Ask The Mompreneur: Startup Helps Customers Deal With The Unexpected

By Jennie Wong The Charlotte Observer.

This week's "Ask the Mompreneur" features an interview with Lenore Vassil, founder of The Torch, a communication tool for providing essential instructions to your loved ones in case of illness or accident.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Torch and what convinced you to pursue the idea full time?

A: I was on an adventure vacation in Ibiza, Spain, with my sister and four friends. One day after doing some treacherous hiking, one of my friends raised the question, "If something happened to you today, would anyone know how to navigate your life?"

We immediately called her "buzzkill!" After all, we were having so much fun at the time. But when we all thought about it, our unanimous response was "no." I always believed I was a responsible person, so this answer to a rather serious and important question troubled me.

My sister and I both lived alone in different cities, and thanks to social media, I knew about all those unimportant things like what she had for lunch. The important things, like the names of doctors or our important papers and where they are stored, we didn't discuss. I was even more surprised to learn that the women who were married with children kept their husbands in the dark about essential information, and vice versa.

It's a social sharing paradox. We all share more and more unimportant information but rarely have conversations about who to call, where to look and what to do in an emergency. When I researched available solutions I didn't like any that I found, so I decided to use my 25 years of technology experience to build The Torch to make it easier to have conversations that matter.

Q: How did you assess the size of the market opportunity? What is your ultimate vision for your company?

A: The user of The Torch is a person who wants to give instructions for managing their affairs if something happens to them. Market segments include travelers, people who live alone, couples who don't share household responsibilities, business owners, children of the elderly or sick and the elderly themselves. Quite a large market! Younger people are often interested in purchasing gift accounts for their parents. They will be the ones responsible for managing their parents' affairs if something happens to them, and having instructions will save them a lot of stress in difficult times.

We also have business users. These include financial planners, estate attorneys, insurance agents and banks that use it as a complementary service. Typically it is offered as a gift from the business to their client, and we have the ability to add branding to suit their needs. The market size of these businesses was easy to determine, they are not shy about advertising. Trade associations are a great source of information.

Talking about "what if" is often viewed as taboo in the U.S. and I want to change that. We share so much information these days, but rarely what is important. I want The Torch to be the No. 1 tool for organizing and sharing emergency information, making planning ahead routine and customary across the world.

Q: You've been working on your startup for more than two years now. What are the most important lessons you've learned so far?

A: First, it doesn't matter how conservative your business plan is, everything costs twice as much, takes three times as long and is 10 times harder than you think it will be.

Second, no business plan survives its first encounter with a customer. The sooner you get your design in front of potential customers the better.

Third, I learned that a "vitamin" is exponentially harder to sell than a "painkiller." You must create customer demand rather than harvesting it.

Q: How did you have to adjust to startup life after a career in the Fortune 500, including six years at Bank of America?

A: When working for large established companies, you take for granted the robust infrastructure of support systems, processes and technology you have at your disposal. When you have an idea for a startup, it's easy to get consumed with building the product, but you must also build "a company" around the product, including accounting, legal, sales, marketing, human resources, technology, metrics, policies, procedures and the list goes on. Sometimes this can take more time and be more difficult than building the product.

Q: What advice do you have for other founders on the earliest stages of ideating from concept to product?

A: The best advice I ever received was to "sell your product before you build it." When I had a high-level business plan and a rudimentary prototype, one of my advisors asked me if I had put the idea in front of any estate planning professionals. I said I was planning to attend an upcoming estate planning conference in six weeks. He said, "You are not going to attend, you are going to be a sponsor, you are going to buy a table and sell your product." This concept was so foreign to me ... "I can't create the product in six weeks. How can I possibly sell something that doesn't exist?" Well, I did. I created a brand, a booth and a simple demo app on an iPad. I demonstrated my product and asked for early signups. I learned more in one day than I ever imagined I could.

Q: What are your tips regarding accelerators, advisors, and investors?

A: I can't say enough about the benefits of being a part of the startup community. Whether the company you are building focuses on technology, energy, consumer products, bio-tech or is a nonprofit there are accelerators, contests and grants to help you get connected with advisors, investors, vendors and like-minded people. Even if you don't get accepted, just the act of applying and receiving feedback is definitely worth your time.

I believe the best investors are customers, and the best form of capital is revenue. I think that is why Kickstarter and similar programs are so popular. They turn the power of your customer demand into investment capital. If you need investors to build or grow your company, always look for "smart money" that brings industry knowledge and contacts ___ ABOUT THE WRITER Jennie Wong is an executive coach, author of the e-book "Ask the Mompreneur" and the creator of the product quiz website www.ABorC.com

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