Entrepreneurship Students Ashley Reed and Mayra Figueroa Suit Up To Improve the Firefighting Process

students suit up as firefighters

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” This quote by the Chinese philosopher Confucius epitomizes the Entrepreneurship program at Cal State Fullerton, where students acquire cutting edge entrepreneurial skill by applying advanced techniques to the creation of new ventures in real-world situations.

One such class is Professor David Obstfeld’s Entrepreneurial Management course (MGMT 461), where students learn how to apply “lean startup” techniques to assess and improve the viability of a new product or service. The lean startup approach is the hottest new domain in entrepreneurship practice that emphasizes experimentation, customer feedback, and iterative design over formal planning. The course Dr. Obstfeld teaches emphasizes incorporating customer feedback from the very beginning and using that feedback to iterate on the design of the product or service (what the lean startup community refers to as “customer development”). Utilizing these principles significantly reduces the risk involved in starting a new company or launching a new product or service, as it gives a startup’s leadership team a much better sense of whether customers will actually pay for the product or service.

A case in point. Generation Unlimited, a local company with a history of creating and commercializing a number of successful inventions, wanted to create a portable light source to help firefighters more effectively fight fires.  When the firm first spoke with the CSUF student team, consisting of Ashley Reed, Mayra Figueroa, Daniel Hac, Pui Leung Ling, Karlet Reyes and Blake Stitch, they were seeking help in establishing the validity of the product idea before creating a prototype and preparing a marketing and production strategy for its launch.

When the student team, headed up by seniors Ashley Reed and Mayra Figueroa, interviewed 24 firefighters about the product it became clear that the firefighters saw merit in the core idea but also voiced several concerns.  Under the guidance of Dr. Obstfeld and co-instructor Michael Sawitz (CEO and founder of FastStart.Studio – a local entrepreneurship incubator), the team stepped back to focus on understanding the frustrations faced by firefighters as well as the firefighting process. They visited a number of fire departments and even a firefighting school to talk with the firefighters and learn about the challenges of their job. “We learned a lot about firefighting like how much time they spend on their hands and knees and how important it is that their equipment be light and easy to handle.  They suited us up in firefighter gear and showed us how they have to crawl when stuck inside a burning building,” recalls Figueroa.  The student team met with the inventors to provide their first analysis: the product had to be light, waterproof, and offer a long battery life.   Two weeks later, the inventors emerged from their shop with two prototypes that firefighters could handle in order to provide further feedback.

Student testing firefighting equipment

After completing a second round of interviews where firefighters had the opportunity to connect the prototype to an actual hose-line in order to see how it felt, the team presented their findings to Generation Unlimited.  The firefighters like the prototype but had comments regarding the initial prototype’s weight, creating a larger light source, and suggestions about different ways to position the device in relation the hose nozzle. “The inventors were thrilled with everything we found and even took notes,” said Reed. The inventors went back to their workshop and created another prototype based on this information and asked the students to revisit the firefighters to solicit another round of feedback.

“Seeing the new prototype was so exciting because almost all of our recommendations were incorporated,” said Figueroa. Figueroa and Reed not only visited the same firefighters (and fire chiefs) they had talked with earlier, but also took the new prototype to additional firefighters. And this time the feedback was much more positive. The firefighters were so excited about the product that they offered to test it in their upcoming training program. They also gave Figueroa and Reed additional suggestions that led to the CSUF team’s formulation of several additional product ideas the inventors might consider creating.

Based on this second round of firefighter feedback, it became clear to both the students and the firm’s executives that the product was likely to be well received by the firefighting community.  Obstfeld agreed that the findings were quite valuable, “I was really staggered at the exchange between the students and the inventors.  I have observed leading edge design processes in the automotive, information technology, and consumer product arenas and I never expected to see these comparative novices – our students – pushing a drawing back and forth across the table with the inventors sketching in features to explain exactly what was working and what needed to change on the second prototype.  The exchange was no different than what I have observed in dozens of design meetings in some of the world’s most advanced product design companies.”

Student test firefighter product concepts

As the team concluded their interview analysis, team members also developed a plan for how to approach and sell the product, and explored where the company might look for potential partners or investors.  Looking back, Reed said that the experience was vital to understanding how to launch a successful product as it showed her “the value that you can bring by talking to your customers. Our professors have been telling us this for a while, but it wasn’t until we did this project that we really understood.” And Figueroa agreed. “The experience of seeing how the product evolved based on the information we obtained was really valuable.” Obstfeld concluded, “The team’s ability to produce that real-world, relevant product information alone was impressive.  Their ability to fold that information into a realistic action plan for Generation Unlimited was eye opening.”

Obstfeld and Sawitz are also innovating on the 461 course taking the class into the Sawitz’s incubator, FastStartStudio.  Obstfeld indicated, “This spring we met once in the incubator and the excitement was off the charts.  We realized that the best way to give students real world experience is to meet in the real world — which in this case means at Michael’s incubator.”  Next semester student teams will partner with actual FastStartStudio startups handpicked by Obstfeld and Sawitz and assist them in their customer development efforts.  Says Obstfeld, “To my knowledge, there is nothing quite like it in the country. Needless to say, we are really excited.”

Guest blogger Atul Teckchandani, assistant professor of management at Mihaylo, teaches courses in entrepreneurship, provides student advising and is involved with the Center for Entrepreneurship. His research examines how different types of organizations in a community collectively affect economic outcomes and entrepreneurial activity. You can follow him on Twitter @atulteck.

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