Throughout my experience in Entrepreneurship and Value Creation, many of my previously held notions about what defines a “good” product were totally upended. While I have been exposed to a variety of problem-solving scenarios in my time at Arizona State University, the concept of creating value was new to me. As much as my engineering education has taught me to approach problems from creative angles, I had never been faced with the prospect that my innovative solutions might not be accepted by the public, even if they addressed a problem “correctly”.

In order to ensure that I was creating value, I learned to conduct customer interviews for collecting feedback and data. In this process, I found that it’s important to display outgoing behavior. This was a challenge for me. As much as I felt like I came out of my shell during the interviews that I did, I also realize now that if I had opened up just a bit more, I could have gotten even more information than I did originally. From the interviews I conducted, it’s clear to me that people are usually more than willing to be open and honest about their pain points. I just have to bridge the gap with some initiative, and that’s a behavior that I’ll have to continue working on.

When it comes to behaviors associated with creating design solutions, I learned that it’s essential to listen to others. I already knew that my initial ideas could change based on the input of my teammates, but I was surprised by just how great my teammates’ ideas were. Normally, I’ve been subject to some lackluster teams, but the people in my group really cared, and I’m honestly amazed by how much farther they were able to take the design and business model of our venture. It makes me want to push even harder in the future and aim for more brainstorming sessions.

The behaviors necessary for justifying the value of a solution follow a central theme: thinking critically. I don’t want to limit this to the traditional sense of critical thinking. I mean to literally think about the design in a manner aiming to critique its value. While it’s important to have brainstorming sessions that are insulated from heavy critique, established models and business plans need holes poked in them. We need to go after our design decisions with forks and knives just so we can poke as many holes as possible. Once the holes are found, they can be fixed, and our pitch becomes more and more evidence-based.

The attitude I employed when collecting feedback drastically changed this semester. In other academic activities that involved social interaction, I usually just experienced dread. However, after I understood the value of customer discovery, I approached it with a newfound zeal. While I was still nervous at times, approaching customer interviews with an open-minded attitude made all the difference for my experience and the data I was able to collect. This sounds fairly mundane, but because of this change, I actually spoke casually with a shopkeeper for an extended period! That never happens. Especially in Bass Pro Shop.

When developing a design solution, I learned that the most important attitude to eliminate is one that’s egocentric. This is definitely a struggle for me at times. After working with so many ambivalent groups during my academic career, I fell into the pattern of assuming my ideas were likely the best, or at least the most well-thought-out. This is a poisonous attitude to employ in the entrepreneurship space and a nearly guaranteed path to failure. I challenged myself not to get too attached to my design ideas and to listen openly to my teammates, and I think it paid off handsomely.

The attitude one must have while justifying the value of the design is that of a customer. If you can step into the shoes of a customer considering parting with their money, you can better understand their internal struggle. This is what allows you to more thoroughly understand the value of competitors at play, especially the notoriously difficult to beat the status quo of doing nothing. Utilizing the attitude of the customer to evaluate designs also leads to a more evidence-based result, as the customer attitude you employ can be informed by the interviews you perform.

I think the major behaviors and attitudes I have are the customer attitude and the ability to think critically. At the core, these probably come from my tendency to complain and demand high standards, but they are nonetheless useful. I can draw from my own frustrating experiences as a customer and use that as a personal drive to evaluate designs carefully and come up with better ones. My critical thinking skills allow me to see flaws in a plan and prioritize their correction. While both of these attributes need to be kept in check lest I become obsessed with weak points in a project, I feel confident that they add to my skill set as an entrepreneur.

As mentioned in previous paragraphs, I need to work on shedding any egotistical tendencies and displaying more outgoing behavior with potential consumers. I feel that this class allowed me to make major improvements in both of these areas, but they were challenging to address. At some level, I was still disappointed when some of my ideas were dropped in early design iterations. At some point, I want to just be excited that better ideas were thought of and recognize the opportunity that they present because, let’s face it, the original product name I came up with was terrible. The name my teammate, Robert, came up with was absolutely amazing. Going forward, I want to be excited to talk to customers and understand their needs; I want to be less wary of their potential rejection.

And which of these attributes will be useful after graduation? Most certainly, all of them. I feel like this class has taught me more real-world skills than any other during my academic career. Even outside of developing a product, I now have the skillset to efficiently iterate through ideas on any project. I can tackle my work based on the principles of value creation – a talking point that has already impressed my new employer, VMware. And in my future position as a New Graduate Solutions Engineer, I will be interfacing with customers and discussing their needs all of the time! As such, developing my ability to interact with them has been essential.

On that note, I should mention that the principles of entrepreneurship that I learned in this course were essential to even acquire my post-graduation position. As part of the hiring process, I needed to complete an on-site interview that included a presentation for hypothetical clients and an in-depth discussion of my values and goals while in the position. When developing the presentation, I focused on the philosophy of customer discovery. Though this hypothetical scenario had pre-determined customers, the customers had little to no background on what solutions they wanted or required. As such, my presentation always led with questions for the client, asking them about their status quo and their existing pain points. Instead of coming to the table with pre-determined, one-size-fits-all solutions, I crafted an approach that was focused on being a customer advocate. Between this and my general presentation skills, the interviewers made it clear that I was already past several weeks of their new grad training. I doubt I could have landed a job as great as this one without the skills I learned in FSE 301.

The benefits of these skills also worked their way into my senior capstone. I was placed on a capstone team during the second semester of the project, so the responsibilities I was initially handed were leftover items from established team members. As these scraps were deprecated in subsequent iterations, I realized that I needed to go my own way.

With collaboration from my professor and approval from the capstone sponsors, I was able to provide novel deliverables to the project that incorporated elements of value creation and customer discovery. I created a robust customer discovery survey that provided over 170 respondents. From this, I was able to develop evidence-based customer requirements. I wrote 3 detailed customer persona profiles that covered the respondents from the survey, showcasing their needs and goals. Upon seeing these data and results, the sponsor requested that I recommend changes for their product development process to reduce resource waste in the coming iterations. Considering that the only identified customer the capstone was initially addressing was “a hypothetical rich and bored homeowner”, these nuanced profiles that were developed with real customer data make a huge difference. Not only will future iterations be easier to plan, but it will be possible to convince investors or company leadership to move forward with the product, as there is no quantifiable evidence that points to a potential for success.

The skills that I have developed in this course have entirely changed my trajectory for the better. I am so excited to use this skillset moving forward. I want to show myself as an engineering entrepreneur not only at my job but amongst my network and perhaps even in future startups I choose to pursue.

–  Sabrina Leigh-Godfrey