Words of Wisdom from the 2019 Cool Idea Award Judges

Posted On March 7, 2019 By Protolabs

The Cool Idea Award panel of judges consists of technologists, innovators, educators, entrepreneurs, and some are even past Cool Idea Award recipients. They each bring years of expertise in how to design successful products and bring them to market.

This year’s Cool Idea Award judges are:

Each year, the Cool Idea Award provides manufacturing services to companies that strive to improve lives through creative, tech-based solutions.
  • Larry Lukis, Founder of Protolabs
  • Chris Boyle, Founder and CEO of SOLOSHOT
  • Sarah Meister, Hardware, Design, and Tech Growth Manager at Indiegogo
  • Steven Dourmashkin, Founder of Specdrums
  • Jeff Kerns, Writer at Machine Design
  • Andy MacInnis, Technical Instructor at MIT
  • Dan Salcedo, Founder of Everpurse
  • Rob Weber, Founding Partner at Great North Labs

We asked each to share words of wisdom that they’ve received, what resources they recommend to aspiring entrepreneurs, and any advice they have for those trying to get their business off the ground.

What’s the best piece of entrepreneurial or business advice you’ve received and how did it help you?

Dan Salcedo: The reality of ‘switching costs.’ When starting a company one has to put on multiple hats all the time, however, there is a steep ‘momentum’ cost in changing what you are doing and we often do not budget time, mental space, or money for this. One gets better at switching when one recognizes how to minimize switching costs.

Steven Dourmashkin: The best piece of advice I received was from a mentor I had early on in college while I was working on Specdrums. He told me that when you’re running your own company, you have to create your own deliverables and deadlines, which is often much different than the academic or working world; in other words, no one is telling you what to do. From that moment on, I’ve put lots of effort into creating and sticking to timelines and KPIs, and sharing all of this with my mentor network for feedback and to be held accountable. I think this has helped me maintain momentum and have good execution with Specdrums.  

Larry Lukis: Make it for X, sell it for 3X. Gross Margin can make up for a multitude of other shortcomings.

Andy MacInnis: Keep your overhead low and understand cash flow. Great advice that would have saved me anguish, but I didn’t know enough to listen to it.

Sarah Meister: Throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. This phrase liberated me when I was approaching situations from too narrow a POV, often leading me to really creative concepts that were right under my nose!

Jeff Kerns: Don’t focus on money, focus on value and the money will follow. This is a simple statement, but so important. I’ve been to many events were the speaker will shout, who’s ready to get rich, this not only makes me feel like they are trying to scam someone, but that they might be in the wrong place. Startups tend to have limited resources. Spread too thin, try too much at once, or veer too far from the startups core competency, and you might not get far. Keeping things simple and focused is not just a value in startups are focused on, but often large companies have seen great success through simplifying things to what the value is and how it aligns with its competency. 

Rob Weber: Back in 2000 when I was 20 years old starting our first ‘real company’, I was given the advice that the easiest time to raise money is when you don’t actually need to. This was right before the dot-com bubble burst and we raised the only small angel round ($320,000) of our entrepreneurial journey. Had we not raised this money, we likely would have gone out of business in 2001 or 2002. We were able to turn the business around and ultimately quite successful. Our angel investors were tremendous mentors to us for 15+ years.

What are the most valuable resources available to innovators, inventors, makers, etc.?

Jeff Kerns: Digital Tooling: Generally, the internet cannot be understated. More specifically, there are digital tools available inventors can use to design, simulate, and even test virtually before investing into physical tooling.

Sarah Meister: I highly recommend Indiegogo’s Education Center and regularly going to meetups in your area (3 a week if you can). Also, read anything by Guy Kawasaki writes.

Andy MacInnis: Freedom to create without deadlines is super valuable, mostly because it’s so rare.

Dan Salcedo: In my opinion Twitter and expensive news sources (not ad-supported). Twitter because you can get into the ‘mind-flow’ of someone in your industry who you want to sell to, hire, or compete with. The nuances of conversations and what matters to them and their industry is highly valuable. Expensive news sources (Economist, Bloomberg, Financial Times, or other industry specific journals), are fantastically useful in understanding what folks are thinking, NOT thinking, and where your industry has come.

What entrepreneurial or business advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs and startup companies?

Rob Weber: Early on, many startup founders don’t spend a lot of time thinking about defensibility against competitive pressure. As it turns out, we see a lot of the same ideas for businesses being worked on multi-teams throughout the world. To build a great company, you can either accidentally luck into strong defensibility as you scale up or you can consciously think about this at the onset of which business strategy you pursue. Understanding Porter is a great book on this subject.

Dan Salcedo: Rule of 5 and 7. It will take on average 5 touchpoints to sell a product/company to an outsider. If after 5 meetings you couldn’t sell, they are not the right client or something in what you are offering must be changed. 7, that is the average number of years for a new company to actually be successful.

Andy MacInnis: Expect profit to come much later than you currently think. Understand what a patent can and cannot do before you go through the expense of getting one. You may not want or need one.

Jeff Kerns: Have thick skin and know the difference between criticisms. There are some people that will try to find any reason for your product not to work, and others that are bringing up legitimate concerns you will have to be able to address. It might be as easy as knowing who’s an expert and who isn’t, but even a non-expert might provide a valuable prospective.

What’s the Cool Idea Award?

Frequently the most challenging aspect in starting a new business is acquiring the resources necessary to manufacture the product. That’s why each year Protolabs supports new, ground-breaking ideas with the Cool Idea Award, which is a grant for manufacturing services. The award can be used for prototyping or low-volume production depending on the needs of the recipient. Check out the Cool Idea Award website to learn more about the program. If you have a project you’d like to submit for consideration, apply here.

Tagged: startups, tech