It’s been twenty years since my first startup experience. Looking back, I never even thought to identify my role in this company as part of a startup team. At that time, the word startup was not common knowledge. It was simply a business venture.
There were 4 of us – the co-owners, a warehouse person and myself. The founders were experienced business people having run a sports memorabilia business for some years. This was not their first startup. The company focused on memory foam products – mattress toppers, bicycle seats, computer accessories. It was slightly ahead of its time having launched before such products became main stream. Now you would be hard to find a store that didn’t carry memory foam products.
I was young. A 20 year old mom of two who had little experience in the business world outside co-operative education and a few college courses. Everything was new to me and I was eager to learn. I took on various roles such as bookkeeping, accounts payable and receivable, research (side note: did you know how bad bike seats are for men?), as well as helping in the warehouse where needed making sure our product was properly trimmed, glued and packaged. This was largely before the days of online branding and no one had even heard of social media. I didn’t realize it then but I was working with an MVP – a minimal viable product.
I remember the expense of the machinery and of the special foam products. We didn’t produce much and sold even less. But we did have the seal of approval from the Canadian Chiropractic Association for our keyboard and mouse pads – I still use my keyboard pad today. Every so often we would manufacture another test product trying to find just the right recipe of softness and firmness of the foam. It was an exacting process. Sadly the perfect recipe would not happen before the company eventually closed.
Looking back I realize this company had a great idea but was perhaps just a bit ahead of their time. I’m sure there were other issues too (funding, burn rate, marketing, user adoption to name just a few) though those were not obvious to me at the time. Only a few short years later you would find memory foam keyboards and mattress toppers everywhere. Now complete mattresses are being made from these products.
So what did I learn?
- Building an MVP takes time and your first version will seldom be pretty or anywhere close to perfect
- Even a great idea will fail if users will not adopt it (timing is vital)
- Experience does not always make successful founders
- Research and development is tedious and expensive
- Endorsements are great but mean nothing if your product never gets to market
My first startup experience taught me more than I realized as I reflect on my part in the company. These lessons and memories have stayed with me for a lifetime. Two decades later I have so much more knowledge to share and find myself looking at this company as a case study. I’m thinking of all the grants, funding programs, research centres and other opportunities for startups today and wonder what was available back then.
Rebecca Palmer is the founder of EntreLaunch, a serial entrepreneur and community builder with a mission to inspire innovation, transform lives and connect communities. A lifelong learner, she stays up to date on new trends, needs and strategies with a focus on global entrepreneurship, strategic shifts and social good.