Monday, 16 October 2017

Marketing For The Start-Up

Everyone knows that innovation starts with an idea. Each year, Incubate brings together staff and students involved with ground breaking discoveries and transformative inventions to celebrate world-changing ideas. If you had a great idea, product or service, would you know what it takes to see it to fruition? 

The winners of the University of Sydney’s 2017 Student Challenge, Somnium Lab, stole the show at Innovation Week, with a perfectly customisable pillow and an autonomous UAV-based system that can detect airborne pathogens. The annual event gives student-led teams the opportunity to pitch their best ideas to a panel made up of entrepreneurs, industry, government, academics and fellow students.

MoM speaks with Miles Tycho Hugh to find out what the next steps are for the start-up and how they plan to market their revolutionary product.

Source: University of Sydney, Creator of Somnium Lab, Suri Susilo and Miles Tycho Hugh

More than just an idea. 

Somnium Lab will revolutionise the way we sleep by creating perfectly customisable pillows that align to the curves of the spine. Developed by biomedical engineering PhD candidate Suri Susilo and Miles Tycho Hugh studying a Bachelor of Commerce and Liberal Studies, the pillows are designed to relieve pain and optimise sleep.

They’ve created the world’s first filler-less height adjustable pillow, which will ensure everyone has the correct sleeping posture regardless of their height and size. It’s an invention that could disrupt a product that has remained largely unchanged for the past 100 years.

As the winners of the Richard Seymour Memorial Prize for best startup business pitch, Somnium Lab plans to release their first product on Kickstarter in January 2018, using their $10,000 in grant funding, mentoring and services from Genesis and INCUBATE, the University Student Union start-up accelerator and entrepreneur program.

MoM: How was the Somium Lab pillow conceived?

MUTU actually started 2 years ago, as a helmet. This helmet has spring-like air chambers sticking out all over it that you could set at certain heights. The adjustable air chambers could be inflated/deflated so that the spine was at a net neutral angle while sleeping, and the fact that they were on a helmet meant that if the person moved in their sleep, the cervical spine would always be kept at the same angle. 

However, no one wants to actually wear a helmet to bed - its hot, hard and a hassle. So, the helmet was cut in half, and that became the first prototype for the pillow Somnium Labs are bringing to market today. 

MoM: What have been the challenges thus far?

Tycho: So many challenges - but that’s why we’ve learnt so much. 


The marketing efforts behind trying to get somebody to get excited about and pay for a product that does not yet actually exist, is difficult. This was made even more difficult by the fact that we were marketing a pillow, which people often need to touch and feel before purchase. A pillow isn't the sexiest or attention-capturing product category either. 

Time management.

Needed to learn to be comfortable with ambiguity, and with things changing at the last minute. We have pivoted countless times over the past few months as new information emerges/we learn new things, and I remember saying that I felt like a leaf caught in the wind. We originally planned to solely target the physiotherapeutic community, but realising the regulatory hurdles, relatively small and slow moving market, we have now expanded our focus to everyday people who are just sick of saggy pillows which make them wake up feeling stiff and sluggish. Based on this, we’ve had to change our sales model from B2B to B2C, and have completely reframed the way we communicate our product offering. 

Dealing with uncertainty.

Start ups are very risky ventures, and as a co-founder, I am answerable to all successes and all failures. Almost all outcomes can be directly traced back to what me or Suri did or did not do. It’s quite daunting, comprehending the gravity of that accountability everyday, but it’s also a great driving force if you have learn to manage it. It’s really important to maintain a belief in yourself that you can actually do what you need to do everyday - “I can and I will.” 

Everyone is telling you what to do. While this is great – and for the most part, everyone is trying to help – managing those opinions and remembering that they’re just opinions, is key. 

MoM: What is the most rewarding aspect of starting your own business?

Tycho: Two things:
  1. Being able to make something that is your own. 
  2. Access to a great and eclectic network of interesting and inspiring people through the startup community. 

MoM: What advice could you give students wishing to get involved in a start-up?

  1. Build an MVP and get it out there. 
  2. Ideas are great but they need to be acted upon. 
  3. Don’t cry over spilt milk.   
  4. Don’t get too attached to any singular course of action. 
  5. Perfect is the enemy of the good.
  6. Remember what you want from your start-up and operate accordingly. 
  7. Don’t work yourself into oblivion; you are your start-up – it will break if you do. 

MoM: What is the most critical part of achieving success in a start-up?

Tycho: Execution. I always used to think that a start-up was basically just a cool idea. I thought that having a good idea was all I needed have a successful start-up. Very quickly I learnt that I was very wrong. Ideas do not operationalise themselves, nor do they sell themselves. It’s actually quite easy to come up with an idea. Bringing that idea into being is gruelling, and where you are the most liable for failure. The start-up world moves so quickly so you don't have the luxury for careful, methodical planning; you learn by doing and then iterate or pivot based on market feedback. This basically means that to be successful, you need to be able to very efficiently make things a reality (whether that be a Facebook campaign, prototype, etc.) in very little time with few resources. You can’t be afraid to get down and dirty in the mud. 

The most recent challenge we have experienced related to execution is manufacturing. So far, all prototypes have been 3D printed and assembled, slowly, by hand. In the manufacturing world, 3D printing is too expensive and difficult to access, so we'll need most things to be injection moulded. 

However, the first few factories we spoke to said that what we wanted moulded could not be done. So, having had enough of the 'no' word, Suri hopped on a plane to Thailand to source a manufacturer in person. Having asked a few friends for some names, and searching on the internet for suitable manufacturers, Suri compiled a list of who to see in country. Methodically, she tracked down a factory that could make what we needed. The trip was a success. Most start-up work, at least in the early days, is really all about the hustle and grind.

MoM: Why a pillow, of all things?

Tycho: The pillow as we know it, is merely an accessory to sleep. It is a soft thing to lie your head on. Almost all pillows follow a one size fits all model, and are filled with either feathers or foam. We have become accustomed to shitty pillows that sag over time, pillows that lump and clump, and pillows that are either too high or too low. The average pillow is almost certainly filled with bacteria, dust and dead skin, and coming into the summer months, will feel far too hot. Our pillow (MUTU) is a filler-less height adjustable pillow that never sags, and never clumps. The MUTU uses air-suspension technology that allows each pillow to be customised in height, creating a perfect contoured surface that makes your head feel weightless. MUTU's unique suspension system can be adjusted and locked to support you throughout the night without fail.

INCUBATE is the award-winning startup program at the University of Sydney. They provide funding for students, alumni and researchers to launch high-potential startups through their accelerator program. They have a community of over 3000 entrepreneurs, accelerated 70 startups, provided more than $19m in external funding, created over $50m revenue and 100+ Jobs. 

If you are a student who is serious about entrepreneurship, follow the link  to find out how to apply to the next Accelerator program.

Miles Tycho Hugh
Current student awarded the Honours Canon Scholarship and joint winner with Suri Susilo of the 2017 Student Innovation Challenge at the University of Sydney Business School.

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