Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 42: Tina Fitch and Alice Brooks

The more that people pay you, the more influence customers feel they should have, but they don’t necessarily know what they want.

Customers will try to be polite and tell you want you want to hear. We had to figure out how to get honest feedback.

Doing customer discovery isn’t the same as running a focus group. And customers don’t always know the best way to solve a problem or fill a need they have.

How entrepreneurs gather, understand and use customer feedback to improve their products was the focus of the guests on today’s Entrepreneurs are Everywhere radio show.

The show follows the journeys of founders who share what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries and more. The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs and lows that pushed them forward.

tina-fitch

Tina Fitch

Joining me in the Stanford University studio were

  • Tina Fitch, co-founder of Hobnob, an app that lets users send and manage event invitations via text message
  • Alice Brooks, co-founder of Roominate, toys meant to promote girls’ interest in science, tech and engineering
alice-brooks

Alice Brooks

Listen to my full interviews with Tina and Alice by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here

(And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below.

Tina Fitch thrives on building products that enable real-world experiences. Before co-founding Hobnob, she founded Switchfly, a SaaS platform that continues to work with airlines, hotel chains, payment companies, and loyalty programs in. She returned to her home state of Hawaii to become a mentor and advisor to tech accelerators and startups, and a parent of two before launching Hobnob.

In both of her startups, Tina did a lot of customer discovery to understand customer problems and see if her products offered the right solution. Here’s what she learned about managing customer feedback:

When you sell into the enterprise, there’s a very fine line between making your customers happy and potentially having them influence the product a little bit too heavily. 

You have to have conviction in your product to balance making them happy, but not necessarily changing your entire product priorities based on what they think they currently need.

The more that people pay you, the more influence they feel they should have, but they don’t necessarily know what solution they want.

You have to have enough conviction in your own vision of how you’re going to solve that problem for them to be able to take all those data points and feedback they gave you, then make a better solution for them. 

 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Alice Brooks is the co-founder of Roominate. She grew up playing in her dad’s robotics lab and made her first toy when she was 8 years old using a saw she received for Christmas instead of the Barbie she asked for.

Alice graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a B.S. in mechanical engineering and holds a master’s in mechanical engineering from Stanford.

With Roominate, Alice wanted to build a toy that would encourage girls to explore science, technology and engineering. She and her co-founder, Bettina Chen, didn’t have kids of their own, so before designing the product, they did a lot of user testing:

We went out into people’s homes and watched girls play with their favorite toys and asked what they liked about them, what they didn’t like. We saw a lot of dolls – Barbies, American Girl dolls – and we saw a lot of doll houses.

We brought some building toys with us to see how girls would interact. We found they liked that just as much, but it was all about the story they were telling around them and the context that they put it in.  

With Roominate, we give them the context of ‘this is what you can with your dolls in.’ Introducing it that way first opened the door. All of a sudden they wanted to build and add more circuits.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

During customer discovery, Alice learned a critical lesson about gathering customer feedback:

Customers will try to be polite to you and tell you want you want to hear.

We did a testing session with a group of girls where we had to make this spinning-disco-ball-dance party. We were trying to use circuits and build together in some way. They all seem like they really like it. They were dancing to Rihanna with it.

The next day, their dad calls us up, and says, “Kate didn’t want to upset you, but she told me it was very stupid. She asked me not to tell you.”

That’s how we started figuring out ways to get more honest feedback, always following up with the parents the next day.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Tina explained what’s different about starting up a second time:

I remember reading various business books or reading about different entrepreneurial journeys, and I thought at that time probably arrogantly that, oh, I’m never going to make those types of mistakes, I’m too smart for that. And I probably, the first time around, made every single one of them, everything from challenges with co-founders or investors or board members or clients.

The second time around, I not only have the confidence of experience, but I also have the confidence in my own instincts.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

In her first startup, she quickly learned that everyone has suggestions and advice for how to do things, but that a founder must stand up for their vision:

It’s important to take data points and advice from people, whether they’re your peers, advisors or your board members. But ultimately, you’re going to have to bear the weight of your decision and you can’t point a finger at anyone else.  

You have to have that courage of conviction of your own instincts and believe wholeheartedly at your core that what you’re doing is the right thing. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Having now done two startups, Tina is struck by the different leadership skills needed to build and manage a company:

All the skills that get you to a position where you’re building something and going against the grain – the competitiveness, the aggressiveness, almost like the Darwinistic approach to success – are different from the skills you need to run a company.

As manager, you really have to shift gears and become more of a communicator. You have to have empathy for your team and learn how to get the best performance out of people.  

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

She was also surprised to find that being a founder can be isolating:

When you’re a founder of a company, it becomes almost part of your very being.  

Bearing that responsibility day in and day out and feeling the weight of ownership over not only a product, but your team and their welfare and your community of users and their happiness becomes a very hard and lonely experience a lot of times.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Alice and her team made it point to not just get customer insights but to understand all aspects of their business model.

That included getting first-hand knowledge of how their manufacturers operate:

We spent two weeks in China getting to know our manufacturers face-to-face and understanding what it would take to build this product; what trade-offs we needed to make; and what we could do now, what other opportunities there were.

It was beyond helpful. When we first started setting up our manufacturing, we were using a go-between, and we didn’t understand what was really happening.

Once we got there, walked the factory and saw all the different machines they had, we got to know our manufacturer, how they do business. It was really helpful not just for that first launch, but as we grew the company and as we tried to expand knowing how business was done over there.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Once they found product-market fit, they launched quickly.

We had a prototype version so you could get the idea. We had to work very quickly to then make it a real product, and we did. From the start of our Kickstarter to when we actually shipped to customers was less than seven months. It was a very quick turnaround, which often doesn’t happen these days with companies.  

We didn’t have any funding. We didn’t have any money ourselves to spend, so we didn’t do any kind of hype around the launch. It was all just people that we’d met and tested with that were excited about the idea and shared it out to people. I don’t know if that would work now.

 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

As a first-time founder, Alice had a steep learning curve. Her advice for other first-time founders is be prepared to work hard:

It gets to be more and more work as you go.

There’s this image when you’re a student thinking about being an entrepreneur that it’s going to be really glamorous and you’re going to do your product and raise a bunch of funding and then you’re going to be set. The reality is the more you do, the higher the stakes become. You become responsible to a lot of different stakeholders.  

The exciting part is you can actually get your ideas and your designs out there into real people’s hands so much faster than you could by going a different route.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Listen to my full interviews with Tina and Alice by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here (And download any of the past shows here.)

Coming up next on the blog: Dakin Sloss, founder of Tachyus; and Ajeet Singh, co-founder of ThoughtSpot.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111 to hear these upcoming guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere:

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