18 down, 82 to go

After being a part of the Clemson MBAe and bioengineering master’s programs, I thought I had reached maximum capacity. That was until I was chosen to be a part of the NSF I-Corps program. This grant program awards $50,000 to graduate students looking to commercialize technology that was created in an academic lab. After just getting home from spending a week at the University of Michigan after three challenging days at the I-Corps training program, I realize that the rest of my semester just got a whole lot more swamped.

The whole program is based around “customer discovery,” or finding out exactly who your customer is, what they like, what they hate, what the read, what conferences they go to, where do they go. After completing 18 customer interviews in less than 48 hours, I feel nothing short of a stalker. My I-Corps team (consisting of my bioengineering academic advisor and MBA mentor) would literally wait for potential interviewees to get off work, call their offices at all hours of the day, drive anywhere to meet anyone.

Some would say this is the creepiest thing they have ever heard of. And had you told me about this experience last week, I would have agreed. But I can honestly say I am already a changed person because of this I-Corps program already, and I still have about 6 weeks to go before it’s actually over.

This past week, I had the privilege of meeting athletic trainers for the U Mich basketball team, physical therapists, orthotists, etc. And even after only 18 interviews, my understanding of the medical bracing industry as dramatically improved. Some of the assumptions I made pre-interviewing were spot on (i.e. I knew exactly who my competition was and the strengths and weaknesses of their products). But it turns out what I didn’t know was how braces are actually sold, who buys them, who likes them, who hates them, how they find out about them.

If an aspiring entrepreneur can learn anything from my experiences this past week is that you have to be bold. Go out and talk to anyone who can help you understand the market you want to enter, the product you want to create, the customer you want to create it for. Until you dive deep in to the trenches, you’ll never be able to develop your business model or plan. And you are doomed to run your business into the ground if you don’t make yourself an mini-industry expert. Fear in the way? Don’t be shy. People love to talk about what the do and how they feel to anyone who wants to listen. And who would want to listen more than some desperate entrepreneur (a.k.a. me).

One of my professor in the MBAe program actually said until you interview 100 people, you are in no position to try to break into an industry. 100 people, you say?

In that case, 18 down, 82 to go.