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.