“Don’t overthink it, just build it. Once you build it, people will come,” said Anirudh Sharma, one of the most unconventional founders I interviewed for my book. Anirudh is an MIT Media Labs graduate and the inventor of two ingenious innovations—LeChal and Air-Ink.
LeChal, an expression in Hindi that means “take me along,” is a smart shoe primarily created to guide the visually challenged. It provides haptic feedback using the sense of touch and ties that technology to a GPS service. This innovation enables the shoes to vibrate in the direction the person wearing them should move.
Air-Ink, as you may have guessed, is ink produced from the air. By that I mean—from air pollution! Today, Air-Ink is used by artists and celebrities from around the world to promote sustainability. In an April 2021 article on Vogue, “The Printing Ink on Naomi Campbell’s Pangaia Sweatshirt Was Made From Air Pollution,” the well-known British model and actress Naomi Campbell wore recycled and organic cotton sweatshirts and sweatpants from Pangaia, and the prints on them were created using Air-Ink.
Needless to say, Anirudh’s innovations were much-lauded and praised for their high social impact at a global level. How did Anirudh turn his out-of-the-box, innovative ideas into actual products produced at scale and sold by his businesses?
In the early stages—when you have an idea—you will have doubts. That is the most exciting phase because when you have an idea, it’s just an idea in your head. So, in the early stages, you should focus on testing your hypothesis. You can quickly assemble a prototype and talk to friends who are good at other things. For example, if you do not know how to hack a printer, talk to a person who’s an expert in electronics. Bring them in and say, “We can pay you. Let’s modify the printer, and let’s make it do something different.”
I would say the early stages are very, very important... in a way that you can quickly move from an idea in your head to a prototype that can speak for itself. So, don’t overthink it, just build it. That’s the crux of it.
As Anirudh explained how he used pollution from cars and fed it into a “hacked” printer to validate his hypothesis for Air-Ink, he shared his approach toward any type of innovation—focus on your phase one and work toward testing your hypothesis.
Phase one of startup building can be similar to that long, trippy rollercoaster ride where the highs are exhilarating and the lows nerve-racking. This phase can be considered the experimental stage of your startup, where you are learning and unlearning, testing, measuring, and iteratively building the most consumer-friendly version of your product. In this phase, you will gradually begin to materialize your startup vision into an actual product. While this may sound intimidating, it most likely looks like sitting at your desk in your pajamas, trying to get some code to work.
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