Can you build and scale your product without a technical background? Dana Kim & Ethan Kellough share their journey
When Dana Kim began building Showcase Insights, entrepreneurship was all the rage — and much like today, joining a startup was “sexy.” As an MBA student at The Wharton School, it isn’t surprising that there were lots of people interested in jumping on board. But as a founder building her team and product from scratch, Dana cared less about flashy resumes, and more about vision and alignment.
The company was born from the need for easy, cost-effective and efficient market research. Today, they have developed two different products in service of this mission. As a user, you can walk up to a machine and get a free product in exchange for feedback feedback about the product, or you can subscribe to receive mailed-to-home boxes with products to test.
Dorm Room Fund invested in Showcase Insights because of our strong belief that they can modernize the market research industry by connecting brands with their target customers at the earliest stages of product development. Read more about why we funded Showcase here.
Dana, founder and CEO, and Ethan Kellough, Chief Product Officer, share their experience building, testing and expanding their product.
“Prior to Wharton, I was in market research for five years and did in-person research for global clients — like Coca Cola, Facebook, Nike. It was really fun, impactful work. Knowing your consumers and consumer insights is more important now than ever, but market research can be really expensive, especially when it comes to qualitative methods,” says Dana.
“There's no debating the value of traditional market research. But for more innovation-focused brands, especially emerging consumer product brands, there's a need for agile product testing solutions."
Further, market research is a two-way process — and so, Showcase is both a B2B and B2C company, aiming to foster a relationship between brands and consumers. As an individual buying a product, you face a bit of a wall: You don’t really have a good way to share feedback, so your perspectives about products don’t feel like they’re being taken into account at all.
“We’re building a community,” Ethan explains. “We really focus on the experience our users have. We build a connection with users, and think about all the things that make market research crappy. We’re really focused on finding consumers that really care — and are frustrated with not being able to find the products they want.”
Is it a good idea to get started on building an MVP without a technical background?
Dana hit the ground running, and had so much conviction that she didn’t really stop to reconsider.
“I had seen the need acutely, so I set out to solve it, and do the best I could to get version 0 up and running. It was a ton of Googling and reaching out to friends, colleagues, and classmates to figure out how to move the vision forwards. I had technical friends who helped fill the early CPO gap, and I ended up leaning on their advice to navigate suppliers and developers. My first version was super scrappy,” she says.
Ethan — who has a background in engineering and is currently a student in the University of Pennsylvania’s Integrated Product Design program, focusing on lean startup and product design — remembers an iteration long before version 0.
“She [Dana] started off with the right level of MVP. The first thing she did was sit in Huntsman Hall with granola bars and paper surveys, just to see if people would complete a survey in exchange for a free product” he explains. “It sounds obvious, but it’s something a lot of founders, especially MBA founders, don’t always do: they say ‘I’ve got a great idea, I’m going to jump in without testing.’”
While she doesn’t regret her decision to get started without a technical partner, Dana did make some decisions at the time that she would have done differently today.
"In hindsight, I wish I'd brought on developers that at least had the ability to stay on longer term, if things worked out,” she says. “Plug and play [with temporary developers] works in some cases, but sometimes it doesn’t. I would have changed the way I went about this so there wasn’t a rotating inefficient transfer of information.”
By the time Ethan joined the team, Dana had already purchased a custom manufactured vending machine from a supplier and hired a developer to build an MVP version of the app for users to get the products out of the machine. The MVP worked and served a purpose, but was built quickly, and wasn’t designed for scale. “That’s how an MVP should be,” Ethan says. “But you have to be prepared to throw that away and start fresh.”
How do you build a solution that’s scalable?
At Showcase, they’re thinking about what their product will look like in five years. Since they target two distinct audiences, Dana acts as a brand champion, and Ethan considers users to make sure they’re building and advocating towards both sides equally. To make sure they’re scalable, they’re looking at how their databases are designed and APIs are structured to be ready to expand into new product offerings, while keeping an eye on what other markets can they tap and which market research products can they replicate faster, better and cheaper.
“Both brands and consumers benefit from better products. Brands benefit from having agile and efficient solutions to get high quality data, and consumers have needs and wants around discovering products and helping make them better — they don’t want to buy a product at the store and throw it out because they don’t like it.” says Dana.
“In 5 years, we want to have built up a database of thousands of users and hundreds of brands aligned in the mission of building better products.”
How should your vision and goals align?
“The way I look at things, and the way Dana does is different,” Ethan says. “To me, everything is a test. If you’re sending out an email, send 2 versions and it’s an A/B test. You slowly learn things over time — and I always advocate for things to be a test.”
Even though Dana may not have been drafting two versions of every email, the two share a shockingly synced vision for Showcase.
“Early on, we were on a call with our head developer, mapping out the future of our product. Before I even had a chance to answer our dev's questions, Ethan would respond — and he would say exactly what I was thinking regarding workstreams, features, future product capabilities, and things we had never discussed before,” explains Dana.
“We are aligned in our vision for the company, and aligned in how we work together in the day-to-day to get there.”
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