BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
Through experience, we're learning that what is truly most valuable is the process and the people...
I'm in love with a certain kind of dialogue. The kind of dialogue with someone willing to share ideas with an open mind and without conjecture and that I'm comfortable to be around; ideas that come from a pure place. I'm reminded of that one quote I’ve seen on Instagram:
Small minds discuss people.
Average minds discuss events.
Great minds discuss ideas.
My business partner and long-time friend Daichi (aka "D") is relentless with ideas and his enthusiasm is contagious. We were driving home from the Los Angeles International Pen Show in February of 2014 for an ongoing stationary-related project, when we first began expressing interest in working together on another project, what is now officially dubbed sōlscience®. I still vividly remember meeting for coffee on an early weekend morning in suburban Cerritos sometime in March. I can still recollect images of D’s wide-eyed wonderment against a backdrop of early morning rays of sunlight penetrating through the coffee house windows. How much the product concept has evolved since our initial discussions is pretty amazing to me. Born from a problem D was experiencing, to searching for a solution starting with the simplest of ideas, to bordering on some near outlandish ones, to serendipitously evolving and expanding into something bigger, we've come full circle leaving no stone unturned. The process has been everything for us.
A few weeks or so of back-and-forth dialogue had passed. I brought up a special venture fund opportunity that I was aware of and felt could be perfect for us. They were accepting submissions from creative start-ups. Feeling good after a flight of beers at a local brewery, we felt the timing was right and decided to go for it. We would put everything down on paper and submit our business idea to IVL (a venture firm) that would hopefully fund and help guide our start-up.
The experiences and time spent together up until submission were priceless. We would use up entire weekends cooped up in a room working on our presentation. I used my vacation days and skipped work so we could spend entire Fridays together. We began tapping into our resources and reached out to an acquaintance at a local plastics manufacturing plant and learned as much as possible from him. We explored different types of materials and how to reduce production cost.
We filed for a patent. And a trademark. We visited sneaker shops in LA and the OC. And we tested. We tested and tinkered and tested some more and purchased everything we could get our hands on currently out on the market. And we tried to figure out what made sense with the numbers. We went back and forth on sales and marketing and product development. And then we went back and forth again.
I recall all of our differing opinions. Oh, the beauty of our differing opinions. Differing opinions on what the product concept would and could be used for; differing opinions on what would and would not be of interest; differing opinions on business models and expectations; differing opinions on basically anything and everything that mattered. When one of us threw out a thought or idea and the other politely replied, "Interesting...(pause)", we knew the other wasn't feeling it. Even our tastes and styles differed. D is a tech, basketball and performance guy while I gravitate towards art, Hip-Hop and borderline hipster fashion. But it was and is to this day, the greatest asset, that by default, our differences only helped to broaden our scope and learn to see what the other might not. We learned from each other. A mutual respect and the ability to always try and keep our minds open is a core strength of ours. And it's been so much fun thinking about the possibilities. Sharing one's vision is not as simple as it sounds. It takes much more than understanding. It requires belief - countless discussions to align the complex minds of human beings. And it feels beautiful and right when the vision is in sync. (For the record, we had just as many agreements as well. And our tastes began to rub off on each other a bit!)
A few hours before the venture fund submission deadline, we realized we wouldn't be able to complete our presentation deck in time. It was probably the only stint of negative energy we felt together. And as we were feeling defeated, irritable and ready to give up, D spots a Facebook post that they extended their deadline by a month. Frustration instantly became relief and complete joy. We had more than enough time now to perfect what we planned to submit.
On July 2nd, literally 2 days after e-mailing our submission, we received an email response with this excerpt of good news:
"Thank you again for your interest in IVL's opportunity. The team has been busy reviewing a large volume of submissions over the last month. We are collectively interested in what you have presented with sōlscience and would like to invite you to meet in person to have a deeper conversation."
We knew it was on. This was just the beginning.
NEVER GIVE UP BECAUSE OF TIME. TIME WILL PASS REGARDLESS.
We went from being on top of the world to feeling like we were in a state of limbo…
Once we were notified of our presentation pitch time, date and location, we started to plan and use our limited evenings and weekends wisely. We rented a conference room to use for rehearsal, scheduled a rehearsal date, curated and invited a highly-regarded collective of peers, and began to set our sights on a single date (August 29th, 2014) roughly two months into the future.
We prepared for and practiced so diligently that not much could’ve stopped us from getting our message across. We received priceless feedback and we soaked in all of the constructive criticism throughout the entire process up until the night before our face-to-face. A good friend helped us film and edit a short video to visually show how we envisioned our product concept being used. D and I even went into stalker mode and went as far as scoping out the actual space and environment that our presentation would be held. We had peaked some sort of interest with the panel members and were being given one opportunity to meet them in person and sell them on our idea. We weren’t about to blow it on not being comfortable in our environment!
The morning of had finally arrived and nothing was going to stop us. We had our flow going, and even though D was thrown an unexpected curveball from the get-go, not to mention the duo that pitched right before our time slot looked like they had just been utterly defeated, we believe we N-A-I-L-E-D I-T. Okay, kind of sort of nailed it. We ended our pitch on a high note with our short video, the icing on the cake. It included MF Doom’s instrumental, Operation: Doomsday. Vibesss.
Our pre-planned celebratory drinks at the Ace Hotel’s rooftop bar right after our presentation wasn’t feeling very festive for neither of us though. Although we had no regrets and the panel did show genuine curiosity and asked us a number of questions, it didn’t feel like a slam dunk in terms of their overall collective reaction.
And, of course, we were right. One month later we received this response:
We've had the chance to discuss sōlscience as a team, and we are slightly divided.
We are hoping that there might be an opportunity to keep the conversation open and hopefully witness more progress in your business idea.
So with that in mind, we wanted to ask if you guys might be willing to:
- move toward getting a working prototype
- explore launching a kickstarter campaign
This might help us to assess the team/opportunity in its entirety better. Please let us know what you think.
I wonder how others would react to this response. Is the glass half full or half empty? In our usual fashion, our initial reaction to this response was divided. Without saying who felt what, at first we were collectively skeptical and hopeful. But, at the end of the day, we knew we were still in the game. So, like the little engine that could, we kept on keepin’ on.
THE NEXT MILESTONE
It felt strange at first because unlike before, we now had to set our own deadlines. And there were no set guidelines whatsoever. It was our first real entrepreneurial challenge. As cliché as it sounds, there is no limit except the one you set for yourself and no benchmark to measure up against except whether or not you feel you’ve done your best each time. Up until now, it was mainly just dialogue between D and I. And it was for the most part, putting things on paper. Although extremely important to do so, it was now time to manifest.
The first milestone seemed easy enough: Create a working prototype and validate it. Easier said than done. In fact, as I am writing this post on a mid August afternoon (2015), we’ve been in the process of developing a working prototype and have been doing so since around October of the previous year. And, I just searched my emails to find dialogue since March 2013 for a product concept and working prototype from an entirely unrelated project that is still being tinkered on to this day.
D and I went back and forth on first defining what a working prototype should be for us. Was it more important that it functioned well or that it was aesthetically pleasing? Would we rather have an ugly working prototype that worked well or a beautiful working prototype that didn’t work well? Were we trying to impress our potential partners or our potential market? Or ourselves?
We also needed to figure out what the process in its entirety entailed and how to go about it. Did we need an industrial designer or a mechanical engineer? What were the differences? Was the correct process to start inside out or outside in?
We searched Elance and Coroflot. We learned about and talked to a friend who owned a 3D printing business. We talked to a computer programmer and an electrical engineer. We literally courted a chemist via LinkedIn who was kind enough to introduce us to a very friendly owner of a chemical products manufacturing company.
We ended up meeting with five or so different CAD candidates and made everyone sign NDAs. This in itself was priceless as each had their own philosophy and way of doing things. It was so helpful to spend time with each person and find out, “Can we work with this person? Can we trust them? Are they reliable? Do they get us? Are we meshing? Do they have a process we believe in?”
In the end, we feel we’ve chosen the right team so far. From product designers and industrial designers, to mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and chemists, we’ve tapped heavily into our network of friends as well as public resources and have created what we believe to be trustworthy, working relationships.
We also began attending sneaker events. We even ended up renting a booth space and killed two birds with one stone by selling some of D’s sneaker inventory and also surveying and talking to as many attendees as possible. We attempted to figure out our customer, problem, and solution hypotheses and tried coming up with core assumptions.
And we never stopped updating the venture group every month or so with our working prototype progress. I was getting antsy and kept wondering if there was anything else we could do to try and begin working with the venture group quicker. It got to the point where we felt we were taking too long and ended up setting our own deadline to try and hurry our process up. This was a mistake. We said we would have a working prototype to them by 2015 Q1 and it’s already well into Q3 as I’m writing this. Issues with certain components of our working prototype as well as our own unexpected and respective personal matters and just trying to juggle work and family life caused some delays. In all honesty, I was losing a bit of steam. And, ultimately, we were both well aware that there was never a guarantee that we would even get a chance to work with or for the venture group.
WHEN ALL ELES FAILS, LOOK WITHIN
No guarantees and no safety net. And to add fuel to the fire, D and I began going back and forth on the pros/cons of crowdfunding. We also had numerous conversations of what we should or shouldn’t try to present to the venture group. And in the back of our minds, we kept thinking to ourselves, or at least I kept thinking to myself, “Without the possibility of capital and guidance, would I still be continuing this journey towards an unknown destination? Should I be saving hard-earned money for my kids’ future instead? Or was this partly for my kids’ future? Do I have selfish motives? Can I really see myself working long-term together with D?”
Without getting into details, a particular occurrence and a short hiatus to reflect made me realize that it’s not easy to find someone you can work with. And, life isn’t just about money. And, we’ve collectively had many valuable experiences that have led up to this point. It’s our duty to continue. I’m privileged to be able to work with Daichi. And I’m enjoying the ride. And if one considers this gambling, at least I’m gambling on myself and someone I dearly hold close to me.
I might not be able to speak on behalf of D, but I felt we were off course for a bit. We realigned and realized that we should not be doing this for them. We should always be doing it for ourselves. Everything else will naturally fall into place.
We began to realize that if we really wanted it, with or without funding and guidance, we would do it. And that’s where we are at today.
Why am I writing this? I recently watched Wa-Shoku: Beyond Sushi, a documentary about Japanese cuisine and Katsuya Uechi, a master sushi chef, mentions in the documentary that he wrote his goals down everyday. I haven’t had a chance recently to write as much as I used to, but I hope to continue to do so through sōlscience™. It’s partly to share our story and partly because writing things down helps ingrain it. We felt it was the right time to begin documenting and putting things out into the world. There are so many things that I’ve seen D initiate and work on that I wish I would have documented it in real time. But, it’s never too late. I’ll leave you with the fact that Daichi and I are now working on 5 different product concepts and something he recently wrote that resonated with me: “Our process has been learning things as we go, but we just don’t learn things, we have deep discussions during the learning process to make sure the process we move forward with is correct in our minds. And we adjust accordingly when things still don’t go the way we imagined it would. It’s like rain water falling on a mountain top. The most natural path is discovered as it bumps off objects and eventually strengthens as water gathers and flows, creating momentum and strength, navigating towards our goals and vision.”