Every race, every marathon, contains a starting line that is a contradiction in terms. Yes, the race technically begins there. But for most runners at last weekend's 2014 New York City Marathon, you could argue the real start occurred months earlier, when no one was watching, in the formation of daily, disciplined practice habits. 

For entrepreneurs, there's a comparably applauseless preparation period in advance of a product launch. You research, you network, you model, and you test. And you do this legwork aiming to learn if your idea is a potential innovation--that is, a novel product or service (or tweak of an existing product/service) for which a large set of customers will repeatedly pay. 

What's the best way to perform the prelaunch legwork of testing an idea? There are templates galore, including ballyhooed lean methods and various forms of ethnographic inquiry. Scott D. Anthony, a managing partner at Clayton Christensen's vaunted Innosight consultancy, has outlined eight steps for quickly vetting a prelaunch idea. In preparing to launch its debut smoke-detection product at a major Manhattan trade show next week, the team at FreshAir Sensor, a five-employee startup based in Lebanon, New Hampshire, deftly tested how their prospective customers--hotels, motels, and property managers--would respond to their product. Here are two of the smart steps they took:

1. Talk to prospective customers. It's incredible how many innovators go forward with their ideas without talking to potential customers. But whether you're surveying customers with online tools or simply building a landing page for your product or service, the bottom line is, you need some evidence your idea has been vetted by prospective buyers. 

For FreshAir Sensor cofounders Joe BelBruno and Jack O'Toole, a chemistry professor and a retired marine respectively, the approach to customer inquiry was full of actual legwork: In-person visits to hotels and motels, with the aim of engaging general managers in one-on-one conversations. O'Toole, the CEO and a 2014 graduate of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Management, led the inquiries. His main objective was learning "how much financial pain" could be alleviated by FreshAir Sensor's initial product: the AirGuard plug-in detector.

The detector fits into a standard two-unit wall receptacle, providing pass-through access to the power outlet. It monitors the room environment for nicotine and/or marijuana. Detected smoking violations travel wirelessly to a central monitoring system. The customer--say, a hotel general manager or a property manager--immediately receives an email notification. The first batch of detectors will ship in January, 2015. The initial pricing model is $120 per device plus $4-a-month monitoring fee per device.

Initially, O'Toole says, some general managers were leery of his approach, believing he was just another salesperson with a crafty pitch-in-waiting. "At a lot of places I found scheduling an appointment is not that easy," he adds. But over time he learned how to get the requisite face time. His tips include:

  • Visit in the late morning. Don't come in the afternoon when visitors galore are checking in. 
  • Dress professionally but try "not looking like a salesman." Jeans and a button-down shirt are fine. Matching shoes and belt might make the general managers believe that you're trying to sell something. 
  • Keep visiting until you can meet the general manager in person. Ask him or her, directly, for an appointment. 

O'Toole's visits "ranged far and wide," both by geography and pricing: "Everything from luxury hotels to really inexpensive chain places and independents," he says. One of his findings was that the "most expensive ones didn't really consider [nicotine and marijuana detection] that much of a problem," he says. "Every expensive hotel told me they don't care--they'll just take care of it. But less expensive places were all very clear they didn't want it in non-smoking rooms."

Another key takeaway was building a relationship with a maintenance manager named Earl at a hotel in White River Junction, Vermont. Earl quickly became someone that BelBruno and O'Toole could keep in mind as they built and modified the product.

At hotels and properties everywhere, installation and upkeep of the sensors would be in the hands of an employee like Earl. It has been extremely helpful for the founders to keep Earl in mind as they move forward, apostrophizing him as they discuss one tweak or another. "Every time we make a change we talk about, "Will this work for Earl?" says BelBruno, CTO and the inventor of the product. He is also a member of the chemitry faculty at Dartmouth, where he remains an active professor. 

2. Make the crucial phone call(s). Every idea will rely on certain assumptions in its initial stages. Anthony is a believer in picking up the phone to ask informed experts about your assumptions. For BelBruno and O'Toole, there were plenty of informed experts to lean on, thanks largely to connections they made through the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN).

In the Dartmouth community, DEN and the alumni under its umbrella are a resource for strategic advice and mentoring. "I had never done product development before and I did not know what to do," says O'Toole.

By reaching out to entrepreneurs through DEN, O'Toole was able to learn more about product development. Specifically, he's spent "seven or eight two-hour sessions" with a CEO whose company makes an electronic device in a plastic box. This CEO has introduced O'Toole contract manufacturers, walking him through the process of laying out, testing, financing and--at length--manufacturing the boards that power the sensors. It was also largely through DEN connections that the cofounders raised $730,000 in angel funding.

That BelBruno and O'Toole would lean on DEN is only natural. After all, the two cofounders met at Dartmouth, in a Tuck class on entrepreneurship taught by Gregg Fairbrothers. BelBruno was taking the course to learn more about how to market his invention. O'Toole was a Tuck student. In a class exercise, BelBruno pitched the sensor and caught O'Toole's attention. Fairbrothers also believed their skills and personalities were a strong match. 

So far Fairbrothers has been prescient. As a tandem, BelBruno and O'Toole share many of the traits that create successful cofounder pairs. BelBruno focuses on the tech side while O'Toole handles sales, marketing, and biz dev. But each is keenly aware and respectful of the other's point of view.

"So much of this is new to me," BelBruno said. He was accustomed to designing instruments for lab use by scientists. Shifting to products for widespread use by business customers has shifted his thinking. He's learned to make sure the device is "fool proof, and that it can survive a kick, or if it comes unplugged," he says. "You also have to miniaturize things."

O'Toole, who served in the infantry, Force Reconnaissance, and Marine Corps Special Operations (MARSOC), attributes the partners' chemistry to a simple but oft-elusive concept: "We're both data driven, rather than ego driven," he said. "We're both reasonably good about stepping back from our personal positions. We're both practical and flexible. We can talk it through and see the other side."

Next week, at the International Hotel, Motel + Restaurant Show in New York City, FreshAir Sensor will be one of about 600 exhibitors. The company's goal for the show is generating sales leads. "And in the next couple of months, following up on those leads and working on those relationships," says O'Toole.

With those sales leads in hand, FreshAir Sensor will be on the road to recording its first revenues as a company, more than one year into the journey. It's another example of a misleading starting line, another evocation of how, in entrepreneurship, you're often running a marathon just to reach the race.

Published on: Nov 4, 2014