The Motorola Mobility Foundation held its third Community Day at the Moto Shop located at 108 North State Street on Wednesday, March 16. The event theme was Innovation in Product Design. Another band of four innovative entrepreneurs and business leaders in Chicago discussed the importance of product design while sharing their challenges and victories with 20-plus aspiring entrepreneurs.
The Motorola Mobility Foundation is the charitable and philanthropic arm of Motorola Mobility and hosts business networking events that provide a unique experience for Chicagoans to get engaged in conversations surrounding product design and innovation. Wednesday’s Community Day was moderated by Elena Valentine, co-founder and CEO of Skill Scout, a relatively new, innovative and hands-on hiring platform that uses video for skill-focused interviews.
The esteemed panel included the following:
- Leslie Hicks, Color and Trend Designer for Motorola.
- Andrea Sreshta, Co-founder of luminAID, solar-powered, inflatable light that packs flat and inflates to create a lightweight, waterproof lantern. luminAID was featured on Shark Tank, successfully landing a $200,000 deal with Mark Cuban.
- Annie Mohaupt, Owner of digitally-manufactured footwear Mohop;
- Pavan Bapu, Co-founder and CEO, Gramovox, reimagined record turntables that are vertical and float.
What actions did each of you take to begin manifesting your innovations in product design?
Pavan: I committed to it. I quit my job prematurely and cashed in my 401(K). I won’t tell you how insignificant the amount was.
Annie: I studied architecture and was renovating a house at the time, and I wondered if I could make shoes with the excess material. I spent the next few years scaling my business. I, too, quit my job prematurely.
Andrea: I also studied architecture. I spent a great deal of time sketching then prototyping ideas. My team and I kept everything super simple.
Leslie: At Motorola, we looked at our track record, then thought about shifting our focus to the outside of how our products look in the consumer’s hands. It’s always more of a ground-up effort, but equally challenging.
What is your approach to continuous improvement?
Pavan: The prototype and iteration phases are critical. Gravity works against you, so oftentimes we would be faced with the needle digging into the grooves. It was challenging to build something aesthetically pleasing, too. People buy with their eyes, so we had to reverse-engineer everything. Initially, we began building a Styrofoam model; tested it, tracked it then sent it off to production.
Annie: I’d make samples then would walk around the block. I had prototyped for about six months, then would take them to market. It wasn’t long before we got calls, “My shoes broke.” That was disheartening. My goal was to walk 100 miles without the product breaking, so I had consulted with a woodworking instructor from my school and I had to figure out how to create variations for comfort (e.g., bunions, etc.). I went through learning a series of methods in my approach to problem-solving.
Andrea: It starts with the customer. We always had to take it back to the drawing board and then iterate. When we got feedback about trouble with the valve, we’d always take it back to the drawing board.
Leslie: We’re hard on ourselves so we’d face what was problematic head-on. We would take things apart at the office, then change everything around. Don’t be afraid to fail. Learn to shift your focus when facing problems; for example, we always look at colors and trends. Make sure you have the flexibility to move towards the customer’s intent.
Talk about the process it took for each of you to begin building your teams.
Pavan: I knew to put ego aside, so it’s important to know what you don’t know. I knew I was good at design and marketing, but I sucked at numbers. That’s where the co-founder came in. It was a relief to find someone who loves working in Excel spreadsheets all day. It’s your job as a leader to give your team the culture and climate to succeed. Some of our former interns are now a part of our operations. It’s the best thing you could hope for.
Annie: I was a solopreneur for years, so it was pretty challenging. I met my former UPS driver and eventually hired him away from UPS. He has a degree in film and made an awesome Kickstarter video for me. I really feel like we’re building something together as a team.
Andrea: We hired our first employee two years in. We have five employees now. Between working remotely with the use of third-party cloudware, we’re scaling accordingly.
Leslie: Our design group is like a consultancy within a corporation. Our approach to creativity is encouraged and everyone is connected to each other. You can’t second-guess your partners. We hold everyone to their expertise and execute accordingly.
Discuss your agile process of scaling your concepts.
Pavan: You want someone who will tell you if your idea is good or bad. I have a process I call Passing the sleep test. Can you go to bed and wake up without your concept? Is it a pressing issue? Have a logical debate with yourself that will hopefully materialize into something.
Annie: Be willing to work fast and inexpensively. Provide quality and durability while listening to customers.
As kids, did you see yourselves doing what you are now?
Andrea: No, I wanted to be an architect.
Leslie: I thought I was going to be in the military like my dad. In college, I went from interior design to advertising. I used college to explore my option and then ended up in graphic design, even though I hated computers. That was when I got to learn and play with color theory. Everything I had an opportunity to do has led up to now, so don’t ever discount the things you learn.
What obstacles have each of you faced, respectively, from the time you started to the present?
Pavan: I quit my job then launched two Kickstarter campaigns to launch my startup, which is currently earning millions in sales. More than anything you need clarity and vision to champion others to believe in and cultivate.
Annie: I started in 2005. I had lived through the first economic meltdown following 9/11. I was almost on the Oprah show once, but the fashion segment got canceled. I thought to myself, “How am I going to scale this company?” Thankfully, now we have all these emerging technologies. Though I’m smarter about leasing options and spending, I still have a long way to go, so I’ll seek funding eventually to scale up.
Andrea: We’re still pretty small, but we’ve been very conservative with money. It was a long time — more than 2 1/2 years — before we paid ourselves. We ran a successful crowdfunding campaign back in 2011 and then went on Shark Tank. We did $3M in sales after our episode aired.
What was your experience like when scaling your startups?
Pavan: With time and proper training, we scaled from one unit a day to 20. We’ve learned to ensure we’re allocating the right resources to make things happen. Where we would’ve saved money in one area, would’ve caused headaches in another.
Annie: Automation is key. I went through too many periods of training people then they would get bored and leave. Of course, that had gotten to be a bit much. It was frustrating, so I ended up paring down my former team and began thinking through all of my processes. I had to learn fast what could we make that’s scalable and what can be automated? How do we react immediately? What will be in fashion next year or put on discount? Or worse, sent to a landfill? What would be least harmful to the environment?) We had to figure all this out and then some, and fast.
How can the rest of us face our own obstacles after our concepts pass the ‘Sleep Test’?
Pavan: Find someone that hates your idea and see what’s useful in the feedback. There might be something you’ve never considered before.
Leslie: Be encouraged. Have the time to wait. Do what you can every day to get closer to your goals.
Join the Moto community
If your startup improves the communities where you live and work, The Motorola Mobility Foundation wants to hear from you. Visit their website at www.motorola.com/us/Motorola-Mobility-Foundation/motorola-foundation.html. Like them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/EmpowerMoto to keep up with their events.