From An Idea to A Growing Startup, Cal Students Make The World Safer

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By Jennifer Toney (Founder & CEO, WeMakeItSafer) Thousands of products, accounting for hundreds-of-millions of individual items, are recalled each year for safety defects; yet, historically, only about 20% are ever returned or fixed.

Most people simply do not learn about recalls on the items they own, a problem that leads to thousands of preventable injuries and deaths.

Our mission in building WeMakeItSafer was to improve product safety. By developing new technology that would bring the stakeholders together, bridging the communication gaps among them. The “We” in WeMakeItSafer means all of us -- consumers, manufacturers and retailers -- working together to make the world a safer place.

Since officially launching this spring, users of WeMakeItSafer’s web applications have checked and monitored over 500,000 belongings for recalls. Statistically, that means the WeMakeItSafer user community has already prevented over 250 recalled-product related injuries and deaths in just a few months -- and, with over 6,000 new checks being conducted each day, numbers are climbing fast.

While the initial success of WeMakeItSafer seems to have happened relatively quickly, the technology certainly was not built overnight. It has been a long, long road -– one that started with recognizing the problem.

Opportunity Recognition: Are You Cursing?

Like most entrepreneurs, or entrepreneurs at heart, I have a long list of ideas for potential new ventures. For me, the ideas nearly always come from a personal experience with something not working the way I want it to or think it should. I have a saying, “If I’m cursing, there is a business opportunity.” You know, every time you say, “@*#*! I hate it when that happens!” or “@*#*! Why in the world did they make it this way?!”

Now, if you tend to curse a lot (or not at all), this may not be a good test for you, but the point is, if a problem is big enough and important enough that it makes you mad; if it evokes enough passion that you are writing about how stupid it is on your Facebook wall, or better yet, a three-page blog post; it just might be a problem worth solving. After all, if it irritates you, chances are good that it irritates others.

That is how the idea for WeMakeItSafer came to be. I was working as a litigation consultant (ie, expert witness in commercial damages) and was assigned to a product recall case. When I learned what the product was, I said, “Holy @*#*! I have that at home! People are getting hurt? A kid died?! And I didn’t even know it was recalled?!”

Ok, no, I did not say it aloud, but I thought it. How could this be? I was in a huge metropolitan area, hardly living under a rock. I had satellite TV, internet, a digital phone, the world’s information at my fingertips, but I did not know something in my home could kill me? It made me angry, very angry… but I had an idea about how to fix it.

So you have an idea, now do something!

My consulting career was demanding and afforded little opportunity for side ventures, but I never let go of the idea that I could fix the recall notification problem. My original ideas for how to do it were all scratched off the list, one by one, as I learned more about the limits of currently available technologies.

After each thwarted plan, I would set the whole thing aside until something provoked me to pick it up again. Eventually, something pushed me over the edge.

One evening, as I walked past the living room, I caught a glimmer of the 11 o’clock news on mute. I could have sworn I saw my son’s pacifier. After some painful sleuthing on the internet, I discovered that yes, I had seen it. The pacifier was recalled due to a choking hazard. All I could think about was, had I not walked by the TV at the precise moment, my child’s life could be in danger.

Ridiculous! It was now time to stop thinking and start doing.

I decided to leave my consulting career and go back to school to pursue an MBA with emphasis on entrepreneurship and technology. Although an advanced degree is not necessarily a prerequisite for starting a company, I knew business school would give me the time I needed to flesh out my ideas and meet the right people to make it a reality – or determine it was not worth pursuing after all.

Once you decide your idea has merit, what you do next depends on your motivation for solving the problem, but two things need to happen. One, you need to determine if the problem is solvable, and two, you need to ask, “Who (else) is willing to pay to solve this problem?” At the time, I thought I had honed in on a simple solution, so I focused on the latter –- the market.

Who Cares? Do They Care Enough To Pay?

Although children dying unnecessarily was clearly a problem worth solving, it was unclear whether or not there was a market for solving ineffective recalls. To find out, I made a list of every possible entity or individual who might have a stake in recalled products, and whether or not recall effectiveness impacted them, positively or negatively. That latter point is important. Always consider who may NOT want you to succeed in solving the what you see as a problem.

Beyond the obvious three -– manufacturers, retailers, and consumers -- I came up with a list of over 30 stakeholders across 10 industries that are impacted by ineffective recalls. Then, I called members of each group. Yes, I just picked up the phone and called. In some cases, I sent an email first or asked for an introduction, but often, I just dialed the phone. I was shocked at how many people took my call. It helped that I was a student (people like helping students), and it really helped that I had enough real-world business experience to talk-the-talk.

These conversations led me toward the real pain points in the market – who is really hurting because of ineffective recalls, and who can get by with things the way they are, even if they do not like it much. Importantly, I found out who was already cobbling together makeshift systems to try to solve the problem themselves… and failing miserably. Those are the people you know recognize the problem and want it to go away; often, they are your initial target market.

Great, You Have A Market. Time To Build.

Several classmates at Haas helped flesh out the marketing plan for WeMakeItSafer as part of a class project, and we were pretty certain our proposed solution –- a system that would directly notify product owners when something they owned or held in inventory was recalled –- would fly in the marketplace.

Now, we just had to build it. Doing so, however, turned out to be more difficult than we originally thought.

Although recall information is publicly available, as we dug in, we found that the data we were able to gather was unstructured, inconsistent and error-ridden. On top of that, there were no unique identifiers, such as UPCs or SKUs included in the information by which to identify a specific product to its recall. I knew at that point that existing technology was not going to cut it; I would need to design an entirely new methodology to solve the problem.

As I was working through the issues and designing the first website, I met Priyanka Reddy, a Masters student in Computer Science at Cal. Like me, Priyanka was also interested in using technology to address social problems and originally signed on to do an internship with WeMakeItSafer. It did not take long for us to “click,” and I asked Priyanka to join WeMakeItSafer as co-founder. Together, we spent the next year building and testing our solutions with the help of several of our friends from both the Business School and the School of Engineering. I focused on frontend design and algorithms, while Priyanka focused on backend and scripting.

One sidebar note for non-technical founders –- get technical! Even if you are not going to do any coding at all, learn the basics. Being able to speak the language of your technical team will pay back ten-fold every minute you put into it.

Test, Test, And Test Again.

We set up a website in 2009 to test the first iterations of our consumer-side search platform, a precursor to our main technology that would help us observer market behavior. It was not pretty. In fact, we called it the “ugly baby,” but it did its job. Then, we did the same thing for our seller-side technology. We barely had a functional interface when we started testing the software in Bay Area stores. As “new grads trying to save the world,” we found it relatively easy to find store-owners willing to help us.

We took the testers’ feedback and used it to design our interface, which, by the way, looks nothing like what we thought they would want. Then, more testing.

In September 2010, we put up the new, redesigned website with our two main apps, “Items I Own” for consumers and “Simply Check” for sellers in private beta. We invited a handful of trusted friends and colleagues, who happened to also be in our target market, to test. Made iterations, then invited a few more; made changes, then invited a few more. Finally, after multiple rounds of testing, we took off private beta this spring.

The Moment Of Truth: Time To Sell!

It is funny; even if you know better, somehow you still secretly fanaticize that the masses will arrive the second you take off the private beta restrictions, as if there is some loooooong line waiting to get in at that very second. We did have a number of people who had signed up for notification but, strangely, they were not all sitting by their computers when we sent them the email at 3am the morning of our launch.

We sat; we waited. A few users trickled in. We tweeted; we Facebooked, and a few more trickled in. It was a slow climb for the first couple of weeks, and then the momentum began to build. Now, with over 10,000 page-views per day, we are beginning to prove out the market and are starting to cross that enviable line between idea and company.

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Jennifer P. Toney is the Founder and CEO at WeMakeItSafer. Prior to starting WeMakeItSafer, she worked with corporations as an Expert (testifying/consulting) in Commercial Damages on a variety of legal matters, including product recall. Jennifer holds an MBA as well as BAs in Economics and Japanese from the University of California at Berkeley. Jennifer blogs at JenniferToney.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Jennifer_Toney and her startup on Twitter at @WeMakeItSafer.