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Modify Watch’s Low-Tech Business Takeaways From High-Tech Startups

West Coast business schools are entrepreneurial breeding grounds, but not just for the next hot thing in tech–here’s what mix-and-match watch company Modify learned during its launch.

Modify Watch’s Low-Tech Business Takeaways From High-Tech Startups

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I graduated from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in May 2010. Friends from school included the founders of ideation space Napkin Labs; an amazing online test preparation company called Magoosh; and an industry-changing waste-heat-to-electricity clean tech startup called Alphabet Energy. While at Haas, I interacted with entrepreneurs and investors while cofounding a gamified sustainability startup–it was the tech maven’s dream!

However, rather than going the tech route, I decided to start a watch company after graduation.

I started Modify Watches with a friend, Gary Coover. Together, we design and manufacture interchangeable faces and straps that can be mixed and matched for the ultimate personalized watch. Our products are sold in the Google Store and have been customized for HP, AOL, and others. We will soon launch a line featuring the images of Major League Baseball players.

Despite the low-tech nature of our watches, interacting with techies has had an immeasurable impact on our success. Here are three key takeaways that can apply to startups in any industry–not just Silicon Valley’s hottest tech companies:

  1. Test your hypotheses: Gary and I thought that Modify was ideally targeted for young professionals. When we first started, people of all demographics would stop us on the street and say, “Cool watch, where’d you get it?” Taking a note from the playbook of famed entrepreneurs and investors Steve Blank and Eric Ries–our professors at Haas–we reassessed our strategy, focusing on customer discovery and building a minimum viable product. We talked to customers without making more assumptions and instead focused on getting out of the office and testing our hypotheses. Do not create the product of your dreams from the start–you may find that after six months of work and a $50,000 investment, your ideal product does not match a customer’s ideal product.
  2. Admit that you don’t know what you don’t know and find great advisers who do: Before business school, I was a management consultant. Before consulting, I studied history and Hispanic studies at Columbia. I had no direct experience in the fields we operate in now. We brought on advisers who were experts in design, watch manufacturing, and web and retail development. Their advice saved our team countless amounts of money, time, and stress. When we ran into walls, we always sought their advice. Being closed off to the world is a big fallacy–startups too often think that someone might steal their big-ticket idea. The truth is that the deck is stacked against an entrepreneur succeeding, so it’s important to become a great listener.
  3. Co-create products with your community: After building a strong community, the best tech businesses do a great job of engaging their fans to make sure that all of their product features are useful. Modify’s Facebook fans literally told us what features to build into our watches. Not too many people cared about adding a calendar feature to the watch, but everyone asked for a watch that was water-resistant. Thanks to our community, your Modify can go swimming. Before we produce any watch, we poll our community to figure out what patterns and colors they prefer.

There are many more great strategies to observe from other companies of all sizes and from all industries. Look for organizations that are doing analogous work and figure out how you can take their best practices and translate them to your business.

Aaron Schwartz is founder and CEO of Modify Industries, Inc., which designs interchangeable, custom Modify Watches. He loves working on startup ideas and has spent innumerable (happy) hours advising friends and former students on how to grow their ideas.

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The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization composed of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. The YEC recently published #FixYoungAmerica: How to Rebuild Our Economy and Put Young Americans Back to Work (for Good), a book of 30+ proven solutions to help end youth unemployment.

[Image: Modify Watches]