What’s it like to launch a startup? As an innovation consultant here at Board of Innovation and co-founder of two of them, I’m asked that question a lot. And in the name of helping us reach our goal of inspiring 100 million people, it’s about time I shared what my experience has taught me.
Perhaps you or your friends will be able to use this article for inspiration or advice. Or at the very least, maybe you’ll enjoy the read.
Of course, I’m sure you’re wondering about the company I co-founded. I developed my first ‘baby,’ Jaswig (now acquired by Fully, Inc), in November 2014 with my husband, Mathias. Jaswig, we believe, was the first height-adjustable wooden standing desk on the market. The name is an anagram for ‘jigsaw’ because of the nine pieces that fit together to make up the desk.
Now, for those of you who are in a hurry and want me to just get to the point, here are, in bullet points, the 7 key things launching a startup taught me. For those who want to know more about how we came up with the idea, identified our customer, secured funding, and eventually sold the lot, I’ll go into a little more detail in a moment.
7 things to remember if you’re launching a startup
- Your own frustrations/pains are one of the best cues for new business opportunities.
- Share your new ideas with the world as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid that someone will steal it. That risk is way smaller than the benefit of getting feedback and new input for improvements.
- When you finally realize the importance of empathy interviews, think about who you’re talking to. Is it the user, the purchaser, or the financial buyer?
- Be frugal – it just makes you more creative. Which local resources can you use cheaply? Can you form a mutually beneficial partnership with another party? How can you test your idea on a broader audience efficiently? And, as an added bonus, how can you get (free) global marketing in the process?
- Choose your team wisely. Focus on which skills are necessary to get it off the ground. Later, you can think about hiring friends if they have the right skills and work ethic.
- If you get the opportunity to be guided by mentors and/or a startup accelerator, think about it. They’ll make things get real – fast.
- Don’t desperately hold onto your startup/idea, especially if you can hand it over to someone who’s better equipped to raise it to the next level.
How did I come to these conclusions? It’s not easy to tell a four-year story in a single blog post (without infusing it with too much of my own biases and emotional baggage), but I’ll do my best.
52 tools to help your company innovate like a startup
How we came up with our startup idea
In 2014, I was working as a biomimicry researcher, which meant being glued to my desk – a lot. I’m talking around 11 hours a day. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I was struck by severe neck and shoulder pain, which often resulted in migraines. I’d read about the potential benefits of a standing desk and decided to give one a go. But when I actually started shopping around for the right option, I was really disappointed by what I found. They were either ugly transformers that would never fit in my small apartment, or so cheap and wobbly that I might as well just use a cardboard box.
I wanted a beautiful, easy-to-adjust (my husband Mathias is taller than I am) standing desk that I could move around my apartment or outside when the weather was nice.
Frustrated, I decided to just make one myself.
How we built it
Luckily, my husband is a structural engineer, and he had access to a fab lab at his university. So, I didn’t need to look too far for the right skills and supplies.
We set to work trying out some designs. But though our concept sounded easy at first, the reality wasn’t. Thankfully, the fab lab allowed for quick prototyping.
The two of us would brainstorm ways to make our many prototypes sturdier and more adjustable, then we’d test our concepts, find out they weren’t quite right, re-evaluate, and go again.
After a couple of weeks – fine, a few months – we still weren’t happy with our prototype.
We decided it was time to escape our frustrations and head off on a climbing trip. And who should be in the car with us on our 13h road trip from Arkansas to Ohio but our friend Tyler – a woodworker in his spare time.
After telling him about our failed attempts, he shared his thoughts, and it took the three of us less than five hours to come up with a design we were excited about!
When we got home from the trip, we set to work and finally created a working prototype.
How we defined our customer
A few days later, I was happily using our standing desk (still pretty basic) at home and at work. And while it was comfortable to use, I was still having trouble working – but not for the same reasons.
It was difficult to focus because co-workers interrupted so often to compliment the desk and ask if they could have one of their own.
We were all in the right situation to take the prototype further. Mathias wanted to be an entrepreneur, Tyler needed an internship position for his business management class, and I was curious. Customers asking us for the product without provocation was the spark we needed to ignite our startup kindling.
Then a friend of mine – a teacher – fanned the flames. After visiting our house for dinner one night, seeing the desk, and hearing about the project, she became convinced that every child in every school in the USA should have a standing desk!
We were intrigued by the idea. After all, we knew first hand that the ‘sitting still’ we were all supposed to do in class wasn’t easy. Nobody more so than Mathias himself who, having been diagnosed with ADD at a young age, had a hard time focusing in school. He can remember not knowing what to do with his energy bursts. Would a product like this have helped?
So, we decided to interview more teachers and find out. Did they notice children having trouble sitting still? How does furniture influence their teaching style?
We gained a lot of insights and felt a lot of enthusiasm about the idea of standing desks in the classroom (mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism, of course). However, when we asked them which design aspects they found important for the children’s model, they didn’t have much more to offer than, “As long as it’s safe and they can’t pinch their fingers.”
What did that teach us? That we needed to observe children in the classroom. We needed to see them using their desks and our prototype. We needed to speak to our target user.
And what tips did they give us? Creative ones, to say the least.
We set up our first trial classroom containing different prototypes and filled it with excited children and teachers. This meant we had a research project to test the potential benefits of standing desks on learning styles and outcomes.
Everything seemed to be going really well!
But, although teachers would love to see standing desks in their classrooms, they aren’t the ones paying for them. So, we needed to talk to the people behind the money – school principals.
And what a wake-up call that was.
We quickly found out that they had much more pressing things to spend their budgets on. Many didn’t have the money to buy the kids new textbooks.
How we funded our startup
Once we determined that budgets were the problem, we set to work figuring that part out.
How? We launched a campaign on the popular crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter. Along with enabling people to buy our desks, we gave sponsors the chance to purchase a desk for a student as a way to promote their brand (we could then engrave their logo on the desktop, for instance).
Our campaign was picked up by local, national (USA), and international (okay, unfair advantage – we’re from Belgium) magazines, radio, and TV. We felt famous!
What’s more, we involved our local community to raise more awareness around how bad constant sitting is for your body, and targeted parents hoping they’d get on board for the future health of their kids. Plus, we created a painted-by-the-community desk exhibit at an art museum.
30 stressful and very intense days later, our campaign was successfully funded!
We’d sold our first 200 desks! It was incredible.
But at the same time, it was also a hard wake-up call for our consumer plan. We sold 20 kids desks, and only three of those were donated to schools (thanks to my mom, auntie, and Mathias’ mom).
At some point, you have to face reality. While it was our dream to change children’s lives with our standing desks, the world didn’t seem ready for it. We needed another target customer. One that was willing to pay for our product.
Without a paying customer, you’re not building a startup – you’re hustling a hobby.
We looked for help in this area, and in the process, we were selected to join a startup incubator.
It was great. We were guided through many more empathy interviews, business model innovations, startup pitching events, and faced endless questions by venture capitalists.
In short, we learned by doing and in the process, managed to properly define our product – we were selling the world’s first sustainable, wooden, manually height-adjustable standing desk.
Yeah, that’s a mouthful.
Our target consumer became those who work from home, live in small spaces, and value a healthy lifestyle, which turned out to be mostly women in their thirties.
Growing up too fast
Our incubator course taught us to fail fast – and so we did.
‘Sustainable’ wasn’t just a buzzword for us. But shipping from overseas isn’t eco-friendly and at least half the customers who bought desks on Kickstarter were from Europe.
To solve this, we envisioned having the ‘desk’ shipped virtually (i.e., its design file) for retailers or buyers to build it locally from sustainably sourced wood.
The trouble with that valiant plan was that if the build was off by just a millimeter, the result was a wobbly desk. And we’d get the blame for mistakes in assembly, which wouldn’t be good for us.
So, that idea went out the window and we decided we needed to handle the manufacturing ourselves. To do so, we needed to set up a facility in Europe.
The good news was that Mathias’ best friends were super excited to get involved! They took ownership of Jaswig like it was their own child.
But though they had the greatest intentions, we felt like our baby was being hijacked.
While we focused on the US market, gaining insights to improve our desk accordingly, they focused on Europe (which is different in many ways). This meant we were headed in different directions.
When people tell you to really think about your co-founding team and governance, listen. It isn’t until real money gets involved that you’ll realize why they were warning you.
Honestly, we didn’t listen, which meant we had to learn it the hard way.
Our founding team grew from three to eight people in less than 6 months.
Mistakes we made while starting our business
- Doing it with a significant other
- Partnering with friends (a group of six best friends of which three are engineers)
- Working with family
- Not considering diversity in our team
- Seeing everyone as co-founders
- Giving everyone equal shares and decision-making power
- Working remotely without having set up a solid communication and collaboration strategy.
Naturally, that was a recipe for disaster.
1.5 years a lot of drama later, which I can talk about endlessly (please reach out to me if you’d like to know more), we decided to bury the hatchet and move on. We soon found someone that wanted to acquire Jaswig.
How we sold our startup
The founder of furniture distributor Fully reached out to us after hearing about our company through Kickstarter. While the conversations were long and difficult at times, we quickly determined that Fully would be a great partner.
They had very similar values, were way ahead of us, and were already known for their best-in-class standing desk ‘Jarvis.’
We couldn’t have found a better parent for our little Jaswig (and no, that’s not only for the name similarity).
In August 2018, Jaswig was acquired by Fully, and most of the Jaswig team is currently still working for them. They’re now focusing on expanding the European market.
All in all, this rollercoaster journey has a good ending, and with it, we all gained so much hands-on experience.