Cal State San Marcos launched its new Innovation Hub on Thursday, with a workshop addressing one of the most basic business questions: what problems do your customers need to solve?
The event offered strategies for “solving other people’s problems,” as a way of identifying and targeting markets. And it represented a first step toward creating a meeting ground for students, community business owners and entrepreneurs.
“There’s a lot of different resources on campus and a lot of different resources in the community, and you need somebody who can connect them,” said Sam Clarke, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship, and co-director of Innovation Hub with physics professor Chuck De Leone.
The hub is housed in the new Extended Learning building, which opened in November and will also house a health clinic, classrooms, and other services. On Thursday, the hub’s offices were open, but relatively empty save for some folding tables and portable chairs.
By fall, it should be fully built out and furnished with tables, work spaces, whiteboards and equipment. That could include devices as cutting edge as 3D printers, and as old-school as high quality coffee machines, Clarke said. But its main feature will be the interactions that happen there.
“A lot of entrepreneurship and innovation has to do with people just talking to each other, in a space that has the mindset of solving problems,” he said.
Clarke said the organization expects to spend about $500,000 for startup expenses, and plans to eventually generate revenue to support its operations. This spring, the hub will offer a series of meetings that address the early steps in founding a business, including identifying problems, design thinking, and commercializing a business idea.
On Thursday, Alex Waters, director of Connect All at the Jacobs Center, a startup accelerator, spoke about customer discovery, and how to pinpoint problems that could offer markets for new products or services.
Oftentimes, “people who build something wind up with a solution looking for a problem,” Waters said, adding that for any type of product, “there are tons of it that it doesn’t sell. What this means is that they haven’t clearly articulated why you need what they are going to sell.”
Waters described means of soliciting input from potential customers, ranging from in-person interviews — the most demanding but also most valuable source of information, he said — to phone or online surveys. And he urged participants to leave their comfort zone and branch out beyond close friends and family members who already support their ideas.
“These are people who actually care about you, and here’s the thing; they will lie to you,” he said. “…because they don’t want to crush your dreams. You want to go to people who don’t care about you and will tell you the truth.”
During the workshop, Waters led the group through exercises in which participants wrote down what they do and don’t know about their customers. For instance, a student working on a business plan for a gasoline delivery service said he knew that his potential customers, by definition, have cars. He didn’t know, however, how much they drive each week, what type of cars they drive, and what fuel economy they get, important data for the plan.
Waters offered tips on interviewing prospective customers: encourage stories, ask open-ended questions and pay attention to non-verbal cues. And he wrapped up by asking two students to conduct quick, practice interviews of each other.
Sunni Bates, a senior studying global business management, was one of the volunteers for that exercise, and said it reinforced her resolve to hone her interviewing and networking skills. She has a background in construction and landscaping, and plans to develop software to connect contractors with suppliers of materials that meet their exact specifications.
“I have this great idea,” she said. “I can say it all day to my family. But when I come to a stranger, I freeze. I know for a fact, from being in the industry, that the product that I want to implement is a good idea. But knowing how I can effectively convey that” is challenging, she said.
Kurling Robinson, a software developer and board member for the Innovation Hub, said the organization also intends to foster diversity within the startup community, encouraging women, people of color, veterans and those from a variety of professional backgrounds to found companies.
“CSUSM is great,” he said. “Everyone has this grit about them. They’re commuters, they’re working two jobs. They have a different problem set. And those problems, only they can solve. So you get different entrepreneurs than in Silicon Valley.”
Brianna Cordova, a junior studying entrepreneurship, plans to use her experience working in senior care to create a model for high quality, home-based care. During her first year as a caregiver, she said, she worked exclusively with one client, but worried about him when she left.
“I wanted to take my patient home,” she said. “I didn’t think he was getting the same level of care he would if I was with him 24-7. That led to an idea for a senior foster care system here in San Diego County, where people can bring seniors into their home to live with them. This way, caregivers can give them 24-hour care.”
Cordova hopes to develop that plan through her work at the university, and said the Innovation Hub could help her with the contacts she needs to launch the senior care program program.
“It’s not like I come from a wealthy family, or people who are business owners,” she said. “This Innovation Hub and meetings like this give me contact with people who are in the industry, or can be mentors for me, and give me pointers about what worked for them when they started their business. So it allows me to build my network in a way I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”
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