Lessons Learned in Entrepreneurship: Part 1, "Which Came First, Seeing or Believing?"


Lessons Learned in Entrepreneurship: Part 1, "Which Came First, Seeing or Believing?"

Years ago I "weaseled" my way into the Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries class at MIT- I was an industrial design student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and was seeking purpose for the skills I was building. I found the Wheelchair Design class on Google, emailed the professor over the summer, and by fall with a lot of research and persistence, had found a backdoor loophole into the class.

We did group projects, and I ended up in the “non-engineer group,” a cluster of super smart students who found their way into the class via other departments (Aeronautics, Management, Math, and so on.) We were charged with making an product to help entrepreneurs in wheelchairs, and ended up deciding on a lockable desk/bag combo. (This ended up being phase one of a project I later adapted into an educational accessory for kids in wheelchairs, but was arguably poorly suited for entrepreneurs in wheelchairs.)

I ended up making the initial prototype of the bag based on the group vision- a flimsy, hand sewn bag that allowed us to piece together the “rough draft” without investing too much time in manufacturing. I remember presenting it to one of the class advisors- a well known professor at MIT. I remember seeing the aghast look on his face- horrified that this was the product of our work in the class. Fast forward a month or two to the final presentation- we presented the final bag and desk assembly, perfectly sewn in durable Nylon, and assembled with custom bent steel frame. That same professor’s mouth was agape- his entire face lit up and he asked, shocked and laughing, “who made this?!!” I said we bent the steel and I sewed the bag, and I realized in that moment that when we showed him the first prototype, he couldn’t see the vision, he only saw floppy fabric and a group of “non-engineers.” He had to see the final product to believe in our potential.

Starting and running Swig + Swallow has been a lot like this. Most people are like the advisor I mentioned- they see a product or a business and view it as static and unchangeable, and have a gut reaction to the product in isolation, in that moment in time. Conversations start getting interesting when we meet people who can envision the future- yes, they take form and function into consideration, but they can imagine the product adapting, the zeistgeist shifting, and human behavior changing,

What we’ve learned in these last few months in particular, is that most of the human population can’t see what isn’t in front of them. This isn’t innately a “bad thing,” but in your entrepreneurial journey, likely 90% of people you encounter have to “see it to believe it.” This can be daunting to the new entrepreneur, but you just have to keep pushing, and trust your gut. At one point not so long ago, “tweeting,” and “liking,” and “ubering,” and “googling,” had no meaning whatsoever….now they are part of our everyday lexicon. Like Danny Meyer said in his book “Setting the Table,” the job of the manager is to keep moving the salt shaker to the center of the table. The employees and the guests’ jobs are to move it away from center, and your job is to always keep moving it back.”

As an entrepreneur, you can’t get disheartened when you put forth an idea and people doubt you or poo-poo the idea.  Will you have to adapt your idea along the way? Yes, most probably. Should you listen to the doubters? Yes, absolutely hear what they have to say and dig deep. Should you abandon your idea if some people just don't get it? Absolutely not. When you're trying to build something original, believing precedes seeing the idea fully realized. It is your job to get a small critical mass to believe, people will start to see, and then you get to connect the dots... to realize your vision in a way that meets the the needs of your audience.

Just like in the example above, when faced with someone who can't see the vision, it is your job to keep pushing, keep iterating, and keep adapting until you see their eyes light up with understanding.



Tell me what we're doing wrong, please

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In the year and a half Swig + Swallow has been in business* we’ve received 3 complaints about our product or shipping issues, and 2 calls where people were confused about the shipping option they chose.

That’s it.

Over thousands and thousands of bottles sold, and many thousands of samples tasted, you’d think that would be a good sign.

But it’s not.

You see, our company, Swig + Swallow produces fresh cocktail mixers for iconic cocktails, like the Margarita, Moscow Mule, and Mojito. We are the first mixer company to intentionally half-fill the bottles, leaving room to add spirits directly to the bottle to complete the drink, no measurement required. As veterans of the cocktail and spirits world, my co-founder Gates Otsuji and I know this is the best way to drink craft-quality cocktails at home. Not only are we providing the same fresh ingredients you’d find in the top cocktail bars, but we’re perfecting the balance between citrus, sweet, and natural flavors, so you can just add your spirit of choice to the line on the bottle, and poof, you’re done!

But back to the problem.

Especially because we’re first to market with this concept, we are thirsty for feedback (no pun intended.) We know when we sample people on our product, they love it and they buy it. Press has been good to us too, so we’ve been lucky. But most friends and allies are unreliable, because they will tell you the great things about your product, and leave out any bit of criticism, regardless how small. And, what people don’t understand is that feedback is the most valuable asset we could have…without it we have vision, but we move forward with blinders. 

Besides the thousands of conversations we have with consumers and trade alike, we’re looking for other ways to encourage this feedback, and we’re open to any and all suggestions on how to cultivate more of this. We installed Yotpo into our site this week to host public reviews, and we earnestly want honest feedback. If you want to help us bring you the best product possible, please either review us on our site, or if you’d prefer, send us private feedback using the contact page on our site, or by emailing me, april@swigandswallow.com

Seriously, tell me what we’re doing wrong, please…. 


Many thanks!

-April Wachtel

Founder/CEO, Swig + Swallow


*With this business model- technically I ran this as a B2B service for spirits companies and catering companies prior to 2016.