For Embr CEO Sam Shames, though, all he wanted was to be warm.
"We were working in an MIT lab in the summer in Cambridge--where it was hot and humid outside -- but inside was freezing. The school wouldn't let us change the air conditioning temperature, so it was a constant battle to keep from freezing inside," he said, while speaking to me at CES.
Theorizing that solving the problem of personal body temperature would be a "cool" idea for the annual MIT materials-science design competition, Shames and his team created a prototype wrist bracelet that provided the sensation of heat or cool to a wearer -- and won $10,000 for their effort. "We thought that was great and that we'd go on to life after school--until people started contacting us and wondering when we'd start selling it," he said.
Shames guessed it would take around six months to create the product, considering they'd build the prototype so quickly. Four years later, they finally delivered. Along the way, he learned quite a few things valuable to every entrepreneur.
1. Create something people need--not want.
Shames found a problem that affects a large number of people around the world--and almost discounted it because it hadn't been done before in an effective way. "Sharper Image sold a personal air conditioner in the 90's, but I hadn't seen anyone else do this." (Coincidentally, I own that device, which works on similar technology as the Embr, at 10 times the size.)
Once you have enough people telling you this is a real problem that they need a solution to, you've validated your market enough to move forward - whether there are competitors or not.
2. Engage your customers early and often.
For Shames, before they could create a commercial version, he had to learn a few things. First, he needed to understand what the different use cases were -- not everyone was working in an MIT laboratory like him, after all.
By talking to your customers, you'll see patterns in the things that are most important to everyone, rather than things that might be nice-to-have for individuals. This can help you to develop your initial product.
3. Be ok with being wrong.
For the first few years, Shames was convinced that it would only take six months to get the product out the door. Every six months, he would readjust and change to the next six months. Each time, he would learn something new to take him down a new path--which would eventually make the product better.
Studies show that when you're transparent about your imperfection, people trust you more. In a company, that's a valuable lesson.
4. Keep learning.
When Shames and the team left MIT, they didn't stop their research. In creating a product that is in the wellness category, they found that it is being used by scientists in research studies to test effectiveness as an aid in sleep, lowering anxiety, and other applications. As part of this, the Embr team is constantly learning about how temperature affects the nervous system and what they can do to control it.
No matter what your company does, you can always learn new ways to improve it and make it better. By reading journals, working with partners, or attending conferences, you can pick up new information that will help it grow.
As for running Embr, Shames says, "It isn't always easy--but it's the best job ever."
And that is entrepreneurship--to which I wholeheartedly agree.