I graduated from UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business in May 2010. Friends from school included the founders of an ideation space called Napkin Labs; an amazing online test preparation company called Magoosh; and an industry-changing waste-heat-to-electricity clean tech startup called Alphabet Energy. During my time at Haas, I was able to interact with innumerable entrepreneurs and investors and co-founded a sustainability startup that had aspects of gamification and "the world of things" -- I lived the tech maven's dream!
However, I decided to start a watch company.
I started Modify Watches with a friend, Gary Coover, after graduation. Together, we design and manufacture interchangeable faces and straps that can be mixed and matched for the ultimate personalized watch. Our product sold in Google Store and have been customized for HP, AOL and others. We will soon be launched a line featuring the images of Major League Baseball players.
Despite the low-tech nature of our watches, interacting with so many successful techies has had an immeasurable impact on our success. Here are three pieces of advice that we learned while starting up among the entrepreneurial tech genius of Silicon Valley that you can apply to any industry:
- Test your hypotheses. Gary and I thought that Modify was ideally targeted for young professionals. When we first started, people of all demographics would stop us on the street and say, "Cool watch, where'd you get it?" Taking note from the playbook of famed entrepreneurs and investors Steve Blank and Eric Ries – our professors at Haas – we reassessed our strategy, focusing on Customer Discovery and building a Minimum Viable Product. We talked to customers without making more assumptions and instead focused on getting out of the office and testing our hypotheses. Do not create the product of your dreams from the start — you may find that after six months of work and a $50,000 investment, your ideal product does not match a customer’s ideal product.
- Admit that you don't know what you don't know and find great advisers who do. Before business school, I was a management consultant, and before that, I was a history and Hispanic studies major at Columbia. I had no direct experience in the fields we operate in now. We brought on advisers who were experts in design, watch manufacturing, web development and retail, and their advice saved our team countless amounts of money, time and, most importantly, stress. When we run into walls, we always seek out advice. There is a big fallacy, in my opinion, about being closed off to the world — startups often think that someone might steal their big-ticket idea. The truth is that the deck is stacked against an entrepreneur succeeding, so it's important to become a great listener.
- Co-create products with your community. After building a strong community, the best tech businesses do a great job of engaging their fans to make sure that all of their product features are useful. Modify's Facebook fans told us what features to build into our watches! Not too many people cared about adding a calendar feature to the watch, but everyone asked for a watch that was water-resistant. Thanks to our community, you can now go swimming in your Modify. And before we produce any watch, we poll our community to figure out what patterns and colors they prefer.
There are many more great strategies to observe from other companies of all sizes and from all industries. Look for organizations that are doing analogous work and figure out how you can take their best practices and translate them to your business.
Aaron Schwartz is Founder and CEO at Modify Industries, Inc., which designs interchangeable custom watches known as Modify Watches. He loves working on startup ideas and has spent innumerable (happy) hours advising friends and former students on how to grow their ideas.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. The YEC recently published #FixYoungAmerica: How to Rebuild Our Economy and Put Young Americans Back to Work (for Good), a book of 30+ proven solutions to help end youth unemployment.