5 Things My Engineering Background Taught Me About Launching A Product

5 Things My Engineering Background Taught Me

About Launching A Product

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I believe that life does not need to be filled with day-to-day frustrations which is what inspired me to launch my company redesign.  Our mission?  To start with a universal gripe and redesign an everyday product to create a solution that’s better and more fun to use. We first tackled the impossible tangled knots that tend to overcome all headphones. This problem inspired the development of our first product, loopit – practical and stylish headphones that never tangle and can also be worn as a stylish necklace even through airport security.

Our solution is simple and elegant. Often I am asked how I came up with something so deceptively easy which is where an engineering background was very helpful. As a trained engineer with a PhD from MIT, here are five things my background taught me about business:

Observe

It’s important to look at the world around you and see where there are inefficiencies and problems. If you find a problem that you think is worth solving, immerse yourself in a place where you can observe the problem. In this case, I went to airports, train stations, street corners and took pictures of how people were carrying their headphones when they weren’t using them. I saw handbag stuffers, neck drapers, hand scrunchers, pocket danglers, constant earbud wearers. I also researched popular press and saw how tangled headphones were being showcased.

When President Barack Obama was pitching his health care plan he said it was easier to register online than to untangle your headphones.  The Daily Show had highlighted tangled headphones as something that “Made America the Maddest.” It was clear that it was a problem that still needed a solution.

Test and Learn

One thing that can plague anyone starting a business is to overthink. There are a myriad of things that can go wrong and you can spend weeks and months planning for many scenarios. It is better to just start doing something, and in this case it was to start making prototypes. It may not be perfect, but if you can create a minimum viable product (it can be as simple as a mock-up) then you can begin to engage customers and get their feedback which will allow you to continuously iterate to make your product and business better.

Be Rigorous Where it Matters

There are places where it is important to be as analytical as possible. In our case it was having an extremely rigorous cost model so we knew down to the penny, what our unit delivered cost would be which would ensure that we could make a sustainable profit even when we sold at wholesale prices. This meant mapping out import taxes, looking at different shipping options and understanding how our unit cost would vary by the amount we ordered from our factory. Too often I see new entrepreneurs making intricate business plans and not focused enough on whether or not it is possible to make money on the product or service they are selling.

Network

Don’t recreate the wheel — learn from others where you can. When I decided to launch my business I had never done anything like this before, so I went online and found people who had launched products and cold-called or cold-emailed them. In the first few months I had spoken to more than 30 people most of whom I still have not yet met, who gave me advice on the ins and outs of launching a consumer product. Entrepreneurs are the kindest and most generous people I know and if they can help, they will. So pick up the phone or write that email to someone that inspires you. I am sure they will be thrilled to share their lessons learned when they launched their business.

Take Calculated Risks

Exploring the unknown is exciting but it can also be incredibly daunting.  Before I do anything, I always ask myself, “What is the worst thing that can happen” and if the worst thing is not that bad, then I try it. My favorite story so far is when I was a semi-finalist on the Today Show’s ‘Next Big Thing.’ During that round, you needed to get the public to vote for you and I was on the train back from NYC to Philadelphia. As I boarded the train, someone recognized me from that morning’s segment and asked me to do my product demonstration again. As I did it, the eight people sitting around us were intrigued and all of them took out their cell phones to vote for me. This group of strangers then convinced me to go car by car and ask the entire train to vote for me because this was my moment and I needed to get as many votes as I could. As they were urging me on, I realized the worst thing that could happen was that the other passengers would be annoyed and I would just embarrass myself which I would eventually recover from. So, with their encouragement I left my train car and went to visit the other cars. Amazingly the entire train was excited and ecstatic for me. It turns out that all the passengers on train 2165 voted for me which warmed my heart. The old me would have been too intimidated to do something like this but by realizing that the worst case scenario is not that bad has opened up possibilities that I never thought imaginable.

Vanessa Chan

Vanessa is the founder and chief designer at Redesign.Studio. Vanessa has always been innovating. Before taking the entrepreneurship plunge and founding re.design, she was a partner at McKinsey & Company where she co-led their innovation practice. An inveterate networker, Vanessa supports women professionals as co-president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Ellevate Network.

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