August 5, 2020

Learning from my mistakes as a student entrepreneur

Jaen Carrodine

Student Entrepreneurs, Learn from my mistakes.

When I arrived at UVM in the fall of 2017, I had a semi-functional prototype and a plan to revolutionize the snowboarding industry. The prototype was V1 of the MAG snowboard binding, a binding that replaced traditional ratchet straps with a magnetic clip and lever system. At the time, the prototype was crude and barely functional; but it served as a proof of concept.

My first goal was to protect my idea from “competitors” like Burton and Rome SDS. Armed with an NDA template I found on Google, I set out looking for someone at UVM who could help me patent my idea. After a few phone calls and emails, I was able to talk to Professor Erik Monsen, The Chair in Entrepreneurship at the Grossman Business School.

Erik connected me with the Catamount Innovation Fund (CIF), a student-run startup accelerator, and Justin McCabe, a local patent attorney. CIF provided me with the resources I needed to get started: Materials for prototyping, a number of workshops to learn the entrepreneurial skills I would need, and connections to the Vermont startup ecosystem. With Justin's guidance, I wrote and filed a provisional patent; and using the skills I learned from the CIF, I won the annual UVM business pitch competition. I was receiving a ton of positive feedback about my project.

Sounds pretty good, right? Well, looking back, this positive feedback had two effects on me: 1) It inflated my ego and 2) it caused me to overlook my concerns that my product would not be valuable to experienced snowboarders.

The fine line between confidence and arrogance

After such a “successful” start to my first venture, I became overconfident and started to feel like I could do everything. Don’t get me wrong, confidence and even overconfidence can help you succeed as an entrepreneur… but letting your arrogance blind you can be a fatal mistake. In reflecting on my experience almost 2 years later, it is incredibly clear to me that what I was attempting would have been nearly impossible to do without a team. I was trying to do everything: product design and development, marketing, web development, social media, prototype testing, and more. On top of this, I was concurrently pursuing a mechanical engineering degree. Attempting to do so much as a student entrepreneur caused the quality of all of my work to suffer. My grades dropped, and I wasn’t able to provide the quality of work that MAG Bindings needed to succeed.

Not all product feedback is created equal

While building my company, it felt like I was receiving positive feedback about my vision and product from every direction. I never thought to step back and consider if I was receiving feedback from my target customers. Surprise, surprise...I wasn’t. I never let other snowboarders test the product before attempting to launch it. I had conducted a poll with a relatively large number of snowboarders, but the questions were vague and the product wasn't clearly described. All of this is easy to see when reflecting on my experience, but at the time my head was down and I wanted to launch the product as soon as possible. Ultimately, I rushed into a crowdfunding campaign that failed miserably. I found out the hard way that the problem my product was addressing was not prevalent for experienced snowboarders (who account for the majority of binding sales). If I had acknowledged this earlier, I could have pivoted away from the crowdfunding campaign, attempting to target the snowboarders for whom the product created real value: beginners and kids. This experience helped me realize how important it is to validate your product with your target end consumer.

"You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it." — Maya Angelou

Rebrand your failures to pivots

If there's one thing all entrepreneurs are taught or figure out for themselves, it's that failure is unavoidable. Every entrepreneur will experience some degree of failure in their career; I like to look at my experience with MAG as getting one under my belt early. After my crowdfunding campaign failed I had three options: 1) try to push through and make it happen, 2) reevaluate and pivot, or 3) give up altogether. When I was evaluating these options I finally realized that building the company that I imagined would have been nearly impossible for two main reasons: First, developing and manufacturing hardware products is incredibly capital intensive. Second, as a student, I had major time constraints. I realized that I would not be able to get my degree and start a snowboard binding company simultaneously. Hence, I opted for the reevaluate and pivot option.

I came to the conclusion that building a software product would be less capital intensive and easier to iterate and test, so I spent the next 6 months teaching myself the basics of web development. That 6 months gave me time to reevaluate the needs of the snowboard industry and formulate my next idea: a website that would recommend snowboards based on your experience level and preferences, and help you find the right board at the right price. After launching the first version of the website (https://www.nosebuttr.com/) I immediately reached out to the snowboarding community for feedback. The response to the website thus far has been remarkably positive, and the feedback I have received has helped me to learn from my mistakes with MAG, and ensure that each feature I build will solve problems my target customers are experiencing. I also began to build my team, recruiting a friend who compliments my skills, and is equally passionate about snowboarding.

I have started to implement a rapid release strategy for NoseButtr.com’s development. This means that I push updates to the site as soon as they are ready so I can constantly receive feedback and avoid wasting time building features that people don't want. This allows me to not only validate the website as a whole but each feature I build individually. I love to get feedback on the site whenever I can so feel free to check it out and send me an email if you have any suggestions.

I have big plans for nosebuttr.com and a “features to add” list that continues to grow way faster than I can keep up with. Here are some of the features I have in the works: 7-10 additional snowboard brands, activation of the ski match quiz, a price tracker that alerts you when your favorite snowboard or pair of skis goes on sale, and integration of the snowboard size calculator to the snowboard match algorithm. I also look forward to exploring the possibility of implementing machine learning to improve the accuracy of the ski and snowboard recommendations.

I have not given up on MAG Bindings, I still believe the product would be incredibly valuable to snowboard groms and beginners of all ages. I was recently granted a utility patent on the binding design and plan on pursuing a partnership with an established binding manufacturer to help make the bindings a reality. Recently, I have stopped considering my experience with MAG bindings a failure. Diving into a project where I was way over my head was the best way for me to learn valuable entrepreneurial skills and lessons about myself I will never forget. My one piece of advice for student entrepreneurs: don’t be afraid of failure, you don’t have anything to lose and you have everything to learn.