Hackernoon logoDoing Work That Matters: The Who and The What. by@seyi_fab

Doing Work That Matters: The Who and The What.

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@seyi_fabSeyi Fabode

Update: Parts #1 and #3 of this post can be found here and here.

Who is the Customer?

As mentioned in the announcement blog post, along with the thousands of comments and readers we had to the ‘empathy in connected home products’ blog post, a corporate partner reached out to work with us to build Varuna. The first red flag, as we started discussions with this partner, was the long list of features they requested. The company wanted to measure every single water pollutant out there and we’d have ended up with a bloated and terribly expensive product. We cut the feature list to a 1/4th of what the corporate partner was requesting. Why? Because a product with that long a set of features has moved well beyond just being a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

I’ll discuss our MVP in more detail in this post with the focus being that your initial product must ease the core pain that your customers feel.

Some of the responses we got ended up being the most critical for what we are now focusing on. Even though he was being snarky, one of the most useful respondents kept us honest by asking

what do you mean by quality? It could mean anything with water!’.

Simple as that statement was, it helped us filter. We researched the most critical water issues and, partly due to the recent spate of horrible incidents in Flint MI and St Joseph’s LA, lead poisoning rose to the top of the list.

The lead poisoning issue is one that will continue to be important in the US due to an insidious campaign by the lead industry, in the early 1900s, which targeted the construction industry and convinced them to make lead a critical part of the water infrastructure in the US. Until all of this infrastructure is ripped out and replaced, something that will take at least 10years and $25bn at the rate we are going, we have to track lead leakage in our drinking water. It became clear that this would be the main functionality of the device.

Particles in water also showed up as an issue and, while hardness also showed up, we decided to stick with two quality measures; lead and particle inclusions. As it turns out there are simple off the shelf sensors to test for these. The image below shows ongoing work as we build this out.

The next step is to get some prototypes out into the hands of those customers that we are building this for. We strongly believe that no one should unknowingly drink or use dangerous water and that we now have smart technology that prevents that from happening. With the dropping price of sensors (image below) that enables the early warning system (Varuna) this is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’…

Image courtesy of Quartz.com/GE

So who’s building Varuna?

Who’s On The Team

Writing is actually not my day job. It’s just something I love to do. And it’s what has brought me to building Varuna. In writing the original blog post on empathy in connected home products, I believed deeply that we needed to be more considerate of the average consumer. What I didn’t know was that, we would end up with a product that has resonated more than anything else I’ve done in my life. We’re looking for more people to join us in building this product so please sign up here. Who would you be working with to build a product (and eventually a platform) that prevents anyone from ever drinking or using dangerous water? Time for me to tell you a story..

I moved to Austin TX in the summer of 2015. We decided we wanted to be closer to my wife’s family and we wanted to live in a place where our then 2 yr old son could run around outside all year round. I knew very few people in Austin. I’d spent the 8yrs prior in Chicago attending business school at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, building/selling a startup called Power2Switch and building my personal brand as the ‘innovation in the utilities industry guy’. While in Chicago, I met Jamail Carter — who by some stroke of fate worked on a hardware product for the last few months - at a startup event in Chicago. We’ve been great friends since. Apart from the fact he’s the best sales guy I’ve ever worked with, he’s also got a great energy about him that is attractive to everyone. He probably picked that up in his time as a backup QB at Vanderbilt and then at Kellogg Business School at Northwestern University. His time leading a sales region also probably helped. You would think I hadn’t moved from Chicago considering how much Jamail and I keep in touch and we’ve been brainstorming and working on a few things for the last 3 years.

A friend/Kyle introduced me to a couple of his contacts and when I met Waziri Garuba, who’s working on the electronics of Varuna, I knew I had to work with him on something. Waz is a tinkerer (some of the things we’ve brainstormed and he’s built below) but in a past life he was a commodities trader at Goldman Sachs with an MBA from Columbia. Not having many contacts in Austin and truly enjoying his brain, Waz and I would sit and discuss renewable energy ideas for hours. I’d sketch a business model and Waz would hack something together. We continued doing this as I got to meet more people in Austin. To increase my network, I decided to sign up for a co-working space close to home. I ended up at Gravityspace.

GravitySpace is a small co-working space in Round Rock Texas owned by Dan Phipps, the industrial designer crafting the form factor for Varuna and the founder of Axis Design. He’s an introverted designer with a great portfolio. Dan has worked on product design campaigns for Dell, Snap-On, Microsoft etc but from talking to him you wouldn’t know it. I approached Dan with the idea for a connected bath mat that measures weight and vital signs for older people with health issues. Dan didn’t like it (I still think it’s a great idea!) but decided to brainstorm some ideas within the constraints of the connected home. Dan came up with a list of 30ish ideas and we whittled it down to the 3 that I thought were the most empathetic and could be valuable to the mass market. Of the 3, Varuna resonated the most.

And now we are building it. We possess the right combination of expertise in materials engineering (my engineering degree), process and sales (Jamail), product design (Dan) and development (Waz), marketing and brand building (my avocation) and a shared belief. We believe strongly that no one should unknowingly drink or use dangerous water and that we now have smart technology that prevents that from happening.

The first step to that optimal product is Varuna and I share more about the product below.

Why Didn’t You Work With A Big Company?

As mentioned above, the initial response to Varuna was not just from end use customers. We got inbound inquiries from several large companies and we were pretty excited! Large companies have the resources and talent to build this product and (as I mentioned above) we need the help. One question we kept asking ourselves was ‘So why aren’t these companies building this themselves? The correspondence with them quickly answered our questions

  1. Large companies move slowly; product conversations and calls were set a full week in advance. When we eventually jumped on the calls, it was to outline a long drawn out plan to build get the product to market in an unbelievably long time frame. Why? Because large companies feel they have time. On the opposite end, small companies have everything but time. This works to the small company advantage.
  2. Large companies need the numbers to be large: to sell 100k units of Varuna would barely nudge the revenues of these large companies. That number, to us, will prevent 100k homes from drinking poisoned or dangerous water. And a 100k units sold would change the game for our small collective.
  3. The concept of an MVP is still foreign to most large companies: when we eventually got the list of product features that this public company wanted, it read like a grocery list. The product had to measure every single quality measure that is out there. To build a product like that would cost a lot of money (making it prohibitive for the average consumer) and take forever to build (refer to my point about time above). The product list also contained no indication of what actually matters to customers. We, the Varuna team, decided to take a different approach. As indicated here, we got a few hundred prospective customer responses that already highlighted some of the important (and even critical) features. We also reached out to the customers so that the feature set would be less about what the business wants and all about what the customer wants.

Innovation happens slowly in large companies not because the employees are bad or not talented. Innovation is stifled in large companies because it’s hard to innovate when you have the baggage of ‘this is how it’s always been and we have a business model to protect’ holding you down. It’s like a ginormous anchor that hasn’t been pulled in as you try to leave the dock; it keeps you where you are.

Why, Again?

It just so happens that I’m also a customer of this product; my son’s skin is pretty sensitive to water impurities and we’ve had to spend a fair bit of money to get a top of the line water purifier and filters on the taps. So I know a little bit of the pain. Though not even remotely close to how much pain folk in places like Flint and St Joseph’s feel. And it’s those people we are building the product for. We strongly believe that no one should unknowingly drink or use dangerous water and that we now have smart technology that prevents that from happening. The first step to that optimal product is Varuna, a smart water quality meter. Donate here to help our work or sign up to lend your expertise. Thanks!

You can help by

  1. Donating here if you’d like to see this product exist in the world. No amount is too small.
  2. Donating your time if you have the skills required to bring this product out to the world. You can email me at seyi at asha-labsdotcom. We need your help!
  3. If you cannot do #1 or #2 above please share this post.

Donate here

Please tap that heart below if you liked the article. It helps other people see the story, and it helps me know you’d like to see me write more (we all need some validation :)).


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