Understanding the Human Element of Startups: Inside NCIIA’s VentureLab
Written on the whiteboard on the first day of my entrepreneurship class at Tufts was a sobering statistic: 80 percent of startups die in their first four years. There exist a variety of factors that can kill a business. Luckily, Boston is full of programs and organizations designed to help entrepreneurs navigate through the startup process. The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance’s Sustainable Vision VentureLab, led by James Barlow, is a five-day intensive incubator program for companies doing business in emerging markets (it ran August 26-30). I initially thought that it would be an abbreviated version of a conventional business class curriculum, somewhat similar to what I had experienced in the five-day boot camp organized by MassChallenge: what are the best ways to structure a company, to manufacture, distribute, and market product X in market Y, and how to go about getting VC funding?
On the contrary, it is a back-to-basics introspective program that emphasizes the human element of a business, such as being able to communicate your value proposition in an effective and clear manner. This may sound elementary. The reality is that this is the foundation for any business. James compared it to humming a song in your head. When vocalized you can clearly hear the tune and the words, even though the person across from you may be shooting you a puzzled look. This is a problem many entrepreneurs unknowingly struggle with. Having become so familiar with the intricacies of their businesses, they have lost the ability to break it down into its simplest and most coherent forms. When hearing these entrepreneurs pitch, the listener finds himself unable to understand the core of their idea, akin to listening to a hummed song.
Oftentimes, the founders themselves are confused and are unknowingly in disagreement about what the value proposition of their businesses is. Even if they are aware of the value proposition, they are unable to translate it in a way that speaks to the wants and needs of their market. That is why the VentureLab program focuses so much on deconstructing the human element aspect of your business. This is often a tricky process because it requires you to examine your business in a manner in which you are unaccustomed to and uncomfortable doing. At Roof For Two, we looked at all the factors that could sink our company and discovered the need to connect with different influencers in our product market. It became an exercise in stitching together our business and value proposition in a manner that resonated with each one of these individual actors. For example, our company provides a motorcycle weather accessory for riders in India to shield themselves from the monsoon rains. It saves them time in their commute and increases the efficiency of businesses whose employees lose time when seeking shelter from the downpour. When we started looking beyond our end user and examined other people potentially impacted by our product, we began asking ourselves very different questions from the ones we had originally posed. We had initially asked: What do Indian motorcyclists look for in a product? How will our product affect their lifestyle?
However, during VentureLab we looked beyond the commuter towards businesses, institutions, and society. We asked ourselves very different questions: What businesses stay open during the heavy monsoon season? Would small businesses have incentives to subsidize our product for their commute sensitive employees? How do we best communicate our value proposition to both the commuters and the businesses that depend on them?
Besides the introspective portion, part of the learning process in programs such as VentureLab comes from the interaction between participants who can help one another, despite operating in unrelated markets. Such was my experience when speaking with Benjamin Mitchell, one of the founders of Baisikeli Ugunduzi, a bicycle parts manufacturer and distributer for Boda Boda cyclist taxi drivers in Kenya. I learned that in Kenya, as well as in parts of West Africa, two-wheeler riders actually welcome rainy days because it gives them time to relax and socialize with the other riders who are seeking shelter from the downpour. For me, this information was extremely useful because it showed that, even though in parts of Africa there may have seemed to be a need for two-wheeler weather protection, the reality is it would not be an appropriate market for us.
In addition to the peer-to-peer learning, the participants benefited from insight that only James’s years of experience as an international startup consultant for an assortment of companies could provide. His experience on how to protect intellectual property in a developing country was just one of the many issues we addressed. My favorite example is that of Kickstart International, a company that developed a manual water pump that works like a Stairmaster, thereby allowing farmers in developing countries to manually irrigate their crops. In order to compete with and differentiate themselves from imitators, the company painted its product with a very noticeable shade of blue that is almost impossible to obtain in certain countries where they operate, such as India.
Apart from being a fun and interactive learning experience, the NCIIA Sustainable Vision VentureLab was a great place to discover companies that have developed fascinating technologies and devised creative solutions to solve rampant, global problems. One such company is Inserogen, a biotech startup that emerged out of a student-led research project at UC Davis that has developed a technology that enables the use of non-transgenic tobacco plants to produce proteins in order to rapidly and cost-effectively manufacture vaccines. Maa-Bara is another company that has designed a creative solution to another chronic problem: using locally accessible and affordable materials, they are able to assemble “aquaponics” kits to provide inhabitants of the Niger Delta with the means to fish and cultivate crops year-round. This is essential in a country where oil spills, amongst other factors, result in the widespread degradation of the soil and water, thereby destroying the livelihood of thousands.
Even though all the participants had great ideas and products, many were struggling with essential difficulties that they learned to resolve over the course of their five-day stint in the VentureLab. For me it was a unique experience because I learned so much about certain aspects of a business that are not stressed enough in the academic or corporate world: that of the human operating system, as James coined it. I highly recommend the VentureLab for people who are looking to equip themselves with the tools that will allow them to think big, start small, grow fast and build a successful business.