Tag Archives: New product development

Don’t assume you can just hire a sheryl

Each week, Startup Edition poses a single question to a group of bloggers from the startup community. This week’s question is “How do you turn your idea into a startup?” Karen’s answer? Don’t assume you can just hire a “sheryl” to do all the hard work. 

by Karen Catlin

[dropcap bg=”#ba82e0″ color=”#ffffff”]A[/dropcap]few months ago, I introduced two of my friends to each other, both of whom are named Joe. Ever since, they’ve been working on a startup idea, doing the usual market research, talking with potential customers, designing wire frames, and so on. I caught up with the two Joe’s over lunch recently, and our conversation touched on a number of topics, including operational plans for their future company.

I was delighted they were already thinking of operations. It was in sharp contrast to something I heard from a prominent venture capitalist earlier this spring, who said there was a new phrase being used by the startup community: we’ll just hire a sheryl. That’s right: many early stage startups who VCs for funding have not yet figured out how to turn their idea into a successful business; they assume they’ll be able to hire someone as smart and capable as Sheryl Sandberg to do all the boring stuff, all the heavy lifting to make the company successful.

While I believe this VC meant this as a compliment to Ms. Sandberg that her first name has become a noun, synonymous with a critical role in a tech company, I took it as a sign of arrogance. Founders should never assume they can just hire someone to make their company successful. They’ll need to do more than just come up with the business idea, the prototype, and funding pitch; they’ll need to roll up their sleeves and do a lot of the grunt work. They’re going to have to scrub the proverbial toilets, and maybe even a real toilet or two.

What operational responsibilities should an early-stage startup team be thinking about? Depending on the product and the business model, the list might include:

  • Business development: What partners are critical to the success of your product? Who is going to manage and nurture these relationships?
  • Customer acquisition: Once your founding team has exhausted their list of contacts, how will you attract more customers? How much are you willing to pay for each one?
  • Customer support: How will customers contact you when they have problems? Who will respond to them?
  • Technology: How will you deploy your product? Will your initial implementation scale as you acquire new customers?
  • Metrics: What are your key metrics for measuring the success of your product? Who will analyze and report on this data?
  • Legal: What contracts will you need? Who will oversee the relationship with the law firm?


So, as you develop your initial product offering, make sure you know how you are going to be operationally effective. And your plan should not be “we’ll just hire a sheryl.”


NOTE: This post is part of Startup Edition, weekly wisdom from founders, hackers, and designers who answer a single question each week. Click here to see other answers to this week’s question: “How do you turn your idea into a startup?”

Building Products to Service the Underserved

Technology serves large enterprises making them efficient, and able to turn over a high profit. It also connects people together seamlessly to socialize.  But there are still a number of people who have yet to benefit from technology, one such group are the precariously housed, who make make up the majority of large cities like San Francisco.

Rose Theresa, our second winner of the GitHub scholarship for Femgineer’s Lean Product Development course, sought to change that!

Working in the Mid-Market Tenderlion neighborhoods, she heard many frustrations and time lost whenever the homeless had to line up every morning to have their names entered in the city reservation system for a bed.  To add to the frustration, she saw the amount of paperwork and phone calls required by social service organizations to find availability and to make a reservation.

Rose discovered that a huge amount of time was being wasted on checking availability and making reservations on certain shelter services, like beds.  She knew that some kind of information portal between the two would help save time and reduce needed paperwork.

With this knowledge, Rose and her team set off to put together a product at the Creative Currency Hackathon, an event that brings together developers,designers, and social finance experts to hack a product that helps social service organizations.

After many hours, they were able to put together a prototype called BRIDGE, that would allow shelter-seekers to make and check reservations themselves, and also check availability of other needed services like food and financial management at other local shelters as well via kiosk.

BRIDGE became a finalist in each of the demo days that is was presented, and was mentioned in the SF chronicle, The New York Times, Forbes, and Fast Company.

Although some time has passed since their initial launch at Creative Currency Hackathon, Rose is determined to complete a similar product called, MY CONNECT that would be a step up from BRIDGE that would also help the precariously housed as well as the social service organizations.

Rose is excited that Femgineer Lean Product Development course will guide her along that journey to get MY CONNECT launched and made ready to use by those less fortunate.

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Femgineer Spotlight: Elaine Chen Product Development Executive in High Tech

This week’s Femgineer Spotlight is Elaine Chen. Elaine is the VP of Product Development at Rethink Robotics, a Boston startup with a mission to reinvigorate manufacturing in America.

She also teaches entrepreneurial product development and marketing at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Before joining Rethink Robotics, Elaine, similarly, has worked at several other Boston area startups, which built products with a strong human interaction component, including Zeo, Zeemote, and SensAble Technologies.

Her work in the field of human machines interface and systems engineering, wasn’t her chosen path when she was studying mechanical engineering at MIT. Instead she was interested in rehabilitative engineering, but an opportunity came up when she was working on her second thesis on human machine interfaces for rehabilitative robots.

While working with her thesis advisor, she was introduced to Exos, a startup at the time that designed, developed, and manufactured haptic devices that provided a sense of touch when interacting with various applications, including surgical simulation, teleoperation, and video gaming in arcades and on home PCs.  She ultimately joined the company upon graduation.

At Exos she was originally hired as a machine designer, but went on to write all the firmware running kinematics code that controlled each haptic device developed at the company, and to manage application software development on the PC.  Her experience in this startup taught her two things:

  1. Startups are a great place to push yourself beyond your comfort zone: you are usually free to do anything you want even if it is not technically within your job function.
  2. Engineering is only part of the puzzle, which is only part of the puzzle in product development, which in turn is also only part of the puzzle in building a business.

I learned to look at the broader problem of building a viable business by solving real problems with enough market pull that makes those problems worth solving, instead of being attracted to the pure technology sides of things.

Exos was eventually acquired by Microsoft in 1996. Taking the experience and lessons from working at Exos, she wrapped up her tenure as a software development manager and went on to take leadership positions in several other high tech startups.

Today, the same passion and intensity can be seen at in her work on Baxter, a humanoid robot with 7 degrees of freedom on each arm, at Rethink Robotics.

It’s awesomely hard core and 100% related to everything I learned about engineering and product development to date. It’s got at least four engineering disciplines rolled up in the same product: mechanical, electrical, controls, and software.

Elaine’s position as the head of engineering in a hardware startup is fairly rare in the technology sector, where engineering is traditionally male dominated.

In a survey done in 2008 by the National Science Foundation of the 10 million scientist and engineers who are employed in industry, only 3 million work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. Within just engineering, the gender gap is vast – 20% and 80% men. The gap is a bit smaller for computer and math related professions (36% women and 64% men).

Elaine does think that the landscape is changing. “Women on the whole know they can achieve anything men can, and obstacles are slowly coming down. However, things in the trenches are improving so slowly that sometimes it’s hard to tell.

With the media angling stories on female tech executives such as Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg on their roles as women and mothers rather than on their careers, it has been harder to tell if the landscape is changing.

The reality is that it took hundreds of years for cultural attitudes to get here, and it’s going to take a very long time to get out of here.  What we can do is to make sure the next generation hears a balanced narrative, and we take extra steps to encourage girls to nourish their interest in STEM to compensate for the very ambivalent messages that they are hearing from everyone around them.  It can be as simple as encouraging a girl to take part in the FIRST Lego League or teaching a girl and her friends to program a game in Python, along with their male counterparts.  Another thing we can do is to proactively mentor young women in tech to invest and continue to invest in their careers, regardless of the signals they pick up from the workplace and from society.

We also need more female role models in leadership positions.  Seeing is believing and a successful female leader who is clearly thriving and loving her work and her life is worth a thousand words.

Elaine is an embodiment of the true definition of a Femgineer. Her passion and accomplishments in engineering, and her passion to help change the prevalent mainstream attitudes about women in STEM is what being a Femgineer is all about.



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