Lessons Learned: Rethink Your Elephants

Limbr Activewear is designing next-generation fitness and training wear with built-in resistance bands to give athletes an effective, low-impact way to amplify their workouts. 

The following is an old parable that I learned back in grade school:

Once upon a time, three blind men are introduced to an elephant. Not knowing what the elephant actually looks like, each man reaches out and touches a different part of the animal. The first one feels the leg and says, “this elephant is like a tree.” The second one touches the trunk and says, “no dude, it’s really like a snake.” Meanwhile, the third one feels the ears, thinking: “wow what a large dog!”

Out of all the things I’ve learned from being a part of NYU's Summer Launchpad, the most important realization for me has been that we as entrepreneurs are the blind men, and our products are the mysterious elephants.

Let’s rewind 10 months to last fall. A group of medical students at NYU get together in a room, and one says, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for resistance-generating clothing that’ll help people tone muscle and burn calories. You can wear it both to the gym to amplify your workout or throughout the day for gradual calorie burn. This will be perfect for busy, urban women in NYC!” Running with that idea, the students sketch out their concept, draw up a business plan, and develop a couple homemade prototypes. On paper it makes a lot of sense, and with lots of support from friends and faculty, they go on to find some early success, winning competitions and connecting with amazing people.

Then they enter into Summer Launchpad where they’re challenged to reevaluate all of their earlier assumptions by getting out of the building and talking to real customers. Here’s what they found:

  • A lot of New Yorkers didn’t really care that much about fitness.
  • Many of the busy, urban women that they were trying to help weren’t looking for fancy new fitness products.
  • People also raised concerns about discomfort, sweating, washability, and so on.

This experience taught us that we weren’t seeing the whole elephant. We felt the pointy tusk (“get more out of your workouts!”) and the majestic eyelashes (“burn extra calories at work!”) and assumed it was a unicorn (“functional fitness apparel for busy women”). Meanwhile, we neglected to pay attention to the smelly tail, the wrinkly skin, and the slimy tongue, and as a result we met a lot of resistance when we talked to actual potential customers. “Would you buy this?” we asked. “I’m not sure,” they said.

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. It was fortunate for us that we were able to come to the realization that we needed to take a step back and really get our hands all over this elephant. By getting out there and talking to a wide range of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, we were able to figure out what parts of our elephant people liked and what they didn’t, then groom it accordingly. “Let’s use a really light, dry-fit fabric so people won’t sweat on their way to work. Conduct robust studies to give people actual data to look at. Take out some of the extra features, lower the cost, and make it easy to use.”

On the business side, we also discovered that the casual, everyday users might not even be our best early adopter demographic. Rather, the people that got the most excited were the athletes! From talking to collegiate athletes, professional athletes, and even Olympic medalists, we found that our technology made a ton of sense as a low-impact form of resistance training that offers them the edge that they were looking for. Maybe instead of an elephant, we were really looking at a rhinoceros all along!

The moral of the story is: have the mentality that you’re the blind one. Even if you have this awesome, detailed image in your head, don’t assume that’s the truth. When faced with criticism, a lot of entrepreneurs (myself included) have the tendency to think, “Oh, well they just don’t understand the vision. If I just build it first, then they’ll see.” No. When people disagree with you or voice new concerns, approach it not with the thought that they’re misunderstanding something, but with the belief that you’re the one who’s not seeing what they’re seeing.

This post is part of the Lessons Learned series featuring NYU entrepreneurs’ first-hand accounts of challenges faced in starting a business and the lessons learned along the way.