EGR 101: Engineering Design Course
During freshman fall, this class used team-based work to help groups learn and apply the engineering design process to solve a client-based problem from leaders in the Durham and Duke community. The class objectives included meeting the needs of the client, use the iterative method to protype a solution, work collaboratively and effectively on a team, and be able to clearly communicate the steps of the design process through written, oral, and visual formats. The project my team was assigned was to create a suction toothbrush attachment for ALS patients (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
I took this course as a part of my certificate pathway because it teaches the hands-on technical skills required to protype a novel solution. My pathway, Technology and Design, complements many of the engineering classes and electives that I have taken, but especially this course. Not only did it give me valuable hands-on experience with prototyping and using machine shop tools, but it gave me the essential experience in working under medical guidelines and regulations. I additionally had the freedom as most start-ups and entrepreneurial companies begin, while still having to understand and work with the client’s needs and qualifications.
Some of the more important and valuable skills I learned in this class included hard skills like coding, CAD, 3D printing, and prototyping, as well as soft skills like working and communicating with clients, working in a team, and communicating effectively. Overall, this course was a great introduction into the world of innovative solutions and how to realistically design and create a product.
IE 290: Customer and Brand Empathy
This Elective course focused on the less traditional brands, like Casper instead of Sleepy’s, or Dollar Shave Club instead of Gillette. These disrupters and direct to consumer brands (DTC) cut out the middleman and redefine brick-and-mortar retail, and they deliver not only a great product but also an experience. Succeeding in this new era of brands requires true customer empathy.
The course studies cases of these new DTC brands disrupting different industries, and how they use customer empathy to their benefit. Additionally, many guest speakers joined the class to share their experience about working at DTC brands, like Blue Apron. Additionally, the class was taught by an experienced member of McKinney, which is a marketing company that works with numerous brands like Audi and Expedia, and has created lasting brand identities like the “got milk?” campaign.
I took this course for my Technology and Design Pathway because it brings to light the other side of ventures and start-ups: the non-technical side. In much of my coursework, I have gained valuable experience in the engineering design process, prototyping solutions, doing market research, looking through the financials, and making novel solutions for clients. However, I lacked the experience in the customer and brand identity side of a venture. Therefore, I chose to focus on an elective that thoroughly examined what makes for a successful and long-lasting brand identity.
The most important things I’ve learned in this class mainly surround the idea of the “golden circle”. In general, the golden circle is a visual tool that helps us understand what a brand is really in the business of selling. For example, Glossier is a DTC cosmetic and skincare brand. It is aesthetic, can only be ordered online, and has the support and advertisement from many influencers. Glossier knows their customer, and they know exactly what their customer wants. Yes, they sell skincare, and they do it conveniently, but they are really selling the feeling of status and luxury. When teenage girls and young women open their beautifully decorated packages containing the iconic pink, reusable zipper bag, they know that they are using something “really nice”. This idea of looking beyond the product and truly understanding what a brand sells is the key idea I took away from this course and is something I will see myself using in my future career.
IE 352: Strategies for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
This course was the Keystone elective for the I&E certificate program. It covered the topics and skills needed to launch a venture or entrepreneurial company, a lean startup, identifying the real problem, creating the needed financial statements and resources, and evaluating financial and general success. Many team case-studies and projects were done weekly to practice effective communicating and presenting, leading, managing, and creating a positive and ethical work culture. By the end of the course, we were prepped with the necessary knowledge and experience to create a business plan for our non-academic experiences, the capstone course, and our future beyond Duke.
Innovation and launching start-ups a successful startup, for the most part, is like winning the lottery. However, all of those start-ups have one common aspect that they all prioritize. That attribute is that entrepreneurs don’t come up with great product ideas, they come up with great solutions to big problems. Before taking classes and having discussion about what makes a successful entrepreneurial venture, I had the common misconception of the main focus being on the innovation of the product. Being an engineer, I began my innovation experience being strictly product and solution focused, believing there would be people that would appreciate the novelty of my designs, and that would make it successful. After my I&E courses, I was able to take a deep dive into how the customer value proposition, go to market plan, Technology and Operations Management, and Profit Formula all contributed to a successful venture. And the core of these four pillars is being focused on identifying a problem that needs to be solved, and then being in the business of solving the problem. Success comes from selling a solution to the world’s biggest problems.
In class, there were numerous cases and examples to pull from, one being from the Dr. Johns Product case and the SpinBrush. John Osher was able to recognize the glaring problem in the dental care industry—and that was the discrepancy between regular and electric toothbrushes. Not that many Americans chose electric over standard, however the main reason behind this was the price, not the product. Being an experienced entrepreneur, Osher was able to identify this insight and problem, and offer a simple and quick solution of an effective, but affordable, electric toothbrush option. The “try me” feature of the packaging was an additional insight that Osher knew his consumers would have. And that was they wouldn’t trust it would work, because of its low cost. Foreseeing this as an issue, he was able to add to his product the “try me” feature, making the SpinBrusha huge success. Dr. Johns products was successful because it didn’t just make another electric toothbrush, it listened to the market and the customers and was able to address all their problems they faced when looking to purchase a new toothbrush. This leads me to justify listening and in the field research as one of the best practices in validating an innovation and ensuring it actually meets the customer needs.
Another key to a successful venture is to have a highly functioning and efficient team. No one person can start an entire venture on their own. A cohesive team that has a diverse range of experiences, backgrounds, and specialties makes for successful innovation and entrepreneurship. In engineering classes, all of my experiences and specialties are relatively homogenous to my teammates, which makes for conflict and ineffective team meetings. Being able to work with other I&E students, which is comprised of a wide range of grades and majors, has shown how much more successful teams with diversity can be. Subsequently, my I&E teams excelled at practicing communication, respect, and beginning each meeting with an ice-breaker—to emphasize the importance and practice having each teammate contribute and actively listen to others. My case slide team also chose to meet as often as possible. Although it logistically could have been easier to email each other to split up the work, we wanted to make our case slides fluid and consistent. SO, we would always discuss the case, agree on our main points, and then split up the case slides. This made actually making the case slides much easier and more efficient, and our end product was always very high quality. Although just splitting it up and emailing could have been easier, continually meeting in person (over Zoom) and sharing ideas is what really made our team effective and successful. Over email, people’s ideas sometimes aren’t said, and other specifics are lost in text. Verbal communication is a necessity for high-functioning team. These methods to make meetings more effective is something I want to bring to my engineering project teams. However, experiencing the difference that team diversity makes was truly the most significant lesson I have learned from the course and is something I will consider in the future when choosing and forming teams.
Without empathy or brand purpose, it is hard to have a long-lasting successful venture. It is increasingly important, especially this year, to solve problems and lead a business with respect, empathy, and a high ethical standard. Simply donating sales to cause or posting a nice uplifting phrase on a brand account won’t cut it anymore. A venture needs to be a “good” company from its origins and keep that at its core, or else it can come across as inauthentic. An example of this is the incubators (NeoNurture) created for the hospitals in developing countries through Design that Matters. The incubator that Timothy Prestero created wasn’t actually what the hospitals in developing and low-income countries needed. Although, on paper, it solved all of the problems, Prestero was not sensitive to the cultural aspects and what people will actually need and use. He wasn’t actually listening to the problem that needed to be solved, yet he acted on what he thought was the problem to be solved. Having empathy for the market you are targeting, whether you are a part of that market or not is incredibly important. From this case, there were many key takeaways. One being that the best form of research is to get out in the world and interact with people, a that’s the only way you can truly understand the complexities of the culture. Meet people where they are and empathize with them, as giving sympathy for someone half-way around the world won’t accomplish anything. Trying to have a holistic approach, and resist being siloed in one path or solution is also a key insight from this case. And finally, going back to the importance of teamwork, is to convene a diverse team of experts of those that not only know the problem, but those outside the typical view of the problem. Although at first, Design that Matters didn’t have a successful innovation, they were able to realize their faults, learn from their mistakes, and become a more positive and ethical culture.
Overall, my I&E course experience has shifted the way that I look at solving problems as an engineer. Whether I am an entrepreneur or an “intrapreneur”, I have the skill set to create new solutions to impactful and meaningful problems. I can effectively work with a team, know how to be empathetic and respectful in creating a positive and ethical culture, and have a better appreciation for understanding the problem before designing the product. I believe that any engineer who is interested in going into industry should take a few I&E classes to bring a more customer-focused perspective to their work. But, more personally, this course has inspired me to start thinking about initiating my own start-up, which is something I’ve debated for a long time due to feeling unprepared and inexperienced in the space. However, I feel more experienced and knowledgeable in the start-up community and feel the immense support of the I&E community to start my journey in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
First Conversation with Mentor: Matt Alston
Our team’s mentor, Matt Alston, is a 2017 Duke graduate that has led a winding academic and career journey that led him to working on his own venture: Fellowship, On-Deck. His path from learning as an intrapreneur to becoming an entrepreneur is one that I can use to guide my own path based on our similar goals and interests. At Duke, Matt immediately got experience at the Grill Lab for Spinal Cord Stimulation Treatment (SCS), he was able to discover that he enjoyed coding and software. This guided him to a computer science major, where he moved onto software internships at Goldman Sachs and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. From these experiences, he discovered that he is more interested in the cross between tech and business, which led him to his product management (PM) role at Uber, which he stayed at for two years, before leaving to start his own venture. Although his path was not straight, Matt emphasized that it was worth the journey, and he learned something new from each experience on the way. From each internship, job, or research position, he gained valuable insight of himself and what his true aspirations and goals are. It’s something I empathize with: not knowing exactly what I want to do, or where my skills fit at different companies, or my own business.
At Uber, Matt put his entrepreneurial skills to work and gained valuable insight on consumer technology and behavior, customer experience, and problem definition. Through his rotational program, he worked on ride requests, optimizing time estimations, and developing the consumer loyalty program. The latter program was where he developed his deep understanding of how Uber can differentiate from competition by making long term relationships with the customer, which offers a better value proposition and customer experience. He learned that price differentiation isn’t always the right answer to deal with competition, and it definitely isn’t financially sustainable. Another idea that Matt struggled with during this rotation was valuing the customer before the product. However, this is oftentimes in conflict with what is best for the business. In class we are consistently taught that cultivating trust with the customer can make the brand grow, which Matt agrees is true, but he also added that it may not help the business grow. This differentiation between business and brand is essential and must be kept in balance for the success of any company or venture.
After two years at Uber, Matt didn’t see himself achieving much personal growth in the company and decided to move on to something new. Alongside a fellow Duke alum, Matt’s new start-up started like many: with personal experience. Matt understood the inherent need of human connection. Especially when COVID hit and people began working from home, society felt more isolated than ever. He created the idea of a platform that that makes planning a social event much easier. Matt is targeting the 20-30-year-old “once a year planner” as the customer segmentation he wants to address and turn into the ‘monthly planner’. No one wants to plan, they just want to be invited. His platform, On-Deck, would provide the service that this customer segmentation craves. From his previous experiences, it’s clear Matt knows how to understand the customer, and accurately define the problem, when planning his venture. Matt is also taking the approach of doing an immediate full launch, of course after some careful go-to-market and technology planning and when cities start to open back up again. He believes this is the best way to learn about users in the market and that when creating start-ups, time is money. He’d rather know sooner than later if it’ll fail. And if it does, it’s okay, and he’ll move on to the next thing.Adopting a healthy skepticism is the key to success in entrepreneurship: learn from the failure, don’t dwell on it, and then go onto the next best thing. This was the most important lesson I learned from my conversation with Matt, and I look forward to our future conversation to see how he pivoted with his launch.
Second Conversation with Mentor: Matt Alston
During my second meeting with my mentor, Matt Alston, I was able to get a deeper understanding and appreciation for his commitment to be an entrepreneur full time. Additionally, I was able to share my own goals and get invaluable advice on how to make the jump of starting my own company. I explained to Matt my inspiration and my motivation behind the idea of my start-up. I detailed my passion for adaptive clothing and for innovating the fashion space for people with disabilities through 3D and Body-Scanning technology. However, I voiced my concerns about committing full-time to such a huge risk of my own start up, as opposed to trying to get internships and get technical experience beforehand. Although he agreed there are some instances where being wary of trying to build a startup is smart, he brought up some really great points on why now the best time is to “take the risk”.
First, his main point was that delaying solely due to the fear of starting something isn’t productive. Just because it may not seem like it’s the right time now, there may not ever be a time in the future where there is a “right time.” He also shared that from past experience, although he learned a lot from his work in the industry, he wished he had pursed his start-up much earlier. This led to the point that that being a student is the exact right time to pursue an idea for a company. During my last year and a half, I should try and use as many resources as I can at Duke to start my venture, because there truly is no other better place to fail or to succeed. There are infinitely many resources that I currently have access to at Duke, including professors, other students, I&E programs, the “Duke Student” name when emailing companies, Duke funding, and the general support of everyone in the Duke community. It’s the opportunity to have an extremely valuable experience while being very low risk. Waiting until I’m 25, after working at a big company, I may actually have more at risk and will most definitely have less available resources.
Matt also gave me more industry specific advice in building a tech company, which I found extremely helpful since entering the hardware tech space is so daunting. I was also able to share my insights on the industry and he followed up with questions as well—which showed how in the entrepreneurship community it’s all about learning from one another and reciprocal relationships. Before ending the call, he said he would send me a few articles that inspired him to take the leap into creating his own start-up and that he would love to talk with me further about just throwing around some ideas and updates on how my start-up is progressing, which I am excited to follow-up on. Overall, this conversation was a great opportunity to share my passion and for us both to talk about our shared interest in the tech industry. I was not only able to gain wonderful insight and advice, but also a more long-term connection with someone in Silicon Valley that can help me, and who I can help, in the future. This was one benefit I didn’t necessarily foresee in the I&E Mentor Program and I am extremely excited that I was able to make this meaningful connection with my mentor that goes beyond the I&E 352 course.
After this meeting, I also realized that I wanted to take the opportunity of being a Duke student and act on my idea for a startup. Although I was initially afraid that I wasn’t ready to start and that I didn’t have enough technical experience in the hardware industry, Matt helped me realize that it was my fear taking over my judgement, instead of rationality. Because the rational thing to do is to take advantage of the amazing resources and opportunities I’m given here at Duke, and to start creating my start-up today. I look forward to pursuing this project, whether it be a huge success or callosal failure, and to learn a lot about being a successful entrepreneur from the experience.
This course explores the idea of reversing the notion that ideas come first, in entrepreneurship and successful ventures. instead, we must better understand the market opportunity and if this market opportunity is something that aligns with our personal and professional goals. In the class we learned techniques to identify new potential opportunities and questions to ask ourselves to help find these potential problems. We learn do the heavy lifting of market research, understanding the problem, and exploration before moving forward with any possible solution. We utilize a unbiased perspective when looking at market opportunities, and must set aside any preconceived notions in order to objectively assess the potential of an opportunity.
Through some of the exercises in the class, I was able to learn a lot about myself, and I lot about how I work with others. Specifically, one exercise was particularly challenging, but was equally eye-opening. This was the Slack group exercise. Over the course of 3-4 weeks we had to continually share 10 ideas a day that answered a guiding prompt, like “Why does this exist?” or “How does this make money?”.
Reflecting back on the whole assignment, I took what was a simple assignment that was supposed to help us actively think about innovation in our everyday life and made it a super structured and rigid assignment that had to be done for the sake of being done. So, in my opinion, this exercise didn’t work for me. I can see how it could work for other types of people, but I can’t say it worked for me. And that’s okay. Although I did become more comfortable with posting ideas by the end, I can’t say that I have looked at things in my everyday life and question where they come from since finishing the Slack Exercises, which is what the intended goal was for the assignment.
However, from my own perspective, I’ve learned that I need to work on my confidence of my creative ideas and being vocal in the group—and this was the most valuable thing I got out of the assignment. I think that although this is something that I have been able to conquer in the engineering world as I have full confidence in my technical abilities, I am still uncomfortable in the more “creative-minded” classes where there is more than one correct answer. Not having a concrete right or wrong answer leaves room to be different levels of right. I think for me, I want to always be the most amount of right, and so I overthink every idea I have. This exercise did really help me to see how painful of a flaw this can be—because in this instance, producing a high quantity of ideas was the best way to getting to high-quality outcomes. Overthinking was not the correct approach in this assignment. Knowing this, I am hoping to engage more and be more comfortable saying ideas that just pop into my head, especially during class, without worrying if it’s not a good enough contribution or if it is the right answer.
Description: This was the first Discovery Sprint completed in the Capstone course. This sprint was done over the course of 2 weeks and involved teams of three. We used this Sprint as a marker of where we began in the course. Our team approached the idea solution first as opposed to problem first. This, led to us overseeing the opportunity of selling the idea as IP as opposed to creating its own brand.