How Salt Flats used lean startup methods to help a new founder build a sellable prototype.
Lots of people have good ideas about how to solve big and little problems to make the world we live in a better place. But the idea isn’t intellectual property (or a business) until you figure out how to execute it. For example, you could set out to cure cancer but you won’t “own” the idea until you find a treatment that works. But of course, that’s the hard part – execution – and where most companies throw in the towel. It doesn’t really matter what industry you’re trying to disrupt – whether AEC/RE, Healthcare, or Finance – execution early on means getting from idea to prototype as quickly as possible. That’s an idea that should be exciting for any entrepreneur: That you can apply methods and lessons from any industry to help you execute your own.
Declan Morgan, owner of Chicago Bar Shop and several local pubs and restaurants, had an idea to solve an expensive problem affecting his retail locations: sinks that ensure clean water to wash glassware while conserving valuable resources. In addition to the embarrassment of serving a drink in a dirty glass, restaurant and bar owners face heavy fines for using water that falls below Health Department requirements for cleanliness and temperature. To avoid this, service people often refill the sinks with inappropriate amounts of water, detergent, and disinfectant solutions, which is costly and wasteful and also leads to dirty glasses. Declan’s idea, called SinkTech, was to retrofit a standard triple basin sink so that each bowl would automatically drain and refill whenever the water properties did not comply with regulatory standards.
To help get his idea off the ground, Declan partnered with Salt Flats, a Chicago business transformation and corporate strategy firm that helps built-world-focused founders and companies turn great ideas into prototypes, and prototypes into scalable products. He turned to Salt Flats to explore how to execute the idea and build a prototype for this year’s National Restaurant Association Show at Chicago’s McCormick Place.
There are, of course, a few major barriers when building an initial prototype. One of which is cost-related: how much can you afford to spend building a prototype to validate an idea? A key ingredient of Salt Flats’ innovative approach is Department X, a rapid prototyping service headed by Adithya Menon. Adithya’s team of engineers and product designers took SinkTech from sketch to show in ninety days with a relatively small investment from our client. Then there’s the challenge of getting your product in front of interested customers and asking for the sale. Nothing is more validating for a new product than an exchange of funds. Let’s continue with Declan’s SinkTech idea to see how, through working with Salt Flats, he tested his idea, and validated quickly and affordably through lean startup methods.
Testing 1, 2, 3
The first prototype was cobbled together from basic parts that allowed for testing water and mechanisms to drain and fill the sinks. It wasn’t pretty, but it proved that the basic concept could work. More importantly, the prototype revealed problems that needed to be solved as well as opportunities to improve functionality and reliability. For example, we needed to find parts that would fit in the sink and allow for washing. In addition, we learned that about what sensors, pumps, and motors would work.
The second iteration was primarily about engineering the components to respond to the issues learned from the first version and streamline the overall design. Department X designed a custom valve and slimmed down the components. The valve was 3D printed by a leader in industrial additive manufacturing, who is housed at the Salt Flats Innovation House. This design not only saved the time and money required to create tooling, it literally could not have been made using conventional manufacturing techniques because it contains sub-assemblies within the overall housing.
Getting an MVP prototype in front of customers
The final design and prototype for the National Restaurant Show focused on integrating all the components into a sleek housing that protected the delicate sensors, electronic boards, and LEDs.
The show was held at McCormick Place on May 19-22 and proved to be a fishing well of interested restaurant and retail owners. Although the design was still just a prototype, Declan received orders for scores of units as soon as the product is ready for production. It was a huge success and with orders in hand, the idea was validated. The next step for SinkTech and Salt Flats is to develop a plan for manufacturing including final product design, engineering, sourcing, and distribution. SinkTech already has plans for expanding the line to include other fixtures for commercial and residential applications.
So entrepreneurs go forth: The roadmap which SinkTech and Salt Flats followed can be applied to test and validate any idea you’d like to turn into a business, no matter the industry.
BuiltWorlds partnered with Salt Flats to bring you this article.
About Salt Flats
Salt Flats is a business transformation and corporate strategy firm located in Chicago’s West Loop. At Salt Flats, we believe digital technology has created the opportunity to drive growth in unprecedented ways by opening new customer experiences, new products and new business models. Salt Flats staff, Department X, and our Members work together at the Innovation House, a living lab for exploration and prototyping of new ideas. You can learn more about Salt Flats by visiting their website here or by checking out their BuiltWorlds Directory Page.
Chicago Bar Shop is a full-service restaurant design firm, custom bar builder and hospitality solutions provider with clients and strategic partners worldwide. Created from a passion for helping bar and restaurant owners build businesses that are both aesthetically pleasing and positioned for profits- Chicago Bar Shop has harnessed the power of technology to build interactive smarter bar and hospitality environments that maximize customer engagement and profits.