By Bill Radford The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) From building and launching your minimum viable product (MVP), to distribution of your creation, the road to bringing an idea to market can be challenging. Bill Radford shares the experiences of a couple of Colorado Springs entrepreneurs.
So, you've got this great idea.
While it's an idea that might not transform the lives of everyone on the planet, it could at least make life better or more enjoyable for a subset of people.
So now what? How do you transform that idea into a reality, a product? And then how do you transform that product into a business, bringing your idea to market while reaping the rewards?
It's a question tackled by inventors and budding entrepreneurs each week on TV's "Shark Tank." And one asked by dreamers and tinkerers across the country every day in their garages and workshops.
Here are two local examples: FlipStep Marc Crawford came up with the concept of the FlipStep, a tailgate step for pickups, several years ago. He was a trucker at the time, and on the road, he says, "I had a lot of time to think about things." And one of the things he thought about was how hard it was to climb in and out of the bed of a full-size pickup.
"I saw the need for the product," he says. Though there are other tailgate steps on the market, he sees his as -- pun intended -- a step above.
"There are others who try to do the same thing .... but we do it a lot better. Just better engineered, the design, how it works, aesthetically," says Crawford, who has a patent on the FlipStep.
John Marshall, a mechanical engineer with his own company, Ransford Engineering, partnered with Crawford a few years ago after meeting him through happenstance and learning of his vision for the FlipStep.
"He had already gotten the design pretty far at that point," Marshall says.
Marshall used CAD, or computer-assisted design, to take it further, producing a 3D model and drawings to show manufacturers how to make the parts for the step. The FlipStep has been through nine prototypes. Ready to get it to market, Crawford and Marshall launched a Kickstarter campaign in early December. The goal: to raise $30,000 in 30 days to raise funds for the first round of production. But the campaign fell far short, raising only $8,660.
Crawford doesn't regret the effort. "It seemed like a no-lose situation," he says, since the campaign did help raise attention and caused them to develop media materials that they can still use. (See a video they made at theflipstep.com.)
Still, Marshall says, "It was very disappointing that the Kickstarter didn't work. We put a lot of effort into making that happen."
The failure had the two searching for answers. Was the holiday season the wrong time for the campaign? Was Kickstarter the wrong venue? Was the price -- $350 for the earliest Kickstarter investors, with a suggested retail price of $500 -- too high? ("It's expensive to make," Marshall says, "because it's good materials."
And the biggest question: What do they do next?
They're looking at several options, Marshall says. They could get a small business loan. They could seek outside investors -- "say an angel investor, someone who believes in the product also." They could try for a licensing deal.
"That would be great from a distribution standpoint," Marshall says. "We don't have a good distribution network. ... It's just so difficult to bring products to the market and reach people when you don't have the kind of connections you need."'
But they're not giving up. For Crawford, who has a business steam-cleaning restaurant hoods and ductwork, "this (the FlipStep) is my dream business."
And he continues to believe in the product.
"There's nothing like it out there," he says.
KinetiCoach KinetiCoach is a fitness app that provides customized workouts. Lt. Col. Jeremy Gordon, an instructor pilot at the Air Force Academy, was stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Va., when the roots for KinetiCoach were planted.
He and a fellow fighter pilot, Brent Tittle, were also personal trainers and flew with a lot of Air National Guard pilots who were also commercial pilots. Those pilots would frequently text them photos of their hotel gym, asking for suggestions for workouts.
"That was the genesis of the idea," Gordon says. "How do we help frequent travelers, of all fitness levels and experience, stay fit despite equipment and time limitations?"
They figured, as the saying goes, that "there's an app for that." But, Gordon says, "we couldn't find one that delivered specifically what people wanted." App development, though, was "completely new" to them. While they researched that process, they also started building content. They then turned to a tech company in Montreal to help them while also taking on a third partner, Josh Wilson, another pilot.
The app went live a little over two years ago on iOS devices (Apple); in December, it became available to Android users. Gordon and his partners, meanwhile, split with the Montreal company about a year ago to team up with one closer to home, Epic Apps in Denver. And their customer base grew beyond the business traveler to incorporate customized workouts for people in their home gyms or other gyms.
"We try to add as many layers of personalization as possible," Gordon says. So the customized workouts take into account not just the equipment available, but the length of the workout, the user's goals and conditioning, injuries if any and even how motivated the person is feeling.
Creating an app, Gordon says, isn't as easy as presenting your concept to the developer and saying, "Make it so."
"For one thing, Josh, Brent and I do not speak tech," Gordon says. And there was another language barrier with the Canadian company, where the primary language was French.
"The developers spoke English relatively well," Gordon says, "but it was an extra barrier." Even without that barrier, it's tricky to take that vision in your mind of what things should look like and communicate that, he says.
"I can do my best with PowerPoint to show them what it should look like, but they have to translate that into the right code to make it work, and it's a lot of back and forth, them coding something, then uploading a test version, you messing around with it. It's not just that this doesn't look right, but this button should take me here, and then looking two steps down the road."
While beta versions are intended to garner feedback, that feedback can be difficult to accept, Gordon says. "Your initial instinct, knowing the money you've put into it so far, is defensive. .... Now you want this and this?"
And in incorporating feedback, he says, you have to beware of "feature creep," driven by a constantly growing wish list.
"We could keep adding more and more things to our app to please every individual user, but you have to find that balance."
Before launching on Android, KinetiCoach had 23,000 registered users -- "a drop in the bucket," Gordon acknowledges. But a partnership with Tlero, a U.K.-based company aimed at improving mental health and well-being in the workplace, could open the door to much greater exposure, he says; the Tlero app will include KinetiCoach's daily workout challenge and a path to the KinetiCoach app.
"I don't know that our intent is to become a massive, standalone Angry Birds app," he says. So pairing with other businesses, such as more employee wellness programs, could be the key to KinetiCoach's future. The project has been a boot-strapped one for Gordon and his partners; he figures their investment reaches the six figures.