HOLLAND — Companies can startup and launch new products while being economical with their available resources.
That’s the philosophy behind the lean startup process, a business approach aimed at changing the way companies are built and how new products are launched.
Lean startup relies on validated learning, scientific experimentation and iterative product releases to shorten product development cycles, measure progress and gain valuable customer feedback. Using this technique, startups can design their products or services to meet the demands of their customer base without requiring large amounts of initial funding or expensive product launches.
Hope College students Scott Brandonisio and Sam Tzou relied on a lean startup philosophy when starting their business, Lemon Peel, which developed a prototype noise-cancelling headband for use by hospital patients. The product also doubles as a mobile monitoring device to wirelessly transmit a patient’s vital stats to a nearby nursing station.
But that’s simply the latest iteration of the Vital Sleep Band product. Brandonisio, who started the company, said there have been at least six previous iterations, starting with a device to block the sound of a snoring roommate.
“The way we look at it now is to develop something that a patient can sleep in,” said Brandonisio. “We tested the prototype to determine how comfortable it was with one of us sleeping in it. It passed the test. Now we’re talking to the human subject review board.”
Certainly, the Hope College seniors — Brandonisio is majoring in electrical engineering, Tzou in management and chemistry — are onto something. Lemon Peel placed second last month in the Accelerate Michigan Business Plan competition, winning $15,000. Earlier in the month, Lemon Peel also won $5,000 from Start Garden.
Brandonisio and Tzou have been working closely with the Hope Entrepreneurial Initiative, a three-year-old student business incubator where they’ve been mentored by Director Steve VanderVeen.
“HEI is an incubator that we run each summer,” VanderVeen said. “We recruit 10 students to be a part of it. We pay students to work on their ideas. We also connect the students to a network of advisers and workshops. Scott has been in the incubator for two summers, Sam for one. It’s where they met.”
VanderVeen said Brandonisio came up with the Vital Sleep Band idea because he had a roommate that snored. He started by developing a noise-cancelling device. Then, through HEI, he got connected to Dr. David Lowry, a brain and spine specialist, who got Brandonisio thinking about how the Sleep Band could instead be used as a medical device.
That resonated for Brandonisio, an avid sailor who got hurt on one of his voyages and had to go to the hospital. During his stay in the hospital, he found all the noise made it difficult for him to sleep. He also grew tired of the nurses waking him every few hours to check his vitals. So he decided to add a mobile monitor that could send a patient’s vitals via Wi-Fi to the nursing station.
“We developed Vital Sleep Band using lean startup philosophy,” Brandonisio said. “The two most important lessons of lean startup we learned are always create a minimum viable product in order to test the feasibility of the idea before investing a lot of time and money. We also learned if you’re going to fail, fail fast. We haven’t failed, but we are constantly building on the product and improving it through customer feedback.”
Kylen Blom, who graduated from Hope in May with a degree in business management and communications, used lean startup to develop his year-old business, MyGreatLake.net. He now one-offs silk screened T-shirts and sweatshirts promoting the five Great Lakes. Twenty-five retail locations sell his goods.
“It was through the Hope (Entrepreneurship) Initiative where I made some of my initial connections,” Blom said. “We started with a minimal viable product, two-colored shirts. From there, we did long-sleeve T-shirts and hoodies. Because I was operating on such a small scale, I was carrying inventory then. But I learned that I didn’t need to carry inventory, and only printed one shirt per order. We iterated into an on-demand print shop.”
Blom began his printing business in an outbuilding at his parents’ home. Six months later, he brought on some partners in a friends-and-family round of financing and bought the Michigan Awesome brand.
MyGreatLake.net has grown so much that in November, Blom moved into his new print shop in the Dutch Village mall where he and a handful of employees now do all of the company’s production, sorting and shipping.
“We just keep trying to figure this out — how to make it run smoothly in the new space,” Blom said. “Whatever opportunities present themselves, we pursue them. Now we’re trying to figure out international sales. We also might sell retail out of the front of the shop. We’re continually growing and transforming, moving, trying to figure out what the customer wants next.”
Another innovative Hope College student is Drew Born, who has helped stoke the spirit of Christmas in West Michigan. He and a partner set up Santa’s farm on acreage in the woods outside Caledonia. He has a male and female reindeer under surveillance by high-speed video cameras, which he uses to webcast the animals’ three daily feedings at ReindeerCam.com.
“We started out in 2010 by putting a video camera on whitetail deer,” Born said. “We did it for hunting. But everyone watching was animal lovers instead. A buddy of mine said we should put something on reindeer for Santa. So we pushed out a new version to the app store.”
The app sells for $1.99 so you can watch Santa feed his reindeer on your Smartphone or tablet computer. He’s selling about a thousand apps each day. The app was developed for him by Grand Rapids-based Open Systems Technologies Inc. Through Nov. 1, Born said ReindeerCam.com has had more than 1 million views.
What Born learned at HEI, he said, taught him how to develop his unique business model. His website and app so impressed Start Garden that he was awarded a second-round investment of $25,000.
“I started working with the HEI program and Steve VanderVeen where I learned lean startup — I’m Dutch, so I believe in lean startup,” Born said. “But Start Garden became a big factor, too, helping us develop the business plan and revenue models.”
Acknowledging Christmas does, indeed, only come once a year, Born said the company is looking for other holiday-based opportunities.
“Easter is coming,” he said. “So maybe we’ll feed the Easter Bunny.”
Mike Brennan is senior technology writer at MiBiz. His day job is editor and publisher of MITechNews.com