and so we would either need to cut into our profits, or raise the selling price, which we could not really do as it is already on the higher end of the scale. Through this though we were able to learn a lot about different methods and avenues for selling, particularly those online which were significantly more feasible for us.

The restriction to UK manufacturing also gave us some valuable insight that we would be able to apply to our future endeavours. Many of our struggles came about because £1000 just was not enough to order 100 units, which was more often than not the minimum order quantity. In addition to that, we noticed a huge variance in manufacturers and suppliers and therefore we were required to carry out extensive research into the options and their respective costs, quality, delivery times. Through this we not only learned a lot about our own product and its construction requirements, but also about the manufacturing industry and its various processes.

Another challenge that we were able to learn from came from the product development stage itself. We had initially designed a product that was a mattress wedge and roll out tummy time mat. Through market research, we found that there would be an issue in getting this initial product to the mothers in time for when the baby was sick. Our research then helped us determine another usage case and so we pivoted the product into its current form which means that mothers will use the product while their pregnant and once the baby is born, they can keep the pillow for helping the baby when they need help decongesting or reducing acid.

Final Dragons Den

This was pretty much the moment we had been working up to this entire year. Our final pitch of our final product with all the bells and whistles including branding, finances, future goals and lessons learned. Prior to this day we had been working hard to finalise the pivoting of our product and adjusting the branding slightly to match. We managed to get it all done and also finished our business report, detailing our finances etc so we were ready when the time came to meet the dragons.

The pitch itself went well, with Vania acting out the role of a pregnant mother and Jo’s monkey stuffed toy giving an oscar worthy performance of a baby. We started by introducing ourselves, our backgrounds, and our reason for creating the product (all team members had close connections who were new parents or were expecting). This was followed by a story to describe the product and its use case, then the marketing strategy, the branding strategy, the finances, the lessons learned and finally our future goals. We hit the 7 minute time limit bang on the head and then stood back and waited for the dragons to provide their feedback. This was generally extremely positive, both of the product and the pitch itself – we had come a long way from our first dragons den! In fact, the pitch went so well we were selected as one of six teams to go on and pitch in front of all the dragons (from other rooms) and the other teams (photo below).

This, unfortunately, was where the road ended for us as we didn’t advance further. However, despite this, we had definitely learned a lot and we were able to get this across during our pitch so we were all very proud of ourselves. Personally, the biggest thing I noticed was an increase in my own confidence during the presentation. I was a little nervous as usual but was able to put this aside and just do my part. I think this was because at this point I had more faith in the product itself and new that it was a legitimate item of interest. Having faith in yourself and your product is definitely a crucial aspect of any pitch.

Photo 26-03-2015 8 55 12 pm

Speaking of next steps..

Having met with our potential manufacturer we quickly realised that it would be extremely difficult, if even possible, to produce 100 units of the Ella (minimum order requirement of AJM sewing). Our £1000 simply would not allow for us to be able to produce that quantity and still have funds for our branding etc. This realisation lead us to consider our options and we ended up deciding that something would need to change so we decided to go back out and do some more market research, speaking to more parents and assessing the competition again.

Through this research we were able to discover a different approach to our product. We realised that producing the Ella with the tummy time mat portion would be too expensive and we also found that we would have a potential issue with parents being able to get the Ella in time when their child is sick. These then resulted in us pivoting the product slightly in order to better fit in with the requirements of our target audience, as well as reducing our manufacturing costs.

The Ella was redesigned a little to remove the tummy time mat portion and reduce the angle of elevation to 18 degrees. It was then pitched as a mattress wedge and pregnancy comfort pillow. A pregnant mother often faces discomfort when sleeping or sitting due to the weight of the baby bump so the Ella now acts as a support for this, allowing the mother to place it in different position to aid her comfort. Once the baby is born the Ella can be transitioned into the mattress wedge to elevate the child when they are congested or suffering from acid reflux. This solved the issue of getting the product to the consumer in time as mothers would purchase it during their pregnancy and keep it throughout the baby’s development, extending its useful life-cycle.

using the wedge