By Monisha Perkash (Co-Founder & CEO, LUMOback)
After selling my first start-up TuitionCoach, I knew that I would someday want to launch and grow another company that I really believed in. My challenge, however, was that I didn’t have the Big Idea. Then I learned about an intriguing pre-team, pre-idea startup incubator program called Runway, backed by Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors venture fund. This chance to work with a diverse and talented team over 6 months to explore bold business opportunities just sounded too good to pass up. So I applied, thankfully got in, took the plunge and became a member of Runway’s first class of entrepreneurs.

My team LUMOback has decided to launch a mobile health solution for managing back pain. It sounds so crisp and clean to say that now, but getting there was definitely, as the Runway program likes to say, “the drunken walk of the entrepreneur.” Along the way, I learned many valuable lessons.

Lesson #1 — Be intentional and mindful about your team dynamics

One of the scariest aspects of the Runway program was that I was placing complete trust in my new co-founders. While we chose each other during the Runway selection process and we did know quite a bit about each other’s backgrounds, strengths, and personality test results, we had no prior history together. Conventional wisdom might say that this is not the best way to start a company. However, I think that one of the benefits of starting a company in this manner is that we couldn’t take anything for granted about each other.

For example, to ensure team alignment we’ve had to be very intentional about articulating what we really care about, and what company attributes we aspire to. We’ve also been quite deliberate about creating a culture that values open and direct feedback.

Furthermore, we openly talk about our strengths and weaknesses, and ways that we clash with and complement each other. For example, we’ve identified who gets energized from abstract vs. concrete thinking, who gets impatient with process and who wants more of it, and who embraces contrarian philosophies and who doesn’t. While these differences have at times been sources of tension, when we identify and celebrate these differences, we realize that we are an even stronger team.

Lesson #2 — Fail Forward

We looked at dozens of opportunities in energy, transportation, peer-to-peer sharing, the aging population, mental wellness, and health care. We fell in love with a few ideas along the way and were disappointed to make realizations like: the market wasn’t yet big enough (too early), or that there were already other companies attacking a particular problem (too late), or that we just didn’t have the right skills sets for a particular opportunity (too bad!).

While these were pretty frustrating realizations, we saw them as “failing forward,” meaning that even when we went down a fruitless path, those failures were actually successes because we could easily pivot in other directions and apply key learnings from one path to another. For example, in our early days of researching mental wellness, we learned that in an era of extreme social networking, as people became more “connected,” many actually feel less connected, both to a true community and to their own needs.

Fast forward, and as we later began researching back pain, we again stumbled upon this notion of disconnectedness with one’s mind and body and with one’s community. We became very quickly attuned to this problem partly because we had previous exposure to it, and we are now incorporating ways to address this need into our solution.

Lesson #3 — Prototype Often, and Start Out Low-Resolution

A method to help accelerate “failing forward” is to constantly prototype, starting with very low-resolution solutions. For example, in exploring a traffic optimization solution, we sketched a few “prototypes” on pieces of paper and interviewed random people in downtown Palo Alto for feedback. We found that the unpolished prototypes gave people the permission to be more critical of our envisioned solution, and we therefore gathered some very insightful feedback.

Furthermore, the rudimentary prototypes allowed us to iterate easily and explore other directions without feeling a sense of “sunk cost.” Ultimately, we killed the traffic optimization idea, and this experience reinforced why it’s better to make cheap mistakes early in the process rather than expensive ones later on.

Lesson #4 — Immerse Yourself in True Human Needs

The big “aha” for our back pain idea came after we decided to immerse ourselves in everyday aspects of people’s lives. In the earlier part of our search process, we spent too much time “in our heads” rather than actually getting out in the field. It felt as if we were swimming only the superficial layers of various opportunity areas when we should have been doing deep dives. Therefore, many of our ideas were too obvious and/or too general, and in some cases they were just technologies chasing a problem. We needed to know that we were solving real problems for real people.

As part of an immersive, in-the-field exercise, we attended a posture workshop that addressed back and joint pain. We left the workshop inspired by what a difference posture classes had made for one of the teachers; she was able to enjoy her life and family in a way she couldn’t before. But then it really hit home when one of my co-founders who has struggled with back pain for the past decade started taking regular posture classes and began to experience pain relief himself. When our research on scientific literature and our consultation with doctors and physical therapists further validated the posture approach for addressing back pain, this opportunity became extremely compelling. Finally, when we succeeded in proving out the technical feasibility of our idea, we knew that we had found The Big Idea.

Why am I so excited by this idea, and why do I think it’s big? Because I believe that we are at a moment in time where we can use the advances of modern technologies to address an age-old problem, back pain. Being successful in this area will open up doors to address other ongoing wellness issues.

At the end of the day, team LUMOback is making a bet. A bet on each other. A bet on this idea. And a bet on the market. There are no guaranteed results, and it will be a rollercoaster no doubt. But if the future of this company has been anywhere as exhilarating as the past 6 months, I am strapped in, ready for the ride!

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Monisha Perkash is Co-Founder and CEO of LUMOback, a mobile health solution for managing back pain. LUMOback recently emerged from Runway, a startup incubator program backed by Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors venture fund. Monisha previously co-founded the online college financing service TuitionCoach (acquired by SimpleTuition in 2009), where she oversaw the financing, launch, and general management of the startup. Monisha holds an MBA and MA Education from Stanford, and a BA from Yale.