How do you know if people want what you want to build?

Validate, prove, justify, confirm, support… I can distinctly remember my experience at StartUp Weekend Pittsburgh a few months back being summed up with these five words. Over the course of the 3 day all you can design, code, and build event I was constantly bombarded with mentors who preached the importance of validating the need for your product or service.

My team envisioned an application for kids to turn their school notes into catchy songs. The thought being teenage kids can memorize lyrics because of a catchy beat – why can’t they memorize all 50 state capitals the same way? We did not place in the top three for the contest, and I think I know why.

We fell prey to a common problem in the start-up world. We never got any outside support for our idea. All of us (most of us) thought the application was cool, practical, and could be the start of something disruptive and revolutionary, yet we did a poor job asking potential users for their feedback. Feedback is the most important ingredient for success, even at the very beginning stages of a start-up.

Our mentors pleaded with us to get some source of outside verification that there was a need, or at least a want for a product similar to ours. We did, kind of. We created a survey that vaguely asked questions related to our application. 50+ results later and we felt we had a strong argument for why our product needed to exist.

We faced a few issues with this mindset. First, we had tunnel vision – we specifically looked for survey results that were positive and used those to further our judgement. Second, we surveyed family and friends – these people intrinsically want to support you and their results were undoubtedly skewed.

This problem was not independent to my team, every start-up at StartUp Weekend Pittsburgh used a survey to justify their product or service. You think I am kidding, take a look at any of the teams twitter feed on the Saturday of the event…

This is a problem, and problem that is even more magnified two months after the event. All of these “start-ups” are dead, they are not businesses, they are webpages that were thrown together in a weekend.

Building something that is useful, needed, and appreciated is one of the many difficult steps in starting a company. The lean start-up methodology makes it seem rather simple – build something, measure how people perceive and use it, learn from that data. Unfortunately this is much more difficult in practice then it is in theory.

The first step before building, measuring, and learning is to validate. The mentors present at Start-Up Weekend where right – getting validation of your idea by potential customers or users is key. Conducting a survey of family and friends is not an applicable way to achieve this.

In a world where we have Product Hunt, Hacker News, and Reddit, I ask, why do we not have a “Do you like this idea”. Imagine a community where people discover, share, and converse over ideas. Not products, not news, not gifs of cats, but ideas.

For the past week I have worked on creating this community. Would You Want is the start of what will serve as a necessary tool in creating a start-up. Users up-vote ideas, the best go to the top, and entrepreneurs can get a quick, informal justification for their idea.

I will post semi-frequent updates on the development of the site, and a more in depth post as the public launch nears. .

My Portfolio: How a 19 Year Old Plays The Stock Market

I am putting forth a disclaimer: I have literally no qualifications or professional justification for the companies that I invest in. If you choose to invest in one or any of the companies that I outline below, good for you - if you don't, good for you. I currently have $4500 invested between two brokerages, Edward Jones, and Charles Schwab. This $4500 represents a large fraction (>90%) of my net worth.

Long on MSLP

MusclePharm (OTCMKTS: MSLP) is a sports nutrition manufacturer. MusclePharm is one of the few leading manufacturers of sports related supplements, others include Optimum Nutrition/BSN, Cellucor, and Quest Nutrition.

MusclePharm’s product width and depth are both quite large all housed under the brands 3 units (MusclePharm, FitMiss, and the Arnold Series). The company produces 19 different core (MusclePharm) products, 9 FitMiss products, and 7 Arnold products for an aggregate of 35 different units. Every unit is then deep with flavor and size variations.

MusclePharm is attempting to re-brand itself as a lifestyle brand, something that makes an investor like myself nervous. The recent product launch of Coco Protein, and product variations of Combat Powder that have flopped make it hard to believe in MusclePharm’s ability to continue growing in a larger market. Yet the launch of Combat Crunch Bars, and the rumblings of news that MusclePharm may soon have the capacity and distribution to sell these protein bars individually in convenience stores is reassuring.

The saving grace for MusclePharm is social media. MusclePharm has a cult like following, something that I see every time I walk into the gym as a college student. 233 thousand followers on Instagram solidifies MusclePharm’s connection with young adults.

Over the next 1-2 years I see MusclePharm improving their manufacturing processes, distribution relationships, and growing their business through cost cutting and time saving measures. Reducing product width and focusing on the units that consumers actually buy will help save time and money. in 2015 I expect endorsement deals with Tiger Woods, Johnny Manziel, and Colin Kaepernick to boost sales as all three athletes are anticipated to have more successful years. Finally, as MusclePharm continues to grow more analysts will cover the firm. As national recognition occurs I anticipate stock prices to rise.

CALD

CallidusCloud is, ” a leading provider of cloud software. CallidusCloud enables organizations to accelerate and maximize their lead to money process with sales and marketing effectiveness cloud software”.

Callidus offers extremely pertinent and useful software for firms and organization around the globe. CALD has been rising for months with earnings reports beating analyst expectations.

I anticipate fourth quarter revenues to be down for Callidus as international growth will have slowed. I will be selling my share of CALD in the coming weeks before the February 5th announcement.

OME

Omega Protein is another micro cap company focusing on manufacturing and distributing animal and human grade food products and supplements.

Omega’s main business revolves around animal nutrition, and it was only with the recent purchase of Biorigional in 2014 that Omega has begun a push into the human nutrition sector.

Omega primarily conducts business in North America, with over 55% of their distribution occurring in the U.S and Canada. Lower fuel costs, the constantly increasing demand for animal feed, and the growth of Omega’s human nutrition sector has this company poised for a charge after earnings are released.

ONCS

OncoSec Medical is the most recent addition to my portfolio. OncoSec is researching DNA based solutions to make immunotherapy treatments for cancer more effective while decreasing side effects.

Immunotherapies, such as Bristol Myers Squibb’s Opdivo, and Merck’s Keytruda has shown dramatic results in clinical trials for treating Melanoma and lung cancer. OncoSec’s technology and therapies are being tested in coordination with drugs such as these to increase effectiveness. Once trial data is publicly available OncoSec could see stock prices go soaring.

Large players, such as the companies mentioned above may be faced with the prospect of buying out OncoSec for their patents and practices. Any investor in when the company is trading at below $.50 would be happy with that outcome a few years down the line.

OncoSec is my stretch company, yet the upside and potential is there.

ANFCX

I am heavily invested in American Funds The New Economy Fund® Class C, because why not offset some of the great risk that comes with investing in all micro/small cap companies. This fund is primarily involved in healthcare and information technology, two fields that will play nicely together as time goes on.

This is my safety net. I won’t touch the money in this fund for a decade.

I will try and update every once in a while with changes to my portfolio and updates on my hits and misses.

Applying to AlphaLab (and not getting in)

AlphaLab is the premiere start-up accelerator program in the Pittsburgh, PA area. Applications for the winter term at AlphaLab where due at the end of October. Below is my application. I did not get accepted into the program, take from this what you want.

Questions are in bold. I have omitted the “team” section because my partners did not want their information shared online.

Current Status / Plans

Where are you in terms of prototype or product development?

GymBro has been on the build, measure, learn track for the past 10 months. We processed our first order in January of this year. I will be the first to admit that we were in over our head at first and we lost about 6 months of progress from February to August when I decided to freelance out the development of our back-end to a senior at Pitt.

This student was not committed to the project and as a result all deadlines were missed and we went without a fully functional website for those 6 months. The fact that we even got orders during that time amazes me. The way that we can win over customers from Bodybuilding.com is to offer an impeccable user experience, and to this point we haven’t.

I also learned a lot from the freelancing fiasco. When I made the decision to freelance out I thought I was getting the back-end infrastructure that would sustain GymBro for the next five years. What I learned during that experience was that first, infrastructure is most important. You can have the greatest idea and solve the most meaningful problem in the world, but if your process for solving it does not function then it is useless. We spent six months being useless. Second, you only need that “back-end for the next five years” when you have a service that you are going to stick with. At this point GymBro could iterate from a subscription service to a mobile app, so building a flawless back-end is currently irrelevant.

Since those issues I have rebuilt the website with WordPress which I am very comfortable with. WordPress allows for me to do front-end development while taking care of the back. In the few months we have been working off of “new.gymbro.co” we have had an extremely successful promotion, processing over 60 orders in 2 days and generating over $2000 in revenue. We have also learned from customer feedback that our new platform is an absolute step in the right direction, although not perfect.

What have you learned from direct interaction (including online) with your target customers/users? What are the next hypotheses you plan to test?

I use two main tools to interact with customers and potential customers. First, I send emails everyday to customers asking them about their experience and making sure everything went smoothly. I also ask how and why they chose GymBro for their order, and if they currently have any fitness or supplement related problems they are facing.

In addition to these emails I enjoy doing market research through surveys. I have set up in front of the gym at Pitt and asked questions as people walked in and out. I have tried to understand purchasing habits, stimuli that entice purchases, and the perceived knowledge that consumers have for the supplements they take.

From all this, the next step is to provide consumers with a service that takes the stress out of having to make recurring purchases for supplements. Through our 10+ months of sales we have learned that selling subscriptions to supplements is tricky. Consumers do not take supplements as religiously as intended and as a result we have had customers cancel their subscription because they still had a large quantity at home.

We need to be able to provide subscriptions that arrive every two months, three months, four months. We need to allow for users to change flavors, sizes and brands. If we provide a seamless platform for consumers we will be able to make a subscriptions platform work.

Yet subscriptions are not the only answer. PushforProtein (pushforprotein.com) is a MVP I built this past weekend that serves to make supplements purchases from mobile devices as simple and seamless as possible. Applying a “Yo” like application to supplements is another idea. Imagine an application where customers literally pressed a button on their phone to order a product they take regularly? That is what I am attempting to test with PushforProtein.

Another idea could be for our company to send push notifications to users by tracking supplements usage as it relates to data collected by ever expanding fitness tracking devices and software. As more and more people track their workouts and daily caloric expenditures there is an opportunity to suggest what supplements would most benefit them and offer a platform for those purchases to be made. Imagine a user has our application installed. After tracking a 5 mile run on a hot, humid day we can suggest to them the perfect supplement to take right as they finish. We could provide real-time supplement advice to users.

Technology is outdated when it comes to the supplement industry. There is rapid growth and development when it comes to fitness and nutrition, yet supplementation is lagging behind. We need to fill that void.

What do you anticipate to be the most challenging technical hurdle(s)?

Changing constantly. I am only capable of so much (average front-end development, and some WordPress wizardry), we will need to watch every movement on our website and optimize.

Also, application development for IOS and Android is something I have no experience with, yet something I would be willing to learn.

Where do you expect to be by the end of AlphaLab? What are the interim goals and timeline that will help you to get there?

In one sense I want GymBro to be at the next stage of legitimacy during AlphaLab. The day we did $2,000 in revenue GymBro felt more legitamate, the day we get funding it will be more legitimate, the day we create jobs we will be more legitimate. This cycle is intended to go on until my mom stops harassing me to do my chores when I am at home.

In another sense I want GymBro to mature and genuinely solve a problem. This company was founded on the “cool idea principle”, we weren’t solving a problem, we just thought subscriptions were cool. Now, as time has gone on I want GymBro to solve something important and meaningful. That is part of the build/measure/learn feedback loop, we still need to pinpoint exactly what problem and solution is needed. During the 20 weeks at AlphaLab we will pinpoint our problem, build the solution and constantly test and validate what works. By the end of those 20 weeks we will have a service that others will try and copy because it fits the market space so well.

Product-Market Information

Describe your company in 2-3 sentences.

At GymBro we are empowering consumers by providing efficient and effective solutions for purchasing dietary supplements.

What market are you targeting? Describe your initial customer/user.

GymBro serves tech savvy, health conscious individuals. Our initial customer is someone who is interested in fitness and open minded to purchasing physical goods online. We acknowledge the growing market for female supplementation, and we anticipate a name change occurring.

What problem are you solving for this customer? Describe the initial use case.

GymBro aims to offer a new level of convenience for consumers. Currently we provide a simple, honest, and “quality first” approach which differentiates us from our cluttered and claim filled competition. We envision expanding on this and creating a service that provides insights into proper supplementation based off of real time activity tracking. We need to stay true to our quality, simplicity, and convenience to fully differentiatae us from our competition.

What makes you truly unique? Why will your customer change from the status quo or choose you over a competitor? Please identify competitors as applicable.

GymBro must offer a seamless user experience, and unparalleled user on-boarding. BodyBuilding.com is the mainstay of the retail supplement industry, yet with Stripe Checkout, Apple Pay, and more advanced checkout platforms coming to fruition BodyBuilding.com is at risk of being taken over by a similar, yet more user friendly company.

In addition to this, technology is rapidly changing the way people track their own personal fitness and diet, yet that same technology is not being applied to supplements. GymBro will offer this advanced technology and modern user experience to gain users and grab market share.

Other competitors include:

  • GNC.com
  • TigerFitness.com
  • MuscleandStrength.com
  • Amazon.com
  • Vitaminshoppe
  • A1supplements.com
  • Walgreens

More specific competitors include:

  • Jackedpack
  • Jacked-in-a-box
  • BuluBox
  • CampusProtein.com
  • GamePlan Nutrition

 

GymBro Progress Report

About two weeks ago my company, GymBro processed more orders than our cash flow could handle. This was really, really cool. For anyone who has started up a company this is the type of problem you never want to run into, yet are somewhat accepting of. I’m here today to outline the path we’ve taken to grow GymBro to this point.

Background

A little background about myself before we begin. I am a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, I’m studying Business Information Systems and Information System Design. I’m not really sure what all that means but I work on programming and business, win-win right? My partner, Martin is a Pitt sophomore as well, finance major, I think. We co-founded GymBro in our dorm room during the second semester of last year, January 2014 to be exact.

Developing our idea

We didn’t really see a problem that we set out to fix, rather I pitched the idea of a subscription service for bodybuilding supplements to Martin. He liked it, kind of. Neither of us were really sure if people wanted a subscription service, but I built a website to test it out. This was our assumption, and we had to try to get real people to either validate it or prove to us it was false.

Three months of testing on our MVP proved that there might be potential. We initially laid out our website like any other supplement website (check bodybuilding.com if you are unfamiliar). It was cluttered, there was sensory overload, cognitive dissonance at every turn, and then when you wanted to buy something you had to enter extra information such as the length of your subscription, how frequently you wanted it to come, etc. The whole process of ordering a product from our website took too long, too many clicks involved.

At this point our customers were my mom, Martin’s friends from high school, and a few of my buddies at Pitt. Seriously, we sold product to maybe 15 people. The number is irrelevant, it is the feedback you get from these people that is invaluable. We learned the following…

  • People want simple
  • Our subscription service suggests “convenience”, our website needs to emulate that
  • People want the truth
  • People buy supplements with goals in mind
  • People want quality

For us, as college freshman we went into this process with hundreds of assumptions. It is only through talking with your early adopters and initial customers that you can learn how to refine your product or service. This is an ongoing process. The list above is a short summary of what we learned from our initial launch. The next step was to take this information and apply it. We freelanced out to a Pitt Senior who is an extremely impressive back end developer. This was a mistake. We trusted a college senior to build our website on a freelance contract. What we didn’t think about was the fact that he was a college student, and (no offense to other college students reading this) he didn’t care. He didn’t share the vision that Martin and I had. He made a website, essentially another MVP. There were errors, bugs, issues left and right, but somehow, someway we increased our customer count close to 100 over the next five months. This was more friends and family, we had yet to get a customer that we didn’t know through someone.

Gaining traction

That all changed about two weeks ago. Martin and I both knew that if GymBro was ever to scale we would need a different website, something simpler, easier to use, more convenient. We decided to have a promotion on a new product in the market to drive a lot of traffic to our design prototype and watch in real time how users reacted. The result was our highest grossing two days of sales ever.

Our objective with this new design was to give customers the opportunity to checkout and complete their purchase in under 5 “clicks”. On our old site, the minimum was 17 to just get to checkout… We watched in real-time as people went from the homepage to checkout, to confirmation email. We had people checking out, giving us their hard earned money in under 5 clicks, and it worked.

Again, the same process as before with my mom would occur after a purchase-we asked all these people about their experience. I actually gave people my personal phone number in the confirmation email, and I ended up having multiple conversations about what we did right and what we did wrong. We are currently taking all this information, which was surprisingly positive, and applying it to what we do next.

That is the process, learn from your customers and adapt.

Where we are at today

We have refined our concept and vision. GymBro started out with no problem to solve. We have learned from all of our interactions with users, and customers that there is a problem, a problem that we are getting closer to solving every day. People want what was outlined above, they want a service that is simple, modern, and honest, not Bodybuilding.com, not GNC.

Martin and I are college sophomores who are working a field we are extremely passionate about, learning everyday about how to better our service and fill the void that our target market sees. It helps that we love supplements and that we love working out-we want to create this solution for ourselves as personal users as much as we want to as businessmen.

My bedroom serves as our warehouse, we have had freight trucks come to our college house to deliver goods. Martin and I spend a few hours each week working on GymBro, either packing boxes, calling sales reps, or sampling products. We love doing this, it’s fun, and it keeps us out of trouble.

What’s next

AlphaLab is a startup accelerator in Pittsburgh, PA that Martin and I plan to apply for the winter term. I have already gone to a few information sessions and met with the program manager. The response we get when we talk to people about GymBro and our philosophy is resoundingly positive.

The hope and goal is to get a seed investment to put towards improving our distribution channels, branding, and our online infrastructure.

Hopefully this time next year I will be writing a post about our series A round of funding, but until then this is all I have to share.