Category Archives: Small Business Start-up Tips

Mass Innovation Nights

The Freedom Cycle was one of eleven featured products at Mass Innovation Nights (MIN) this past Tuesday, November 12. MIN is a monthly event designed to help local innovators increase the buzz around new products and companies. This month’s event was at GameOn in Boston, MA (right next to Fenway) and it featured companies that are all about fun and games. It was the 56th event for MIN but was our first time attending. The turn out was great and we were thrilled with the experience.

We showed up to the event early to get a prime location to setup the Freedom Cycle. Never having attended one of these events, we were unsure what to expect. The results were fantastic with a great turnout and lots of folks interested in the Freedom Cycle and what we are doing. We had all different types of people with varying interests; some were entrepreneurs, some were angel investors, designers, and potential customers. Overall, we walked away with new contacts that want to provide more exposure for FREE, a couple interested investors (which was not at all expected), great input from younger bike riders intrigued by our new design,  and a potential sale. Needless to say, this was one of the most successful events we’ve attended thus far.

We’d like to extend a personal thank you to Bobbie Carlton and her team for making this event possible and inviting us to participate!

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Networking is the Key to Your Success

While networking seems like an obvious advantage, many people seem to underestimate it’s value. Throughout the development of our business, networking has always been an idea in the back of our minds. We’re always open to meeting new people, but didn’t realize until looking back on the pattern of events how much networking had really helped us.

When I refer to networking here, I don’t mean attending specific networking events or business gatherings (although those are equally beneficial). What I mean by networking is talking to anyone and everyone you know, starting with the people that are most likely to lead you in the right direction.

Whenever we meet with a friend or business associate, we discuss the company status and what we need to continue moving forward. At the end of a meeting we always ask the same question: “Do you know anyone that could help us or anyone that we should be talking to?” In general, we usually leave a meeting with two or three new names to contact. While some of the contacts end up leading us in the wrong direction or to a dead end, every once in a while we strike gold. And finding one of those people is worth the time spent with less helpful people that lead you there.

In the last year, we have met with more than 50 people to discuss funding opportunities with our new company. The majority of the people we met once and haven’t spoke to since. However, if we hadn’t met with all of those people we probably wouldn’t have been introduced to the handful of people that have been instrumental in keeping us moving forward. I can’t even begin to express how much appreciation we have for these individuals.

Lastly, be aware that everyone you meet will have an opinion about what you say and how you should say it. If you talk to five investors, they will probably have five different opinions. They key is to go with your first instinct and listen to the opinion that makes the most sense for you and your business. However, if all five people are saying the same thing, chances are you’re doing something wrong and they are right.

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The Value of Free Labor

When building a business on a very limited budget, free labor is absolutely invaluable. Why pay for something when you can get it for free, right? While most people think that a free version can’t possibly be as good as the $100 version which can’t be as good as the $1,000 version, that’s not always the case. Sometimes the free version is every bit as good, if not better.

A great example of this is unpaid interns. While there are plenty of students who intern solely to have a job to put on their résumés, there are also some really great ones that are eager to help and learn whatever they can. We recently had a great experience working with business students at Westfield State University.

For the past 18 months, we had been trying to come up with a really great name for our new adult tricycle. We held numerous brainstorming sessions in-house and didn’t come with up with anything we really liked. We came up with a few good options, but none that really “wowed” us. After several attempts involving different people connected to the company, we decided maybe it was time to bring in a professional. We looked into a variety of naming companies and the cheapest one we found was going to cost a minimum of $10,000; and they wouldn’t even guarantee our satisfaction. This was simply not an option with our limited budget. So we tried a few more brainstorming sessions and still came up short. After contemplating it for a while, we decided that we needed to bring in a fresh perspective; people who had no knowledge of the company or product and therefore had a completely unbiased opinion. We reached out to the marketing and business clubs at Westfield State University and they were eager to help. The professors thought it would be a great opportunity for the students to get some real world experience and the free labor fell perfectly within our budget.

Going to the school for the focus group, we were skeptical as to what the session might bring; we weren’t sure if we would get anything valuable out of it or if it was going to be a waste of time. The meeting started out slow and quiet but once they got going, several of the students got really into it. Not only were they throwing out tons of names, but they were eager to suggest add-ons, accessories, and future models too. Some of the ideas they were producing were inline with ours but they also came up with several new names that hadn’t occurred to us. While we didn’t find that one name that really stands out as THE name for our trike, we have a much more solid list of names we like and also a list of commercial ideas, slogans, and future products. Overall, it was a great experience that was well worth our time and the students were very grateful to be given an opportunity to work with a real company. We may have also found a couple future employees.

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Patent Accepted!

After more than year of waiting, we finally received the notice that our design patent for our new adult tricycle was accepted!

The process of getting a patent is long and tedious but definitely worth it because it protects your product and business. We went through three rounds of submissions, changing minor details each time, to get it to the point where it was “acceptable.” When we submitted the application in July of 2010 we never expected that we would have to make changes to the drawings. We had a professional patent drafting company create the eight figures for the original application and even with their help, the patent office still found discrepancies in them.

When we received the first notification that revisions needed to be made, we were overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start. We had 90 days to make revisions and we spent the first 60 contemplating how we were going to tackle the problem. After a lot of thought, we finally decided that we would do the revisions in house instead of going back to the patent drafting company.  The drawings for a design patent are simple line drawings and we decided that we had the capability to make the adjustments. We spent many hours editing the smallest details to the point where we felt that all of the images matched one another (so you can imagine the disappointment when we received the next rejection notification).

The second notification came and stated that we had corrected one problem, but in our attempt to correct the second problem we introduced “new matter” (which you cannot do in the middle of an application). During the second set of revisions we were much smarter and had a better understanding of how to adjust the images to make them acceptable. We also got a little bit wiser and faxed our revised drawings to our patent examiner to have her “informally” review them and let us know if our changes were appropriate. Once we got a verbal okay from her, we formally submitted the drawings for the third time. Alas, our drawings were accepted (third time’s a charm)!

My advice to anyone applying for (or revising) a patent is to use the help available to you. Perhaps if we had contacted our patent examiner (who was extremely helpful, thanks Linda!) the first time we were rejected we could have avoided the the subsequent round of revisions.

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Interbike 2011

Last week we attended Interbike, the leading bicycle industry business-to-business event. After a less than satisfying experience at a bike show in NY earlier this year, we were very hesitant to spend the money to travel all the way from western MA to Las Vegas for an event that we knew very little about.  After talking to people that had attended in the past, we decided we should at least go once and see what it was all about. And to our surprise, the event ended up being very beneficial.

The exhibit hall was huge. Almost overwhelming the first day we walked in. There were hundreds of companies to see and people to talk to. We met with people from NuVinci, Shimano, SRAM, SBS, Gates, and many more. Some were people we had been talking to over the phone for months; others were new people that we hope to build a relationship with. All of these people had something to bring to the table. They provided insight into the industry that you can only gain through experience and offered advice to guide us as we launch our company. After attending the exhibition, we have better sources for components and a better understanding of the industry as a whole.

In addition to the enormous exhibit hall full of bicycle-related companies, there were several seminars to attend and new products to test out. Most of the seminars we attended were very informative. The two most beneficial ones were Online Marketing and the Bicycle Industry Overview. The industry overview gave us a clear idea of where the market is going (which fits directly in line with our product) and how a company needs to position itself to be successful.

Overall, the show was definitely a success. We met some great people and got a lot of encouraging feedback on our new tricycle.

While research is important, firsthand experience is ten times more valuable than what you can learn online or from a book. We look forward to having our trike on display at one of our vendors next year!

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Rome was NOT Built in a Day

I’ve heard this saying a thousand times but never has it had so much meaning as it has over the last several months. No matter how long I think a certain task is going to take, it always seems to take at least twice as long. This is most applicable to the daunting task of raising capital. We have been working to raise investor money for over 9 months and we have received only a fraction of what we need.

Part of the reason that this has been taking so long is due to incomplete advice along the way. When we started to plan how to raise the money, we were told that we could easily raise half a million dollars with promissory notes or equity. We wanted to use promissory notes instead of equity because we wanted to keep control of 100% of the company. However, this advice missed a few important details. Not only did we not raise half a million dollars, but we raised NOTHING! No one was interested in a promissory note with a start-up company that did not have any tangible assets. Also, we later found out from our lawyer that the owner of the business would be personally liable to pay back any money given to us based on a promissory note. So there went 3 months of wasted time basing everything on a promissory note. We expected to have received all of the money by this time, but instead we were back to square one.

Once we realized that we had no choice but to offer an equity-based investment, we spent several weeks redoing our investment offer and spreadsheets to reflect the new opportunity. Now, several months later, we are still working to raise the rest of the money we need in order to move into production. We have raised a portion of the money and we have several potential investors who want to see a prototype before they will invest. So now we are in a chicken and egg situation, where we need money to build the prototype but we need the prototype to get the money.

In addition to the long process of raising money, it seems that everything else moves at a snails pace. Recently, we have been working with outside engineering consultants to finalize the design of the fiberglass body. We estimated that this would take approximately 1-2 days of engineering time to complete. However, it is now 3 designers and 7 weeks later and we are ALMOST finished and ready to order the prototype. None of the outside people that we work with seem to understand our urgency to get a task done. Lack of funds being a constant constraint does not help the situation either.

Moral of the story, when it comes to starting a business no matter how long you think a task will take it will always take longer. So if you think it will take 1 week, you should prepare for it take 2 weeks and be pleasantly surprise if it gets done in 3 weeks. There is a silver lining though. We have met a number of new acquaintances who have been very supportive and have provided an expanded network that makes us confident we will be successful.

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