For Embr CEO Sam Shames, though, all he wanted was to be warm.
“We were working in an MIT lab in the summer in Cambridge–where it was hot and humid outside — but inside was freezing. The school wouldn’t let us change the air conditioning temperature, so it was a constant battle to keep from freezing inside,” he said, while speaking to me at CES.
Theorizing that solving the problem of personal body temperaturewould be a “cool” idea for the annual MIT materials-science design competition, Shames and his team created a prototype wrist bracelet that provided the sensation of heat or cool to a wearer — and won $10,000 for their effort.”We thought that was great and that we’d go on to life after school–until people started contacting us and wondering when we’d start selling it,” he said.
Shames guessed it would take around six months to create the product, considering they’d build the prototype so quickly. Fouryears later, they finally delivered. Along the way, he learned quite a few things valuable to every entrepreneur.
Shames found a problem that affects a large number of people around the world–and almost discounted it because it hadn’t been done before in an effective way. “Sharper Image sold a personal air conditioner in the 90’s, but I hadn’t seen anyone else do this.” (Coincidentally, I own that device, which works on similar technology as the Embr, at 10 times the size.)
Once you have enough people telling you this is a real problem that they need a solution to, you’ve validated your market enough to move forward – whether there are competitors or not.
For Shames, before they could create a commercial version, he had to learn a few things. First, he needed to understand what the different use cases were — not everyone was working in an MIT laboratory like him, after all.
By talking to your customers, you’ll see patterns in the things that are most important to everyone, rather than things that might be nice-to-have for individuals. This can help you to develop your initial product.
For the first few years, Shames was convinced that it would only take six months to get the product out the door. Every sixmonths, he would readjust and change to the next sixmonths. Each time, he would learn something new to take him down a new path–which would eventually make the product better.
Studies show that when you’re transparent about your imperfection, people trust you more. In a company, that’s a valuable lesson.
When Shames and the team left MIT, they didn’t stop their research. In creating a product that is in the wellness category, they found that it is being used by scientists in research studies to test effectiveness as an aid in sleep, lowering anxiety, and other applications. As part of this, the Embr team is constantly learning about how temperature affects the nervous system and what they can do to control it.
No matter what your company does, you can always learn new ways to improve it and make it better. By reading journals, working with partners, or attending conferences, you can pick up new information that will help it grow.
As for running Embr, Shames says, “It isn’t always easy–but it’s the best job ever.”
And that is entrepreneurship–to which I wholeheartedly agree.
Kendra Scott had 2020 planned out for her eponymous jewelry and home decor companywhen all of her plans–along with those of so many businesses–changed in an instant. “Covid-19 was not part of our plan,” Scott told Inc. editor-at-large Tom Foster during Inc.‘s latest Real Talk: Business Reboot webinarThursday. “The best-laid plans don’t always come to fruition.”
Scott, who’s based in Austin, says she had to return to a “startup mentality” to face the health crisis that temporarily closed the doors on her 108 retail locations and the economic freeze that altered her supply chain and changed customers’ purchasing habits. Working from home–while juggling homeschooling for herthree kids–and staying in touch with her teams and customers, she reminds herself to “be creative and collaborative and take each day as it comes.”
Here are some of the insights and highlights from Foster’s conversation with Scott:
Scott learned about flexibility during the Great Recession when she realized that selling her jewelry primarily through stores owned by others wasn’t going to work for her or her long-term plan. “Every store around was closing. Nobody had a store,” she recalled.
“When the crisis hit, I had to pivot quickly.It forced me to look at my business differently,” she said. That meant opening her own brick-and-mortar shop and going direct to consumer through the web. She remembers telling her staff that this move could not fail(“I’ll have to move back in my mother,” she said with a laugh), and thatit could succeed beyond their hopes.
A decade later, Scott has 108 stores and a thriving online business. And, pre-pandemic, her company wasvalued at $1billion.
Muchof the success of her retail locations is the way the stores’ designencourages customers to interact with the merchandise and salespeople. Unlike other jewelry stores filled with glass display cases (and, in some cases, plexiglassbarriers), Kendra Scott stores emphasizetactility and connection.
The challenge now is maintaining that feel in the 78 shops that have already reopened post-Covid, as well astranslating the experience online. Salespeople can no longer touch customers, but, as Scott muses, “How else can we touch her heart, touch her mind?”
One way has been speeding up a virtual try-on concept that was in the works for a year and that launched in April. Another has been implementing curbside pickup programs at some stores. This is especially important, since Scott believes brick-and-mortar stores are not going away. “We need those places,” she says. “We have to create places that allow people to connect.”
As Scott advises her employees: “Don’t worry about the transaction.Worry about the connection.”
Businesses need to ask (and answer), “Where is [the customer] in this moment? How can we serve her? How can we bring her joy?” Scott says. “Because she’s our boss. She signs our checks. If not for her, we don’t have jobs.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Scott and her team have been reaching out to customers on every possible platform. She advises people to pick up the phone, send emails, or get on FaceTime with customers tomake them feel seen and appreciated. (Even her mother has been making calls.) Scott has also sent many handwritten letters. “The simplest things can make a real difference,” she says. “Don’t focus on the business. Focus on the customer.”
Scott, whose company survived the last recession (and whose previous business did not succeed), knows about challenges. She also knows about keeping the faith during tough times. “There’s a reason this moment is happening,” she likes to tellherself. “In the moment, you may not understand it,” but a lesson will present itself. If you can understandthat lesson, you–and your company–will gain from it.
“Right now it seems so hard to understand why something like this has happened,” Scott says. One possible lesson: After the quarantine lifts and some of the harder hit sectors of the economy rebound, “We may be kinder to each other, more loving to each other,” she hopes. “Those are the gifts that may come from this struggle.”
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