Hi, my name is Frank. I'm one of the cofounders of Skinesiology, as well as a full-time medical student finishing up my first year at NYU. I decided to write this post as a way of giving back to this incredible entrepreneurial community at NYU by sharing some of my experiences of building a startup while in school.
As a brief background, Skinesiology started as a project developing functional exercise clothing that utilizes built-in elastic bands, along with principles from anatomy and kinesiology, to generate resistance against body movement to help people tone muscle and burn extra calories. Our team of 5 medical students came up with this idea last October, when we found a flyer at orientation for the $200K Entrepreneurs Challenge at NYU Stern. Back then we thought, “we probably won’t get far, but it sounds like a cool learning experience, so why not?” Well, we actually ended up winning 1st place in the Technology Venture category, along with $75,000 to turn our concept into a company!
Just to clarify, I'm no expert and I’m definitely not qualified to be giving business advice in any shape or form. However, the process that we went through has been an eye-opening experience, and I hope that some of the lessons we learned might be helpful as references for other aspiring student entrepreneurs.
“There’s no place quite like here. There’s no better time than now” – Rage Against the Machine
First off, being a student presents a unique set of advantages and opportunities that you can’t find in any other environment. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be a student at NYU, which runs 3 (soon to be 4) incubators and countless programs, across thirteen schools, dedicated to helping student startups get off the ground and kick butt. For Skinesiology, there were two in particular that we got involved in at the beginning, which have been invaluable in shaping this company. The first was the Prototyping Fund at NYU Poly, which we applied for back in September last year. This program gave us a $500 grant and taught us how to take all of the coolest parts of our idea and translate them into physical prototypes. The second was the Albert Gallatin Founders Fund, which awarded us a check for $1000 to continue iterating our prototypes and create a viable business strategy around it. We also met a ton of awesome people and made valuable connections that helped us along the way.
These experiences taught us how incredibly important the prototyping process is. Ideas are a dime a dozen; everything really starts with the first prototype. At first, we had very little idea of what we were doing. We hardly even knew how to hold a needle properly, despite working on a clothing product. But a few weeks (and many finger pricks) later, we were genuinely surprised by how much we had learned. There are just so many important design considerations that aren’t easily appreciated in one’s head or on paper. But once we actually started to turn theory into reality, we discovered things like: “this elastic won’t work because it’s too hard to put a needle through”, “we can’t position this band here because it causes the sleeve to scrunch up”, “how do we get these dumb bands to stay in place? UGH!” By going through this process, we were able to answer these questions and develop a much clearer understanding of our own product, which allowed us to have more meaningful interactions with mentors and potential customers as well.
We also learned to appreciate the value of relying on other people. At the beginning, we were hesitant to approach people with our rudimentary idea, afraid they'd either tear it apart or laugh it off. In theory, we knew we had to talk to customers to figure out who would actually buy this thing. But at what point do we talk to them? It was very easy to put off seeking feedback, thinking “maybe it’d be better to wait until we have a nice-looking product in our hands before showing it off to people.” This was not the case at all; talk to people as soon as possible! In fact, the best way to get to a nice-looking product is to start bouncing ideas off of friends, potential customers, industry experts, investors, etc. Gathering a wide range of perspectives on both the product and the business allowed us to prototype efficiently, painting a clear picture of what people wanted and how we would make that happen. In addition, we also received a lot of genuine encouragement, as well as a wealth of advice, guidance, and connections.
Several people have asked us: “How on earth do medical students find the time to found a startup?” Although it sounds cliché, it really comes down to planning (and lots of caffeine, of course). This helped us achieve a somewhat healthy school/life/startup balance by helping us set expectations and goals that were realistic in the context of our other obligations. Keeping track of what was coming next and having a plan for getting it done went a long way in keeping us calm and not stressing out. We also learned through trial and error how to optimize the way we used our time. We did a lot of our thinking and planning whenever we could, such as while riding the subway or waiting in line for coffee. When it came time to get work done and execute on those plans, we found it helpful to set aside dedicated 2-4 hour-long blocks, which were long enough to prevent distractions but short enough to not feel burned out.
Lastly, my favorite part of the whole journey was definitely the competitions. We found that nothing motivates and spurs progress quite like a competitive spirit, which I think is an integral part of being an entrepreneur. This spring, Skinesiology participated in both Inno/Vention at NYU Poly (Top Hardware Team and 2nd place overall) and the $200K Entrepreneurs Challenge (1st place in the Technology Venture category). Not only were they incredibly fun, but we genuinely learned a lot and were able to connect with amazing people, including mentors, judges, and fellow competitors. To anybody interested, I'll say this: the experience gained is truly invaluable, whether you win or not. It’s all about challenging yourself throughout the process and soaking up as much as you can.