It's always fun to see what happens to my students after they leave class. Jeff Witten started CoinOut four years ago in my Columbia University five-day Lean LaunchPad class. CoinOut eliminates the hassle of getting a pocket full of loose change from merchants by allowing you to put it in a digital wallet.
Jeff just appeared on Shark Tank and the Sharks funded him. We just caught up and I got to do a bit of customer discovery on Jeff's entrepreneurial journey to date.
What was the Shark Tank experience like?
It was surreal. We were not prepped or told what to expect, and really just thrown into the "tank" like a baby in the deep end. Given the stage and possibility of embarrassment, it was very intimidating. With that came a ton of adrenaline -- it felt like a gallon of it was pumped into my veins -- and it allowed me to focus and defend the business/myself as if there were no tomorrow. Looking back I can barely remember what went on in there, but just that I went in with a fighter's mentality of not letting them speak over me, bully me or misrepresent what we are doing.
Anything about the Lean LaunchPad class or just being an entrepreneur in general prepare you for pitching on Shark Tank?
The class was almost a mini Shark Tank -- I still remember the very first pitch we did in front of the class. Each time you speak publicly, or even privately for that matter, about your business I believe that you learn something and help improve and sharpen your pitch. Also, as an entrepreneur, you have to fight every single day. Nothing is easy and you need to convince people that your new way of doing something brings value that someone should pay for. That mentality certainly is one I needed to survive the "Tank."
Coming into the Lean LaunchPad class, what did you know about starting a company?
I knew very little! I had lots of thoughts that turned out to be wildly incorrect and off target. I had a faint idea of how to interact with potential customers, but no real-life experience doing so. I also knew how to write up a great, theoretical proposal and presentation but that was about it!
What was the five-day LaunchPad class experience like?
The five days were still one of the most intense stretches I've gone through (even more intense than some law school finals)! I was working with four other folks for the first time and we had to slam together as much as possible to come to some legitimate findings by the end of the course. We actually forced our way into a retail conference that was going on in the Javits Center and ran around berating a million different very large companies, half of whom told us to get lost. At the end of the day, we were able to re-focus and come up with half decent findings with the help of the business model canvas and mentoring from our professors. It was a real whirlwind, but when I look back, many of the discoveries still animate the product and company today.
Jeff's original CoinOut presentation after five days is here.
What did you learn in the LaunchPad class?
I learned how to build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), test it with real customers and ask the right questions to get unbiased feedback. I took those learnings and implemented that immediately in a pilot while still in school. I feel like I've done 30 different MVP's and customer tests over the few years since the course and continue to use the lean methods in all things we look to do for our customers and merchants.
What were the biggest learnings in your first three, six, 12, 24 months as an entrepreneur?
The biggest learning was that it's vital to get out of the building. After getting some data and feedback it's easy to then say we have enough and know what we need to build. Still today, even after a couple years at this, I have to remind myself that we always have more we can learn from potential and existing customers.
I would say the first three months it was to keep asking questions and iterating based on what we were getting. After six months, it was learning how to tackle everything with grit and determination as if there were no other option. And in the 12-24 months it was to always keep an open mind and never assume a product is right until you truly have product-market-fit. We keep doing pivots to this day. We believe we will always be searching for a better version of product-market-fit!
What are the top three things you wished you knew when you started your company?
- I wish I knew how critical good distribution channels are, particularly in the early stages of a company. You can have the greatest product in the world but if it can't get into customers' hands efficiently and effectively it is meaningless.
- I wish I knew how difficult it is to change people's perceptions in large companies. Sometimes when you are hot out of the gates with entrepreneurial fever you think you can do anything. I think that is always a valuable feeling to have, but when selling through to larger organizations I've learned you need to temper your expectations and do as much as you possibly can to mitigate the risks of partnership ahead of time. Show them why they need to do it rather than why it would be a nice thing to have.
- I wish I knew how much fun this was going to be because I would have gotten in sooner! Many people say how hard entrepreneurship is, and I 100 percent agree. It is incredibly hard. But it is also rewarding like nothing else and when things work out well it is really fun.