A group of EWMBA and UCSF grad students formed a team for last summer’s eight week NSF iCorps Lean Startup program @ Haas. We’re doing a one week immersion program in April–read on to see why you should apply here!
Thanks to Linda Chow, PhD (EWMBA 16) for reflecting on her team’s journey.
How did you come up with the idea?
It started from a very personal problem – one of our teammate’s mother went through a difficult situation as her health deteriorated rapidly. She had experienced numerous chronic diseases taking 6 pills a day for years. One day, she fell at home and broke her hip. This triggered a series of events as her body could not handle them well. She then became a frequent visitor to the emergency room. Finally she was placed in hospice for palliative care. This all happened in less than a year. Our teammate’s experience was that no one wants to talk about it, no help can be leaned on for the daily struggles and it was a very lonely journey. Our very first idea was that we can build education channels – we’re educated and don’t want anyone going through this painful process – let’s build a system.
How did you go from this idea to finding a team?
I’m lucky that some of my MBA friends have been subconsciously thinking about entrepreneurship for quite some time. NSF iCorps became our catalyst. We rounded out the rest of the team at a Haas-UCSF networking event. We were excited as we all wanted to learn how to be entrepreneurs through the NSF iCorps program.
Any challenges when you first started working together?
We used the NSF iCorps eight-week program as a forcing mechanism like an incubator. NSF iCorps requires us to deliver over 10 high quality customer interviews each week. We were under unexpectedly high time-pressure especially since most of us had full time jobs and customer interviews with clinicians can only be performed in day time.
Our solution was to focus on the learnings of the NSF iCorps – customer discovery and getting out of the building. As we discovered something new through our customers every week, it empowered us to keep going. Eventually we were the first team which finished with 123 high quality customer interviews.
What did you find out?
In retrospect, we found that NSF iCorps instructors are phenomenally insightful. During the program, most of the teams struggled painfully and pivoted ranging very early stage like us through the late stages of the program.
From our customer interviews, we quickly learned that no one wanted to talk about palliative care. We did everything from talking with end of life experts to examining POLST online. None of these really brought the impact we wanted. We were deeply desperate. We knew we needed to pivot, but where should we pivot to?
We consulted with all five NSF iCorps instructors, and each of them gave us a different ‘magical wand’: Professor David Charron on how to sub-segment the customers until we see the singular wants; Todd Morrill on how to extract customers’ wants from interviews by pattern recognition in our brain; Professor Kevin Rodondi on how to identify the primary payer in the ecosystem; Nancy Kamei on how to listen to our customers for hypothesis validation; and Chris DeNoia on how to sharpen our interview skills by asking customers to walk through their experiences.
In the week 2-3, we reviewed our 38 hour-long interviews with sub-segment on elderly people and caregivers. Employing the pattern recognition technique, we noticed that medication compliance was their ultimate pain point. In the later interviews, we validated this hypothesis, because even when we did not ask and let them talk about their pain points, they would always say something about their medications in the customer interviews.
What surprised us the most was that, when we probed them to walk us through how they track their medications, this question did not bother them, but opened them up to talk joyfully. Nearly all of them were very proud to share with us their various clever ways of tracking such as using paper notebook, calendars, Excel spreadsheet, or even bringing a 3-inch binder of all paperwork they receive from the clinics and all the medication bottles to the clinics in every doctor visit.
More interestingly, most of them mentioned to us that they still had a hard time to track their medications, and would be willing to pay us if we could build something handy for them! At that moment, we knew we got the product-market fit!
Would you recommend the iCorps program to others?
Absolutely! We can’t thank the NSF iCorps instructors enough for pushing us to find a problem worth solving through our customers and hone in on who cares about it the most. They gave us stories and insights to help us think more than what we would have done on our own. The NSF iCorps journey was frankly painful but very rewarding!
We also treasured the learnings from the other teams in the same cohort– they were from different industries and in different stages, so their problems varied and demonstrated a spectrum of problem solving techniques. To cite an example, teams in the food industry can easily connect to consumers, but they quickly struggled at the discussion of scalability through partnership. We could get a glimpse of how to best deal with partnership ahead of our company development.
Todd Morrill often reminded us to not worry about trying to fill in every single box on the Business Model Canvas. He kept reinforcing that no team in the NSF iCorps history has created a perfect business model in one cohort. He’s been very supportive of our effort to continue doing customer interviews and improving as we go. And in fact, our team is getting out the building and busy at conducting another round of customer interviews now.
Last but not the least, another invaluable lesson that we learned from the NSF iCorps program and instructors is to help foresee what we’ll face in two to three years. We’ve been given strategic insights and quick problem-solving skills that we can use for life and we are continuing to make good use of them to grow our company.