I&E 352: Strategies for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
I&E 352 introduced many skills needed to launch a venture and bring an idea to market. The course began with identifying market need, innovation strategy, financing, developing resources, marketing and communicating, working with a team, identifying individual strengths to create greatest outcome, and measuring financial success. The course used team work, class discussion, and case studies to explore the aforementioned topics.
Innovation is centered around the development and production of ideas, items, and services that fix a consumer’s problem or improve an aspect of life. Any entrepreneur’s goals should include that of solving some problem or meeting some need. However, being successful relies heavily on an entrepreneur’s ability to maximize on a problem that consumers are willing to change. This course, through case studies and discussions, provided many examples of how and why an entrepreneur needs to do vast research on their product and potential market to ensure that success is a possibility. While the saying “necessity is the mother of invention” is sometimes true, it is important to recognize that a new product or service will not be successful just because it is better than the existing option. Similarly, a product does not necessarily have to replace an existing one, it simply has to solve the root problem more efficiently. Research, alongside a complete understanding of the potential market and product capabilities, is crucial in the world of innovation.
One of the strongest examples of comprehensive market research was that done by the founders of Rent the Runway. Jenn Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss recognized a common problem many women face – the want to have new clothes for special events, interviews, and parties, but the incredibly high price tags attached to such items. The founders designed a service that would offer multiple dress brands in a range of sizes and allow customers to rent them for a short length of time. Where I think the founders made their smartest decision, however, was in their market trials. Small trials were set up at Harvard and Yale colleges, each allowing women to rent designer dresses for a fraction of retail prices. The trials differed in that one allowed women to try on the dresses and one did not. When Hyman and Fleiss noticed similar rental rates at each location, their business model showed great potential. Naturally, an online platform for clothing makes it impossible to try on a dress before buying/renting it, but these market trials gave security in the idea that women would still be willing to rent dresses. Had Hyman and Fleiss not ensured that the lack of trying on an item would still generate sales, they may have spent a large amount of time and money on a service that did not serve people as well as they had hoped. Before RTR, many women would not have thought of renting clothing for a special occasion. However, once customers realized that items worn to such events are often only worn once, they were much more open to the idea. Thus, I believe Rent the Runway demonstrated the importance of testing your market and specifically how far they would be willing to go to change their current practice. As important as it is for your product to be better than competitors, it must also not be too difficult to adjust or implement in to the customer’s life.
The collection of case studies used in this class provided a range of business developments. Some, such as RTR, included rather extensive market research, while others, such as The Sinclair C5, hardly did any. These contrasting cases highlighted the importance of understanding a customer, the problem being solved, and especially if the new product is good enough to justify the effort, and sometimes cost, required to implement the new product in the customers life. Additionally, these cases highlighted that assuming a customer wants to change their current solution to a problem is incredibly presumptuous and often leads to wasted time.
While developing an effective and wanted solution is at the heart of innovation, the people involved in this development are equally as important. As any project grows it will naturally require more resources and more people. Selecting members for a large venture is crucial in the success potential as all people come with different knowledge, connections, and work ethics. The case on Florida Air highlighted the importance of having team members who are committed to the mission and are passionate enough to put in time and effort, especially in the early trial stages. Ultimately, Henry Hamilton Tellsworth III’s industry experience was championed by his lack of dedication to the company, leading to his release from Florida Air. It is difficult, and not entirely desirable, to find a team in which everyone sees eye-to-eye, however work-ethic and commitment are two factors that cannot be compromised. I have experienced many different team dynamics, from sports teams to group projects, and I would choose a team mate who has different opinions than me than a teammate who is unwilling to work time and time again. Scott and Dan of Florida Air certainly made the right choice in firing Henry, however they also show that once someone starts showing red-flags you should start to get to the root of it before they get more tied up within the company and make releasing them increasingly difficult.
While Scott and Dan had valid reasoning in releasing Henry from the company, it is important for me to recognize that an employee/manager cannot be fired for any disagreement, as this does not much more than create a cutthroat culture and makes people afraid to take risks – a key part of innovation. Such a situation raises the question of ethics within innovation and entrepreneurship. Most any project tackled in life has a series of moral questions or principles that relate to it. Some are rather cut and dry, while others are more complex. Innovating something new often means people will look at it differently and incorporating it in to society requires it to ethically agree with that society. As mentioned before, building (or deconstructing) a team is an ethical challenge as it raises questions about what characteristics are most valuable. Other moral questions may be asked about the intentions or necessity of any new product.
Better World Books is a business model that can be ethically questioned. Because it deals with non-profits and claims to be working on global literacy, it automatically raises eyebrows as a for-profit company. They use their mission to work with non-profits as a way for them to make money. While I personally believe that their business model is still doing more good than a company such as Amazon, it is questionable how much good they are doing and if they are doing enough good to allow them to use it as a main selling point to customers. If they are having a significant impact on global literacy, or are donating a significant number of books, then it is fair to tell customers that by giving BWB their money, they are making a difference. However, if only a small fraction of profits is going to the non-profit partners, it may not be ethically fair to advertise social impact as one of their main goals.
Ethics, however, are not black and white, and require a lot of discussion and attention to determine what is ethically “correct” or not. Introducing new things to the world through innovation often raises many questions, and one must be prepared to understand the ethics of such an endeavor. I do not think that someone should hold back on an innovation simply because they are unsure if people will be ethically supportive of it because so many things used every day now may have been considered ethically suspicious in the past. Innovation is meant to disturb the commonplace, everyday life we live, even if ethical aspects may be unknown. Obviously, if something proves to be unethical it’s development should not be continued, but nothing should be prevented due to the unknown.
The cases mention above, and all of those discussed throughout this course, have provided a large range of examples of what has proven successful an unsuccessful in a range of endeavors. While product development, team structure, and ethical reasoning are all incredibly important in innovation and entrepreneurship, I think they also greatly affect everyday life. I am incredibly thankful for all I learned in this course, as it taught me a new set of skills within business that no other class has taught me, and I am incredibly excited to apply the knowledge I have gained in my next three semesters here at Duke and life beyond this campus. I think my outlook on team assignments has shifted this semester in to appreciating all viewpoints and the power of learning from one another, rather than simply working alongside each other. I hope to use the innovative skills at some point in a career that allows me to have creative freedom, such as a product manager or designer. While I still have no clear idea of where my life is headed I am much more confident in my ability now to tackle new problems, work with new teams, and innovate towards a better world.
Mentoring Assignment One/Team Conversation:
Our discussion with Katie Harper was incredibly informative of startups, and specifically of her path to a start-up after finishing her undergraduate education at Duke. While Katie herself is not the founder of Survata – her current employer – she joined this team when it had less than ten members. She had a unique range of experiences that led her to her start-up experience. After studying computer science and Russian at Duke, she went on to her master’s in digital forensics at JMU. Citing a difficult time finding mentors and disliking the coursework, Katie left JMU to work as a consultant at Velos, a software firm, in California. While at Velos, a crumbling company, Katie took on a product management role and, it was here she discovered her true passion for operations—getting things done and managing people/projects. After seeing a job listing on Craigslist, Katie applied to work on operations at Survata – a startup based out of San Francisco that helps companies collect data through online survey walls. She hoped to prove herself and climb the internal ladder, which she has successfully done. She currently serves as the head of operations at the fast-growing tech company.
Katie’s path to her current position at Survata emphasized that there is no direct route to being an entrepreneur or innovator. She emphasized the importance of combining what you enjoy and excel in with working in a team setting. Once Katie understood that her true passion was ‘just getting things done’, she was able to apply her organization, management, and leadership skills to improve operations at Survata. In managing operations, Katie has been met with challenges in sales, remote teams, and the unfortunate instance of letting employees go. This unpredictability proved challenging, but Katie’s motto of learning by doing led her through it. For example, though many great hires for her at Survata ended up flopping and moving from 20 to 30 employees had been notoriously difficult, she persisted and continued in trial and error to a current company size of 55 employees, about to receive Series B funding. With her passion for ‘getting things done’, Katie took on the role as an entrepreneur in joining Survata, creating pivotal operational efficiencies for the company.
Since Katie was not one of the founders of Survata, she was not incredibly involved in the initial problem definition and customer delinearization process. The founders, however, recognized company’s needs to collect data from customers in an efficient way. They developed the idea of a “survey wall”, which required customers to complete a survey if they wanted to access certain features of a website. When Katie joined the team, she quickly understood the importance of this data acquisition and was determined to make it as useful and effective for the customers. The market was there, and through effective surveying, Katie wanted to develop smooth operations to make sure clients were happy.
The lesson that struck us was the intention of continuously finding mentors. Katie also strongly encouraged not being afraid to ask for help or mentorship when at Duke and in the workforce. She explained that often, people are willing to help but it is important to be proactive, because they will not offer without being prompted. Having a mentor, Katie explained, helped to narrow down options and clarify to herself what she wanted and was passionate about. This lesson will be extremely beneficial to us, as we move forward in our life and are constantly looking for new job opportunities and entrepreneurial motivation. Katie’s emphasis on mentorship is exciting, for we will get to work with and learn from her over this semester as her mentees.
Mentoring Assignment Two/Individual Conversation:
Speaking to Katie Harper for the second time was incredibly thought provoking and beneficial. We spoke more this time about her Duke experience and how it has shaped her career path thus far. Katie studied computer science and Russian and now works as head of operations at Survata. I asked Katie how she thinks her majors at Duke have played in to her current career and if she thinks she would be working as something else if she had studied another subject. We recognized that there is obviously no way to say for sure how life would play out if different decisions were made, but Katie seemed to believe she would still be doing similar work. While her comp sci major gave her an analytical way of thinking and Russian allowed her to be observant of others and the way people think and do things, Katie’s work revolves around her love of “getting shit done”. Katie says it was the time she spent leading the university marching band during her junior and senior years that enabled her to understand her passion for management and running a successful operation/group. She spent upwards of 40 hours a week leading practices and organizing the 100-member organization to make sure everything would go smoothly on game days. While Katie loved playing music she truly loved leading the group. Speaking about this combination of education and campus involvement resonated deeply with me. While I am studying mechanical engineering I do not necessarily want to be an engineer. I enjoy the technical thinking skills I have developed over the past couple of years and hope to use them in an entrepreneurial setting eventually. I also am the treasurer for club ski team which has been an incredibly rewarding experience getting to be a leader to some degree of a group I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of here at Duke.
I was particularly intrigued by Katie’s discussion of how her passion truly is being productive and managing a team. She explained to me how start-up culture can be both incredibly inviting and cutthroat. In the beginning, people who can do a lot of different things are hired to get the ground work done. But, Katie explained, as the company grows, new people tend to get hired in above older employees due to expertise in certain areas. Katie said this can be sometimes difficult to observe, but she enjoys in nonetheless because she learns a lot about how people react and handle such situations. A large part of Katie’s job is making sure her team is being as productive as possible and that everyone is happy. This requires her to step back and observe how people work with their colleagues and how different assignments are handled among the team members. As operations manager, Katie not only has to be very team-aware, she also has to be incredibly customer-aware. She must completely understand what a customer’s needs and wants are so that she can work to make them as satisfied with the product as possible. This also leads to Katie needing to understand the products incredibly well. Without a thorough knowledge of what each product does and how each product works, it would be difficult to help a customer utilize all the potential benefits. As Katie explained each of these aspects of her day-to-day work I became increasingly interested in operations. I personally love working in a team and interacting with people, yet also have a passion for product development and building things. Working in operations is an appealing mixture of the two to me. This conversation framed an interest in operations within startups for me.
I then asked Katie about her future plans and if she had considered getting her MBA. While she has not yet decided and may choose to go to business school in a few years, she seemed rather set in the idea that it would not give her something she couldn’t get elsewhere, so it is not currently worth it. She further explained that while getting her MBA may give her connections in to a “better company” and the opportunity to travel and take a break from work, that is not what she wants because, after all, she loves to work and get shit done! I appreciated Katie’s words of advice on considering grad school and her encouragement to only really pursue it if you think it is what you want and to heavily weigh out the benefits of it vs. work experiences.
I deeply enjoyed talking to Katie this week because I felt that I could relate to her time at Duke in many ways and found comfort in her description of her passions. I often feel troubled when asked what I am passionate about because it is not something like aerospace or environmental activism like many of my peers. I do really love learning what I do in school and getting things done as a leader and as a team member, similarly to what Katie described. This conversation motivated me to get in to the entrepreneurial space not necessarily as a creator, but as a heavily motivated team member to help bring projects to fruition.