Karina Pikhart is the founder of 6dot Innovations, which designs innovative assistive technology products for people with disabilities, most notably a Braille label printer for the blind. She is a StartX Fellow, having gone through the StartX program in October 2010, and is one of our most dedicated and involved founders.
How did you get people involved in your idea? How did you sell it to them?
We started out as a school project for a senior design class at MIT. That semester, we had a team of 15 people. Since then, we’ve been a team of 3-6 people. But I’m the only one of the original 15 still working on 6dot.
I’ve done a lot of recruiting, but I’ve always felt like there is something lost in the process. I was sold on the idea behind 6dot by talking to customers: to schools for the blind and to printing presses for Braille materials. The new teammates I recruited were also sold on the idea, but only by talking to me. There’s a big difference. In February, we opened for sales, and my team started talking to customers directly who called in to order their Braille labeler. Finally, they got to see for themselves the real potential impact of 6dot.
How did you finance your company?
Our company has gone through a very interesting journey in financing. We were fortunate to raise a lot of non-dilutive funding, by winning the BASES product showcase and a couple of other awards. We also raised over $50,000 through Kickstarter.
How do you think you have grown as an entrepreneur?
When you are someone else’s employee, you’re just focused on what you personally, your team, and your department are working on. In a startup, you and your team are controlling the whole company, and the experience forces you to really understand the whole process, the whole fabric of a company that is made up of marketing, product design, business model development, finance and more, all woven together. There are really interesting dynamics between these areas that are crucial to understand. On the other hand I don’t get to specialize in anything as much.
One very important thing I learned was sales. In a startup, from the moment you find your cofounder, you’re selling. In fact, finding your cofounder is your first sale.
I was terrible at it to start with, because in engineering, you’re taught to speak very scientifically. So now the point is to be conscious about that, learn from it, and use it as an opportunity to grow.
How do you balance 6dot with school?
For 2 out of the 3 years I’ve been working on 6dot, I’ve been a full time student. There really is no such thing as balance when you’re dealing with two big commitments. School definitely suffered, and so has 6dot. It’s almost like being married to two people. It’s definitely not true for everyone, but for me, school and work were very different, and were competing for my time and loyalty.
What has been helpful is having a team that understands. The positive side of being a student was that I wasn’t a financial burden on the company, since I was funded as a graduate student.
What do you look for when you are recruiting?
I’m still learning about how to find the right team. The most important thing to look for is hunger – someone who’s got that spark in their eye when they talk about 6dot and is hungry to do whatever it takes. We need someone who is going to jump out of bed and hurry to work every single day. The company is going to be your family in the early days, and the process is definitely easier when everyone is hungry for the same things. My feelings for my company are so strong that there is a real devotion to the company. When you bring someone new in, three years into the process, it’s like they’re suddenly a stepmom to a kid who is 3 years old. We need to give them the opportunity to cultivate the same desire to succeed that we have.
How do you keep tabs on everything you’re working on?
My digital life sometimes gets disorganized. I try a lot of different organizational systems, but sometimes things slip through the cracks. The trick is to work on one thing at a time, and to never sacrifice doing the things that will help keep you organized because you are “too busy.” Funny, I do this well around my house (no piles of clothes anywhere! Bed made! Dishes washed!), but terribly on my desktop (where the heck did I put that file? What was it even called?). As a team, it is important to make expectations clear on who is responsible for what. Don’t fragment but assign responsibility.
Something else that is important to do, is putting systems in place to keep track of each other’s progress. We keep a to do list of open issues with our manufacturing partner, and keep the document up-to-date with daily action items that we’re working on, while also paying attention to our longer-term goals. We also keep track of when we say things will get done, and when they actually get done. We then look at the delta between those two numbers and try to understand why that happened, and then improve on that.
The crux of getting things done well is understanding how long things take, putting in buffers for unexpected delays, and then rapidly learning and improving on future deadlines that you set up for yourself. We learned a lot about this from our contract-manufacturing partner. The hour that we spend doing this exercise twice a week is so worth it. In the end, it’s all about forming good habits, because habits will always overpower willpower.