Entrepreneurs Validate Ideas, Hear Past Winner’s Advice at Lean Startup Machine Newark

Enthusiasm filled the room at Lean Startup Machine Newark, which was held at the inspiring Seed Gallery, near the Prudential Center in downtown Newark, Nov. 8–10, 2013.

Surrounded by art, some 50 individuals took their business concepts to the lean event, which encourages entrepreneurs to get out of the office and validate their ideas with real clients.

Photo: Friday night networking at Lean Newark. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Friday night networking at Lean Newark. | Esther Surden

Leading the weekend gathering was organizer Steven Royster, who has been championing the Lean Startup Machine (LSM) methodology in Newark. Joining him was LSM facilitator Joseph Lopardo, an entrepreneur and business development professional.

Royster began by thanking April Peters, who had helped organize the event, and many of the sponsors, including Microsoft Ventures, Brick City Development Corp., PNC Bank, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, K& L Gates, FastSigns and StartupValley.

Photo: Participants lined up to give their short pitches Friday night at Lean Newark. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Participants lined up to give their short pitches Friday night at Lean Newark. | Esther Surden

Following the LSM playbook, the entrepreneurs pitched their business ideas in two minutes, a very short time in which to convince other participants that their ideas are good.

The pitches ranged from one that proposed automating the process of finding customers within and outside a business’s network to another that suggested building a site to connect landscapers and customers.

One would-be founder discussed a site that matches corporations to specific charities or other nonprofits. Another proposed a site to match language learners to native speakers of that language so the learners can become fluent.

In the lean world, participants at events vote on the ideas pitched. The 10 or so founders with the most votes are then chosen to validate their ideas during that weekend.

Photo: A participant pitches an idea at Lean Newark. Looking on are organizer Steven Royster and LSM facilitator Joseph Lopardo. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
A participant pitches an idea at Lean Newark. Looking on are organizer Steven Royster and LSM facilitator Joseph Lopardo. | Esther Surden

After the ideas are selected, the founders create a team from the remaining individuals who had proposed business concepts but were not chosen to continue. After much chaos, the teams take shape and the work of validating the customer experience begins.

Before they began their challenging work, the LSM teams were treated to tips from last year’s winner, Mark Annett, who had created SnackBuilder, a kit with which kids can “build” a race car out of healthy foods.

Annett told the founders, “Even if your idea was not selected, this is a phenomenal learning experience that you can apply to whatever company you plan on creating … This is going to be of tremendous value to you.”

Photo: Mark Annett talks about lessons he learned as a Lean Startup Machine Newark leader. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Mark Annett talks about lessons he learned as a Lean Startup Machine Newark leader. | Esther Surden

The very first lesson Annett said he had learned was that to attract people to help you with your idea, you have to have a passion for what you are creating. “Passion is what brings people to you,” he said, adding that he had learned this the hard way, by not initially exhibiting enough passion for his idea.

The validation board, LSM’s tool to test risky assumptions, is the most important one the teams can use, said Annett. “Learn to love this tool,” he advised, noting that the riskiest assumptions his own team had begun with was that kids would drive sales and that once they had the snack kit in their school lunch, their friends would want it. Said Annett, “We went out to the Prudential Center — the circus was in town — to test this assumption.”  It turned out, of course, that parents drove sales.

His team also tested the assumption that cookies could be the basis of the kit, Annett said. “We found that urban parents were much more health-conscience than the team had assumed. Suburban parents admitted that they would give their children something like this if it took some time to build the car.

“If you are the team leader and this is your idea, you are going to be the last one to pivot. That is both a blessing and a curse, because you are so involved with your product,” noted Annett. When you do pivot, he added, you may go farther than your team. Annett said it “becomes your job to tell the new story … Our first pivot was to go from a cookie product to a healthy product.”

After seeing how enthusiastic kids were about the product at a child’s birthday party, Annett’s team asked the parents if they would include it in their children’s lunches. The answer: absolutely not, because children barely have time to eat, much less build something, during school lunchtime. The parents said they would use the kit at play dates and parties.

Annett said he knew the group was pivoting after he ascertained that many moms would pay $5 for a kit. “We were no longer a lunch-based product. We were a play-date-in-a-box product. It was my job to tell the new story.”

He described how important building the team was to his win. Each member took on a role — marketing, tech or operations. A mentor who had been hearing how the team worked liked the group so much that he gave Annett a letter of intent to invest.

“It wasn’t so much the product. It was our ability as a team to process and validate the data and the information” that brought the mentor along, Annett said. He advised the participants to make their teams an integral part of the LSM event.

[A second Lean Startup Machine Newark article focusing on the winners will be published shortly.]

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