Everyone knows the start-up journey of an entrepreneur is hard but imagine this journey if you are retired!
Well, I’m supposed to be retired now but instead, I’m on the rollercoaster ride of my life called the start-up journey because of a passion to improve the quality of people’s lives.
I remember the worst rollercoaster ride I’ve ever been on was in Blackpool in the UK. It was a very old, very small rollercoaster. No seat belts, no bar to hold you in place, you went on your own in this small little car. I was tossed around that car like I was in a washing machine. Thrown from side to side, bounced up and down landing on the floor so I couldn’t see where I was going until we came to a steep incline that allowed me time to pull my head out for a second, then down again, sharp right, then left, up, down until we finally stopped. I was shit scared but a memory I have never forgotten.
That’s kind of like my start-up journey with all its twists and turns, up’s and down’s, not knowing where I’m heading sometimes, climbing up a seemingly endless hill where you think you’re almost at the top when all of a sudden down you go again, getting pulled in one direction then the opposite both emotionally and figuratively.
No matter how well laid out your plans are, your clear business plan, your evolving business model canvas is, whether it’s the Lean model or traditional, the start-up journey is a rollercoaster ride. Some start-ups are easier than others just because of the nature of their business. I chose probably one of the most difficult ‘a medical device’. Starting on a steep learning curve, finding a solution, trying to convince people you have something, testing it out, coming up against barrier after barrier. There’s manufacturing, prototyping, testing over and over again until you get it right. Australia doesn’t do much manufacturing so your told to go overseas, anyway ‘it’s cheaper’ but then you are faced with the language barrier, you ask for something & get the opposite or you ask a hundred questions a hundred different ways to get the answer to your initial question, all costing time and money. And then there is the economies of scale – huge volumes for huge dollars that overseas manufacturers want, it's not for the start-up starting out. Apart from the manufacturer wanting to keep the manufacturing process a secret even from you the owner of the product. Then there is all the regulatory compliance. Big giant pharma companies don’t have to prove or convince anyone whether their products work or not as they can just use their brand name. Or have little data over short periods of time which don’t show the long-term effects of their products. They also have regulatory people who just write out what is required.
I’m not a professor, medical clinician, no degree, no medical qualifications at all, just a person who lives with the condition called lymphoedema every day. Yet, I’m not seen as being qualified, ‘what do I know’. Medical professionals spend, if they are lucky, 30minutes in the whole of their 5-year training course studying the lymphatic system. Therapists who treat lymphoedema patients do a short massage course or attend a conference. I’ve done the massage course, I’ve studied everything I could get my hands on to understand how the lymphatic system work, what happens when lymph nodes are affected by cancer treatments, I’ve tested out my product on my own body. I’ve gone without treatment, experienced the swelling & pain and brought my body back by managing my condition. Been by the side of many patients while they tried out my product, teaching them about their condition, watching the results and seeing the pure joy on their faces when they have finally, sometimes after years, have relief from the pain and discomfort of lymphoedema.
There have been some huge brick fortified walls in front of me and some massive mountains that I have had to climb but I keep on going solving one issue after the other, knocking on every door, following every lead, around every corner, sliding down the slippery slope hitting the bottom pulling myself up again. Why because of the look on all those patients faces, the laughter and tears they have shared with me for finally getting their freedom of life back.
There is a saying ‘If you don’t have the up’s & down’s in your life, your life is flatlined’. in other words, your either alive or your dead. There is also the merry-go-round – same old, same old every day. Yes, my life is a rollercoaster ride, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!
The journey of an entrepreneur of a start-up company is very arduous with numerous hurdles and obstacles to overcome. The value of good, honest, reliable, practical help is paramount to achieve sustainable outcomes. Australia’s demise of trade-based skills, the movement away from small manufacturing & the reliance on overseas manufacturing has caused major gaps in our market and a vulnerability that we are just now realising.
I’ve found many investors/companies to be tech savvy but when it comes to manufacturing, hands on practical stuff, forget it. I’ve even had a company that was set up to help start-ups with manufacturing, tell me not to reinvent the wheel go overseas and get it done there. Clearly, they had no understand of overseas manufacturing, economies of scale, minimal viable quantities, cost of factory downtime, language barriers, difficulties of prototyping, apart from the security risk of your IP etc, etc, etc. or the journey of a start-up.
Why in Australia do we throw up our hands and say the Chinese can do it cheaper, quicker and better than we can. Wake up Australia. Wake up Australian Government. They need large volumes of the same thing to keep their prices low. Their citizens are becoming more middle class demanding higher wages, so they need the economies of scale, the robotic processes, the huge volume of turnover to keep their factories going.
There is a huge gap in the market between start-up and large manufacturing that needs to be filled. That gap needs Government, Universities, TAFE, Commercial Entities as well as Investors to come together to assist the fledgling companies get their products off the ground. And I don’t mean by simply throwing money at them, even though they need financial support, or providing the next accelerator or commercialisation program but by practical hands on, get your hands dirty, help, from start to success. Universities, TAFE’s and a lot of Commercial Entities sit on thousands of dollars of equipment that sit idle for the majority of time. Why? Why can’t there be a coordinated approach to Innovation, bringing together all bodies and directing funding through the channels that ensure an actual manufactured product, on the market, ready for export & scalability, then have the option to go to overseas manufacturers, if required. Not a lot of paperwork that becomes obsolete in a couple of years.
Sometimes I wonder in our technological, highly educated world if we have become too left brain orientated relying on technology to find the solutions rather than kicking in our Right brain’s creative capability to come up with simple effect solutions. I have come across a few people who wanted to help reinvent the wheel with solutions that are totally impractical, ineffective & expensive. Creativity needs to solve problems. Listening to the customer whether that be an end user, or a client is paramount to ensuring an effective outcome.
If we look at China, what they do really well, to our detriment, is to re-engineer a product. They can pull it apart or break it down and rebuild it, in their words ‘make it better’ & will put in the time & money to create the processes to do it efficiently. What this has given them is the ‘can do’ attitude, something I have found somewhat lacking in Australia of late. If it is outside their scope, can’t see a quick turnaround, takes a bit of ingenuity & time or is too small a job, Australian manufactures are not interested. Forget the sweat shops, cheap labour, China have fast moved into automated robotic processes to keep their factories running 24/7. I’m not saying Australia should steal another person’s IP, what I am saying is we need to be more creative, innovative, self-supporting & sustainable.
This is not to say that there are not small companies out there that are not willing to help, I have found some, but they struggle often not ranking high on google search or are run by old timers outside the internet grid. Networking & word of mouth have opened these doors for me. Maybe an Australian manufacturing search engine that searches by requirements rather then by name or type would help link innovators with companies who can provide the innovative skill sets required for prototyping to scale-up tools & solutions.
It pleases me to hear the call out for more manufacturing to be done in Australia to reduce our reliance on overseas manufacturers even though we are in the midst of difficult times, maybe it takes a major event to wake up. And maybe it’s just the thing that will help get our economy back on track. Maybe rather than just a handout, Governments should be looking at developing industries, re-education/up-skilling into more hands-on skills/trades that we are fast loosing. Looking into what innovations are struggling to get off the ground and providing practical help. Looking at developing our own diverse manufacturing industries, opening the doors to Universities, TAFE’s etc., working with commercial entities & investors to become a more self-reliant nation. Let’s hope so – TIME FOR CHANGE.
NO ONE CAN DO IT ON THEIR OWN
GET BEHIND SMALL MANUFACTURING & INNOVATORS.
WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
The Value of Help
During my journey as an entrepreneur of a start-up company, ChezLeon Passive Massage Wear, I have had many wonderfully amazing people helping me in many aspects of the development of my product. I have also had a lot of people wanting to help who really did not understand my product or medical devices, had nothing of value they could contribute even if I paid for it, made outrageous claims as to how rich they will make me or make them.
My first introduction to a University was ‘It might be your idea, but if you want our help, we will take your IP.’ Second introduction – ‘we’re not for profit but we come at a cost’ greater than external bodies. Though I did get some help from UTS who manufactured a plate for me and Tunra at UON who concluded it was out of their scope of work. Regardless, there does need to be more co-operation & integration of services between academia, commercial enterprise, governments, investors & innovation without the cost or demise of the innovators.
What is the right help? Not everyone has the next high-tech revolutionary solution or the latest churn them out, App. Some solutions are simple yet require specialised manufacturing, tools to be made, components made, quality finishes, testing of materials & processes etc. It requires the next step from garage or kitchen table to a finished marketable product with runs in the 100’s to 1000’s not the 10,000’s-100,000’s.
Yes, there are grants as long as you can put in 50% to get 50% which does not take into account all the money that you have had to pour into your business to get it to the point where you are eligible for funding.
Yes, there are a lot or were a lot of accelerator programs that take you through an education program, learning about the start-up journey, risk of IP, setting up a company, marketing strategy, commercialisation strategy etc etc etc. And my favourite, ‘Know your Customer’. It amazes me how many people start up a new business without even finding out or at least talking to potential customers, something I did from day one. It wasn’t until I realised, I couldn’t go on making products myself & the reactions of my customers that I decided I needed to set up a business. Yes, these programs are beneficial to those who haven’t done anything & I wish some had been around when I started as my journey may have been much shorter.
I laugh when I hear young entrepreneur's say they would like someone famous like Jacinda Ardern or Elon Musk as their mentor, OMG are they kidding. And, not the one-off wonder who made it big at the right time with the right product. These people might make good role models but not mentors of a start-up. Personally, I'd rather the one that has been bruised and battered, the one that has learnt a lot about the start-up world, about business, who is passionate about your idea and believes in you. The best help I have received is from a mentor, Gordon Whitehead working out of the Hunter Business Centre helping me consolidate my project, focus my direction, open doors and pick me up when I’m down.
The right help will come along at the right time but it’s all up to you. And sometimes the right help is you. I have come along in leaps and bounds since I took charge of all the various aspects of my business and not left it up to others whom I thought knew better than I did to carry out their part. You’re the one that has to grow through the process, to step-up, think logically through all the hard decisions, take advice but act appropriately for your business. Sometimes it’s better to sit back a take a few long slow breaths than it is to get caught up in the excitement. BREATHE
When you start out in your working life you get overlooked for the more experienced older person. When you get older you get overlooked for the less experienced younger person. Neither decision is right or wrong provided that it’s the right person for the right position and not discrimination based on age.
You hear the terms, business cultural fit, young hip vibe, or can’t teach old dog’s new tricks. The fact is older people have had to adapt to constant change all of their life from manual ribbon typewriters to computers, pounds, shillings & pence to dollars & cents to EFPOS etc, etc, etc. Does that mean they stop learning as they get older – NO. Yes, it may take them a bit longer to pick up new technologies not because they can’t they just need to be shown or spend hours on it like young people do. Does it mean they can’t fit into a younger workforce – NO. From my experience it makes for a more balanced mature & diverse workplace when there is a mixture of ages, cultures and sexes.
When it comes to the Start-up world does age play a part in that too. From the rumblings and whispers I have heard and the amount of times I have seen a young confident entrepreneur with the latest APP win a pitch feast, get lots of funding and opportunities, I would say yes. Or is it the quick turnover of funds they can foresee, the exploration of the vulnerable they seek, or the lack of knowledge of the actual product & what it takes to get it to the market.
Enthusiasm, confidence or whether you can sell a product is not everything.
Not everyone’s journey is an easy straight forward road. Every Start-up is unique whether you have the latest tech savvy program or a complex medical device that can change the quality of people’s lives. Everyone has challenges just some have more obstacles to overcome than others. Every Start-up needs to be looked at independently as well as the entrepreneur that thought up the idea.
The journey of the Start-up, the number of obstacles the founder has faced and worked through shows their commitment; their ability to solve problems; their ability to work with the end user, which in turn leads to a more sustainable quality product; their willingness to turn up, knock on every door, just keep going; their endurance & focus shows not only their determination & viability of the product but the true reason why they created the product in the first place.
Does any of this have to do with age. No.
I’ve had the lot in my start-up journey, but I keep on going, why, because the customer wants it to change the quality of their life.
Who is the expert?
Professor, Engineer, Medical Doctor, Student or Patient
There is a movie. called Breathe about Robin Cavendish who invented a wheelchair with a built-in respirator – releasing severely disabled people from the confines of their hospital beds into a life. Was he a doctor, a scientist, professor? – no he was a patient who understood his condition and enlisted friends & family to help him gain more quality of life despite the ridicule by the so-called experts in the field of disability.
Who drove him to expand his invention from something he used personally to something that helped not only many polio patients but led the way too many more innovations? The patients themselves who refused to be imprisoned by their disease or the confines of the medical conventions of the time.
Initially I set out to solve my own pain & discomfort from the onset of lymphoedema. But now it’s the patients who drive me. Their reactions from tears to joy from finally getting some relief from their day to day struggle with pain & swelling. I have worked closely with them to design & test the ChezLeon Passive Massage Wear to give them a product that manages their condition in a discrete comfortable way, what they want.
Regardless of all my years of working with the patients, conducting a pre-market product evaluation showing the positive results, studying everything I could get my hands on about the lymphatic system, studying massage therapy, searching through over 4,000 medical research articles to gather all the clinical evidence that is required by the TGA, I am still asked by Pitch Judges, so called clinical experts, investors and lay people to show them my ‘clinical’ evidence. It’s a level 1 medical device that does not require ‘clinical’ trials. I have met all the regulatory requirements, what else do I need to prove? Isn’t the customers voice enough. There are so many devices on the market, in chemists, that are just excepted because they come from a known brand or have a huge marketing budget.
I am not a medical professional, a professor, clinician etc., just a patient who solved my own problem, listened to patients – their concerns, pain & frustrations; studied to learn all I could about lymphoedema; poured my blood, sweat, tears & finances into developing a product that sufferers want but I know I cannot do this alone, no start-up can, I need help to.
Here is a great article on inventors & inventions