I’m a lucky guy. Earlier this year, I got to sneak off from my day job and hang out with 13 inventors on Mark Burnett’s latest television show, Steve Harvey’s Funderdome. It’s a show where contestants compete for seed funding from the audience — not from a panel of I-am-smarter-than-you investors who’ll take a cut of your business. This is a power-to-the-people concept. You stand on stage, pitch your idea to the audience and they decide who gets funded.
During the taping of the season and vignettes where I interviewed the entrepreneurs about making their ventures successful online, I was able to hear contestant stories firsthand. It was remarkable hearing about the inventors’ journeys — from their quirky lightbulb moments, development of go-to-market strategy, through to their navigation of digital marketing. Everyone wants to be an overnight success, but again and again it became obvious to me that these businesses were months, and in some cases years, in the making.
Contestant Grace Chang, founder of Soarigami, stood out to me as one of the show’s shining stars who has stayed the course in this respect. Chang’s invention is a patented consumer travel product that solves the problem of fighting for armrests anywhere there is row seating. With a patent, a viral marketing video and the Funderdome TV appearance under her belt, Chang has three core lessons to share with aspiring entrepreneurs starting out on the path she has trodden.
Lesson one: Put your money where your mouth is.
Chang’s overarching mantra is that “no new action is no new future, so just do it.” For something to happen, you have to get out of your comfort zone. Starting a business or entrepreneurial venture is the number one “leap of faith” that Americans wish they could take, but few have the confidence or motivation to take that next step. For those who break through, Chang says that backing yourself financially is an essential tactic in proving to yourself that you’re taking the endeavor seriously, and to give yourself a better chance of success from the beginning.
Before finalizing the specifics of her product and how to manufacture it, Chang met with a lawyer to develop a patent and start protecting her idea. Once she fed that upfront investment into the project, she then felt ready to make a start on digital marketing — buying a domain, building a website and therefore generating early interest in her concept. Every time Chang put financial resources against Soarigami, she felt like this compelled her to move to the next step to progress the idea. Provided you have the funds saved up or assigned to keep feeding the beast responsibly, Chang swears by the way in which her expenditure propelled her and kept her engaged along the way.
Lesson two: Failure is part of the process.
Failure is inevitable, so get ready to embrace it — and keep going. In order to learn from failure, Chang created a safety net for herself before launching her product widely to the public. Chang soft-launched the product, originally named ARMORester, and the brand website — www.duh.cc, intended to represent products that make you say “duh!” — to 100 people in her network and the feedback . . . kinda sucked. No one understood the product, reported back to her that the brand copy was too complex and the name was nonsensical, and told her that she should basically abandon the idea and go back to her day job.
While painful, Chang cites this soft launch tactic as one of the smartest decisions she made on her Soarigami journey. As the person closest to the product, she found that it became impossible to see the product clearly. With a first iteration of product and a brand that was clunky and unclear, Chang went back to the drawing board, literally locking herself out of her house until she had a new name, and one that she could secure a .com address for. She came up with Soarigami, which packed even more meaning: In Japanese, “sora” means “sky” and “gami” means “grace.” She snapped up the domain name and social handles, and Soarigami was born.
To this day, Chang recognizes that if she hadn’t built in room to fail, adapt and pivot, she would have failed altogether. Yes, your first iteration might not be great, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea that should be abandoned. Making failure a part of the process, and not the end of the process, was key to Soarigami’s endurance.
Lesson three: Get scrappy. Be creative.
With it more crowded than ever before to launch a product, Chang credits her scrappiness and creativity with taking her as far as she has gotten. To stand out from everyone else, you’ll need to find a creative way to launch your idea to the market. In the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, marketing guru Jonah Berger describes how this type of creative execution or concept needn’t be based around the wildest idea possible. Rather, a simple idea rooted in everyday activities, conversation topics and triggers, can be the most effective. Top of mind = tip of tongue, he says.
For Chang, this was a simple animated viral video about pet peeves on airplanes. Without tons of money for a marketing budget, Chang’s imaginative approach earned her millions of YouTube views and PR buzz about her product with potential customers, all on a shoestring.
You can watch upcoming episodes of Steve Harvey’s Funderdome on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on ABC.