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|Until you test the hypothesizes on which your business plan is based, you don’t know how crazy these hypothesizes really are.|
This was not the first time I was speaking to consumers. I had previously spoken to some end consumers in March. A Marketing Research Methods class had also done further interviews during the Spring Quarter. Both of these sets of interviews were more exploratory in nature. In this third iteration of interviews, my main goal was to present some fleshed out ideas and also, where appropriate, demo the prototype that a software engineering class from the Spring Quarter had completed.
I spoke to researchers in industry both in person and over the phone. One these researchers had recently become a victim of the downsizing that many R&D labs have been undergoing due to the recession. Meanwhile, another firm boasted that they were spending more on R&D than ever before. A particular woman I spoke to on the phone exclaimed that she had an awful employer – her only reason for speaking to me must have been to warn me away from ever working there. Perhaps most extraordinary was meeting someone who had attended the same middle school as me in the UK. The varieties of circumstances were fantastical. Driving on the "wrong side of the road", the travel was exhausting too.
Perhaps because all the academics I spoke to were based at Northwestern, there was less variation in the circumstances of the academics. It was clear that some professors were superstars and had carte-blanche autonomy to do as they pleased. The administrative staff seemed at times to struggle with this. It transpires that consulting is something that is discouraged, though in some areas parts of the university it is rampant. Academia also has interesting and divergent priorities to industry, particularly with respect to publishing intellectual property.
I’m still digesting what I’ve learned from all these interviews, but one thing is clear: the hypothesizes that my business idea is based on do completely hold. The incentives are not completely aligned. For some people the conflicting priorities of what academia and industry prefer stifles the creation of value that I propose for both parties. However, I am not completely dismayed. I believe this is part of the process. After a previous iteration of talking to consumers, I refined my target customers from anyone in industry to researchers in industry. Following this set of interviews, and the latest feedback, I now need to refine another part of the business plan. My only worry is whether I'll run of time and money before I have a business that holds up when the hypothesizes it is based on are tested.
|"At least we don't have to do the cleaning," says one of the interns.|
My first job out of undergrad was as a software developer. In that role, I would often work with software testers - people who would go through and test all the functionality of the software that we developed, making sure it all worked perfectly. During the early part of this week, this was exactly what I was doing. As we polished up the first iteration of a prototype developed by a software engineering class during the Spring quarter, I've been getting my hands dirty making sure it all works perfectly for when it comes to demo.
Later on in my career, as I moved into managing software development teams, I would sometimes peer over the wall towards the sales team and watch them trying to develop new sales leads - so the software development teams would have something to develop. Developing customers is how I spent the latter part of the week, sending out numerous emails and making calls. This was all with the purpose of setting up meetings with the types of people who may be our customers. We want to test our assumptions against these end consumers to ensure it has value for them.
The end consumers we are targeting are of two varieties: researchers in academia and researchers in industry. The academics have been relatively easy to meet with - the professors at Northwestern have been pretty open to meeting. The researchers in industry have not been as open. I've been using the Northwestern Alumni directory to reach out to these folk, but often the contact details are wrong. Secondly, when I do get through to the alums, they will often not be inclined to help. This is a learning process though, and I'm getting a better sense of the approach I should take.
Through all this, I've developed a minor health problem, which has been affecting my level of positivity. A less than positive mental attitude signals all the wrong things to the rest of the team (the interns), as well as the people I meet. Part of this game has to be projecting confidence and believing success will come - creating the virtuous circle where confidence and success reinforce each other. So I've turned to music to keep my spirits up; it has been surprisingly effective. We might be doing the "worst" jobs, but at least we can do them the way we want to, playing music in the office that we want to. This week, it's a lot of AC/DC.
|My startup is incubated on the top (attic) floor of Fisk Hall, the home of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.|
My focus this past first week has been on getting things set up, as well as team-building. I've hired two software engineering students from Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering as interns for the summer. Out of my keenness to get them on board with the mission, I had us all review the team-related slides from the MORS430 (Organisational Behavior) course. A highly rated course at Kellogg, I genuinely believe in the importance of this stuff.
The MORS430 course explains the differences between high-performing and low-performing teams. For example, in high-performing teams there are clear divisions of responsibility in the team. There is also greater emphasis on co-ordination of activities than any one person leading. Also, as we learned in a Lego game during the course, the better the team does in initial planning, the quicker and easier the team finds it in ultimately executing the necessary activities. Thankfully, the interns thought the material to be as interesting as I do.
As much as this is the first week of a summer adventure, this is just the current phase of my ongoing project. This is the project I undertook, when I started business school, to start a new media venture. During the Spring Quarter I was fortunate enough to have a number of student teams take on my startup as part of their class projects:
- A software engineering class at the McCormick engineering school developed some mock-ups and a basic outline of the web-based service that we are building.
- A marketing research class at Kellogg (MKT450) completed market research on some of the end users that would use the service, developing some findings on their preferences and motivations.
- An entrepreneurial selling class at Kellogg (ENTR903A) developed a slide-deck and sales presentation for presenting the business to channel partners.
During the Winter quarter I was even more fortunate to have won funding, via Northwestern's Media Management Center, from the McCormick Journalism Foundation. This funding is what provides the financial support for the summer activities that I am now undertaking.
With all these past efforts from the Winter and Spring quarters, another part of "setting up" this first week has been getting together and shaping up what we already have, so that it is ready for use in the upcoming weeks.
At this stage it is difficult to say how these thirteen weeks will unfold, but it will perhaps be a more interesting ride than the MBA admissions process or even the first year of business school.
|Spring quarter has started at business school, which means it is business plan season.|
The competitions rarely ask for a full business plan, as least in the early stages. Instead, an executive summary or abstract is asked for. Someone recently said to me that, in selling my business, I need a 1 minute pitch, 10 minute pitch and 45 minute pitch. These summary documents are analogous to the 10 minute pitches.
So I've been writing these "10 minute" summary versions of my business plan. As I write these documents, I realize that for every line in a one page document, there is probably tens of hours of work of work behind it. Yet this will not be apparent at all in reading the document. Take, for example, a line that says "a team from an undergraduate class will build a prototype". This line does not describe the other alternatives I had investigated and thrown away, such as looking to contract software engineers or developing relationships with researchers who might help build it. It will not even describe the pain experienced in some of these not working out.
At first, it is tearful to not unravel the full story behind the window dressing that is the business plan. But it is important to realize that the business plan is largely window dressing. I'm learning more and more that a business plan is not a document with intricate details that you design and create to carefully help you navigate yourself to your dream. It is not even an aid to help people understand how you will set up your business. A business plan is a marketing document. Its sole purpose is to convince people - to excite people into giving you whatever it is you need.
Though I have only entered two competitions thus far, I already feel that each competition helps iterate and refine my ideas - solidifying them, creating more punchy descriptions and ultimately improving what I'm working on. I'm looking forward to what my business plan will look like at the end of Spring quarter, at the end of the business plan competition season.
|I've managed to assemble a few good mentors to help me develop my business.|
Before even starting at Kellogg, during the admit weekend (DAK), I took the opportunity to meet professors and others who might talk to me. During these conversations, I often managed to demonstrate my enthusiasm and interest, if not take their thinking in different directions. For the people that did not meet me, when school started, I was soon at coffee chats that they frequented. I was soon able to demonstrate my commitment, if nothing else.
As my ideas developed, becoming more realistic and tangible, then the moment of magic occurred - one of these people said, "that's a really great idea - I'd love to work with you on it". Pretty soon, the next person was saying, "wow - how'd you manage to get that person on board?". My credibility was increasing.
Through this continual process of seeking advice and demonstrating likability and credibility, I've now gained access to two valuable resources - a team that will help me prototype my idea (some undergrads) and some money. I hope to find the limits of this seeking advice/likability/credibility strategy.
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