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Week 0 - FITCI Edge Thoughts

What a start to the annual Frederick Innovative Technology Center, Inc. Edge Accelerator Program! Although the sessions will be held predominantly on Zoom for most of this summer, engaging in collaborative breakout sessions with founders is still as insightful as before. As a previous participant and current intern, it’s been rather thought-provoking to listen to early-stage entrepreneurs as they crafted their first lean canvas. Here are some of my takeaways.

Vitamins vs. Painkillers

Jonathan Boehman was one of my favorite mentors during last year’s session, and I was excited to see him back again to give an overview of the lean canvas. Among all of the practical insights he gave, the one that struck out to me concerned itself with the age-old duality between vitamins and painkillers.

Describing this relationship in the context of defining problem statements, Jonathan discussed how many products are simply vitamins: they’re products you use from time to time and serve to make you healthier. However, they are by no means necessary to live a decent life. On the other hand, painkillers are a necessity: customers and users can’t live without their functionality or value.

As a founder who has made a similar mistake before, the metaphor sheds light on the central reason founders should start a company: to solve a problem. Many individuals dive headfirst into entrepreneurship intending to create something “cool.” There are certainly exceptions where such products find success — my mind considered luxury items or those that ride off the coattails of “hype culture” — but for the most part, prosperity does not come from devising a “cool” solution and trying to fit it to people’s problems.

COVID-19 Ramifications: Building an Audience

The aspect I’ve always enjoyed about the Edge is how it is a community accelerator that covers companies ranging from all sectors. These include traditional cybersecurity and biotechnology companies, as well as those based on recreation and health and wellness. Regardless of the industry, building an audience is crucial; after all, customer acquisition is a significant goal for any company.

With many of the non-technology businesses in the cohort, social media may be a more viable channel for outreach. As discussed by Kathie Callahan Brady in a breakout session, people seem to be a bit easier to reach during quarantine, considering everyone is cooped up inside of their houses and within arm’s reach of a smart device. Couple this with a surge in usage across a plethora of social media platforms, and you have the possibility for increased volume and detail of customer interactions.

COVID-19 Ramifications: Creating an MVP

Another mistake that I’ve often committed is trying to launch a beautiful and stunning product from the get-go. However, this is never logical: the right way to start any venture is to create the simplest version of the project, and then deploy it to users for feedback. The “rough draft” of your project is referred to as your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and is essential for startups with limited resources available.

The coronavirus has impacted businesses in all sectors, with some companies — specifically technology — reaping the benefits. Nonetheless, restaurants and smaller mom and pop stores have gotten the shorter end of the stick. Thus, the question remains: given the limitations of social distancing, small limits for social gatherings, and a disinclination from some of the population to go out and about, how do you build an MVP?

Many of our entrepreneurs working in the health and wellness space talked about using Zoom to hold sessions. Even so, the demand for such sessions — whether it be due to the drop in quality or the absence of in-person interaction — has been relatively low for those in our cohort. For me, I suggested focusing more on customer discovery if the solution doesn’t present itself. Whether this interview is solely about how to make improvements to distance learning or to throw around ideas about how the best implementations when life gets back to normal, interacting with individuals has never been easier and the feedback is helpful at any point in the business. After all, we have no idea whether our idea of “normal” will ever be realized again.

Parting Thoughts

All in all, it was an exciting first session! I’m amped to learn more about the companies within our cohort and see their growth over the next 12 weeks. As always, I believe the key to making the most out of this accelerator program is to be pragmatic: take every single piece of advice, line on a lean canvas, and worksheet that is completed and put them into the real world.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll be ready to give more updates next week! Feel free to email me if you have any comments, suggestions, or questions!