Discovering a Problem by Being a Beginner

When Julie Legault was a masters student at the MIT Media Lab, she was encouraged to try new things and to do things she wouldn’t normally do. So when Justin Pahara, founder of Synbiota, put on a workshop about a new technology called synthetic biology, Julie gave it a try. 

For her, this workshop was a game-changer. She and her fellow grad students got interested in synthetic biology and all of its applications, so they tried to utilize their new knowledge in MIT’s biotech lab. But that’s where Julie recognized a big problem in the biotech space — there was a huge barrier to entry. If you weren’t an expert, it was very difficult to learn or gain any type of experience in it. 

Initially embarrassed by her inexperience, Julie turned the idea that there are no tools that allow beginners to get interested in biotechnology into her graduate thesis. She got overwhelmingly positive feedback, so she kept moving forward with the idea. Eventually, it led her to get back in touch with Justin for his help and expertise in the area. Together, they founded Amino Labs, a company that builds hardware and provides experiences that removes barriers to entry and makes bioengineering accessible to children and non-scientists.

Julie turned the idea that there are no tools that allow beginners to get interested in biotechnology into her graduate thesis. She got overwhelmingly positive feedback, so she kept moving forward with the idea. Click To Tweet

The Importance of Knowing – and Learning from – your Customer

As Amino Labs got started, Justin’s previous experience with Synbiota allowed him to bring some startup lessons to the table. The biggest one, according to Justin, is the importance of finding the need — not the want — of the customer and catering to that. “It’s the starting point for everything,” he says. 

Once they got going, Julie and Justin launched an Indiegogo campaign to see who would respond to their product and what they would pay for it. They ended up getting information about their customers — three different and well-defined market segments who were linked to education. For all intents and purposes, it was their first minimum viable product. 

“Once we had the ‘who’ it helped us direct our efforts a lot better,” Justin says. It had the added benefit of giving them an early customer base to try their products. This was especially important as they dove into the iterative process of developing their product. 

Since they were in a brand new space, they relied on user feedback to help them build their prototypes. “We had to get user feedback because we didn’t know what they would do with the machine,” Julie says. And early on, they took the feedback they received at every step of the process and used it to build each machine themselves. It was a highly manual and time-consuming process and it took about a week per machine.

But the iterative process worked. “We learned so much by doing these in small batches and growing them through time to get where [we are] now where it’s fairly refined,” Justin says. And they still lean heavily on iteration. For them, a very important part of the process is getting the products out to their customers as early as possible. It not only helped them learn about the usability of the product but also helped them realize what else they needed to create to enrich the experience.

The importance of finding the need — not the want — of the customer and catering to that. Click To Tweet

Doing Things by the Numbers

Along the way, Justin and Julie realized how important their metrics were for their company and started focusing on them a little more. One surprising key metric for them? Emails. 

Julie pays attention to the emails and keeps track of how many they get and, more importantly, how many repeat questions they receive. If they get the same question (from their target market) at least three times, that means they need to create an asset for their machine or address the question in some other way. 

Cost and pricing have also been an important focus for them. “There’s a certain threshold of money where you won’t try something new if you don’t really know about it” Julie points out, making it important to keep the price of the machines within a range that their target market is still willing to buy their product. 

Early on, this meant she had to let go of the idea of her dream vision of their machine. It had all the bells and whistles she had imagined, but it turned out to not be very practical. It not only was confusing to the customers, but it also cost a lot of money to make. By taking advice to cut it down to something a lot more simple, they were able to improve the product and significantly lower the price of their machine. 

The cost of building their machines has been something that they’ve continued to work on in an iterative capacity. Initially, they didn’t fully understand the cost of building their machines at a reasonable scale. As a result, they were doing a lot of guesswork and undervalued their machines. “It took a while to understand the cost of goods,” Justin says. But, it’s something that they’ve improved upon, especially now that they’re working with partners and need to pay more attention to their margins.

 

Writing the Book on Science for Beginners…Literally

As if starting and growing a product in a new space wasn’t keeping them busy enough, Justin and Julie have also taken the time to write a book as a companion piece to their work. They realized that in the DIY Science space, there weren’t really any books to help guide beginners or help get them started. So they created one themselves. Entitled Zero to Genetic Engineering Hero: The Beginner’s Guide to Programming Bacteria at Home, School and in the Maker’s Space, it’s intended to help facilitate the self-guided learning process for beginning non-scientists. 

The book also helps build upon the learning journey that they’re trying to help cultivate with their machines. It was carefully developed to guide users through exercises and to ultimately empower them to feel like they have the tools to start their independent research. And, to ensure the book was something their customers would use and understand, Justin and Julie went back to the iterative process. They worked with actual customers to have them read and test out the chapters, take their feedback, make changes, and try again until they ended up with a book that they felt was useful and engaging to their entire customer base.

Reflecting Back and Looking to the Future

So far, Justin and Julie have built and grown Amino Labs on a bootstrap budget with little to no outside funding. They believe it’s helped them build a sustainable business. “We wanted to make sure the core business and the products and the end-users were happy,” Justin says.

Still, there is the possibility that they’ll think about VC funding in the future. But for now, their focus is on being able to demonstrate that they’re building something real that can sell itself and on ensuring that they have desirable metrics in place. But right now, they’re pretty happy with what they’ve accomplished. 

As they look back on their entrepreneurship journey so far, the two pieces of advice Julie and Justin would offer up to other entrepreneurs would be to know your audience and to deploy as quickly as possible. Neither of those things is easy or comfortable, and Justin and Julie are the first to admit that it’s “not always sunshine.” But those are two things that will quickly help set you on the right course for creating a real product.

“The informal motto of the [MIT} media lab is ‘Deploy or Die,’” Julie says, “that was ingrained in me as a student. But definitely put it out there. It’ll be embarrassing, but it’ll be worth it.”

 

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Hisham Ibrahim’s conversation with Julie Legault and Justin Pahara, you may download it. Thanks to Shannon Lorenzen for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co. can help.

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