Reflective learning is where one reflects on their learning experiences and uses them to draw lessons for the future (Kolb, 1984). This reflective essay focuses on my learning experience as part of creating and presenting a business idea and the overall experience of participating in the Design Thinking for Startups module. In this essay, I will provide examples of learning experiences gained over the past 7 months (October 2019 to April 2020) and explain how these experiences are helpful in allowing me to achieve my future objective of opening my own restaurant.
My intention when applying for my current course at Kingston University was to gain a detailed knowledge that would be practically relevant in helping me to pursue my career as a restaurant owner in the future, potentially begin with a one restaurant and expand the chain. Although I had the idea of what I wanted to do in the future, the precise entrepreneurial know-how and practical experience was lacking. This motivated me to be part of the Master’s programme. Completing the Design Thinking module provided me a unique opportunity to not only learn about various relevant theoretical concepts but most importantly, have an opportunity to apply these concepts in practice. The entire module presented a great learning opportunity.
When our group was formed, the brainstorming and the ideas generated were not effective, as we had focused on a suitable product/ service we could provide, without concentrating on the problems. A product or service idea that is not based on the problem faced by the target market is unlikely to be successful in the long-term (Manzini, 2014). It was only after speaking to the lecturer and gaining a better understanding of the design thinking that I understood what we were doing was ineffective. Rather than engaging in design thinking and employing the characteristics such as empathy, optimism, integrative thinking, collaboration and experimentalism (Brown, 2008), we had merely used the deductive analysis.
Once we had learnt the lean canvas in module (figure A), we were excited to apply the framework to focus on the top three problems faced by the customers to devise a suitable solution, with a specific focus on unique value proposition that would help to differentiate our offering from the competition (Osterwalder and Pigneur, 2010; Maurya, 2012). As I am enthusiastic about the restaurant industry, I focused on various problems within the industry. The problem we identified was the inability of people to find a seat in restaurants/ cafés during the peak hours or their unwillingness to sit there and have their meal. Brainstorming along with the design thinking helped us to arrive at the potential solution of Easy-out, a mobile, foldable tray made using bamboo with an adjustable neck strap that allows the customers to carry their meal effortlessly.
Figure A:Lean Canvas.
Source :Maurya (2012).
Our product as a solution to the problem we identified illustrates integrative thinking, which involves going beyond slight improvements to the existing products (Kelley and Kelley, 2015). The idea appeared attractive due to its novelty. However, we had to figure out whether there is a potential for the product in the market by speaking to the target customers.
Thus, the lesson for my future self who is the owner of a restaurant is this: when looking to engage in design thinking and innovation, rather than focusing on the products, processes or services that I could introduce in my restaurant, I should focus on the problems that my customers are facing and use the combination of empathy, integrative thinking and optimism to arrive at a solution. Integrative thinking is particularly important. Being able to imagine the future world from the perspective of various stakeholders (i.e. customers, suppliers, employees etc.) helps to improve the flow of ideas and solutions among design thinkers (Brown, 2009; O’Grady and ’Grady, 2009).
The lean start-up thinking (Ries, 2011) is highly important when developing a suitable product/ service to serve the needs in the market. Although there are several components of the lean start-up, my team and I mainly used the build-measure-learn feedback loop and the minimum viable product criteria. The lean canvas served as a basis during the development stage for us to map the problems and solutions. The combination of lean startup, build-measure-learn feedback loop and lean start-up thinking as a whole (Maurya, 2012) has worked very well during this experience. It has made me confident that I can continue to utilise this approach and thinking as a restaurant owner in the future.
Gaining opinion and feedback from target customers (market research) is a vital step to ensure that our product is appropriate. As we drew inspiration from a woman standing outside a café in Kinston as a basis for our product, we had decided on the 25-34 year old as a target market. The two trade fairs (i.e. first one at Kingston Business School in January 2020 and the second at Eden Walk) provided an ideal setting for us to engage with the potential customers to find out further about our product. Through interacting with the customers, in line with the lean start-up thinking approach (figure B), we were able to develop the foldable tray incrementally, adapting it after each specific variation of the feedback loop. For instance, third prototype incorporated the adjustable strap, which allowed us to broaden the target market we could reach through the product. Additionally, the feedback and subsequent variation helped us to develop a flat tray as a third prototype, extending the usefulness of the foldable tray to activities beyond being used for eating only (figure C). The primary research revealed that female customers were more interested in our product compared to the male market, which helped us to formulate the marketing strategy accordingly.
For my restaurant, this learning experience offers a useful lesson: when devising a solution to the problem I have identified, I should not make an assumption (e.g. that the product devised would appeal to all types of customers). As I have learnt in my current experience, only female customers found the idea of foldable tray as appealing. Additionally, I should always remain open to the possibility to extending the core and augmented features of the product. For instance, initially the foldable tray was only considered as a suitable product to address the issue of eating. However, as design thinkers pose questions and continuously explore constraints and possibilities (Beckman and Barry, 2007), it helps to formulate novel solutions that enable the product/ service devised to be multi-functional.
I have also learnt that customers normally do not divulge the information easily. For my restaurant business, I would attempt to gather primary data through using a variety of research methods such as face to face and online questionnaires, observations, interviews and focus groups. Various methods will help me to uncover detailed insights (Davis et al., 2016), and use the findings to inform my business decisions.
Figure B:The lean start -up thinking.
Figure C: Prototype development.
Establishing a successful start-up not only involves paying attention to the customer needs and translating the findings into a successful product idea but also ensuring the product is delivered by the supplier as expected (Dorst, 2015). A major challenge we faced was the difficulty in finding a reliable and trustworthy supplier. The first supplier we used proved to be unreliable. He was a carpenter and we felt he did not truly understand the underlying concept and the product we wanted. Our inability to have a smooth conversation with the supplier also contributed to the inability of the supplier to meet our expectations, as reflected in the first prototype (figure C). This made me realise the importance of having a final product, when gaining customer feedback. Without having the product, the feedback generated from potential customers was not as meaningful because customers had not seen the final product and therefore, would not comment on whether they would buy it and at what price they are willing to buy.
Another lesson for my future self who is the owner of a restaurant is this: pay attention not only to the customers but also to the suppliers as an important stakeholder, especially when devising a new product. The new product idea is only as good as the actual product delivered by the supplier. If the product is incompatible with the idea and does not conform to the design or quality standards, the customers are unlikely to buy it. Moreover, also have a contingency plan in place, so that any unexpected situation (e.g. unreliable supplier) can be dealt with appropriately. I will make sure that I am not reliant on a single supplier, when buying the various ingredients for my restaurant.
Even though there are various pricing strategies that can be employed by a start-up business (e.g. value-based pricing, market skimming, market penetration, competitor-based and cost-plus pricing), we have learnt that a suitable pricing strategy is influenced by the level of competition in the industry and willingness of customers to pay a particular price. For instance, novel nature of our product implied a lack of direct competition. This, along with the low-price sensitivity of consumers meant that value-based pricing strategy was considered suitable in this situation, as it helped us to achieve a healthy mark-up of 40% based on cost estimates. An important lesson I have learnt through the costing and pricing which is relevant as a future restaurant owner is this: I must take into account the level of competition in the industry and willingness of customers to pay a particular price. Despite a lack of competition, if I set a price that is too high based on customer expectations, they would not feel the product provides a sufficient value add and as a result, the customers are unlikely to purchase it.
The feedback gained during the Dragons Den competition was highly useful. The constructive criticism although appeared harsh however, it was an honest assessment of our product and the business plan. I considered the feedback, especially with regards to the product idea, which helped me to consider further refinements to appeal to a broader market. For instance, an important advice we received was that we should not discount the male market based for our product on a small scale of initial research. This advice has its merits, as ignoring the male market means we are not able to reach almost half of the target population. In the future, as a restaurant owner, I will pay attention to the advice received, especially from the experienced and respected individuals. At the same time, I will use my own experience and knowledge of the industry to ensure that my decisions are consistent with the unique selling proposition, the values and brand identity I wish to exhibit for my restaurant.
To conclude, the reflective essay based on my learning experiences gained over the past 7 months has helped me to provide various suggestions to my future self as a restaurant owner. An important learning I have achieved from this module is that there are no precise rules when it comes to creativity, innovation and starting a business. The most significant takeaway for me through my experiences and learning in Design Thinking for Startups module is the confidence and conviction in my ability to successfully use my knowledge and experience to translate into my future plans of starting a restaurant. I must remember that when looking to engage in design thinking and innovation, rather than focusing on the products, processes or services that I could introduce in my restaurant, I should focus on the problems that my customers are facing and use the combination of empathy, integrative thinking and optimism to arrive at a solution. Integrative thinking is particularly important.
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