When the next generation of Stevens freshmen collectively reaches for a snack in the midst of a marathon study session, Nayad Manukian and Jasmine A. Mina hope what fuels that all-nighter is not pretzels or potato chips, but corn puffs.
The Stevens students, both seniors in the School of Business, are working on ways to import and distribute the Egyptian snack to a U.S. audience for their senior design project, and last month, they got a big assist by attending a Lean Startup Machine event, in Somerset, NJ.
The program is a three-day workshop that shows aspiring entrepreneurs how to build products and design services customers actually want, and to run the right experiments to steer a nascent business in the right direction.
Manukian and Mina are in the early stages of developing their business — they’re still working on a name and branding that will resonate with a U.S. audience — but they said lessons they’ve taken from the classroom and the Lean Startup event will guide them toward their goal of continuing to develop the business after they graduate in the spring.
'Known everywhere you go'
Corn puffs are a serious business in Egypt, where Mina’s grandfather has been manufacturing the snack for 55 years. Unlike traditional chips, the corn is puffed, not fried, so a large bag is only 20 calories. A limitless variety of flavors is available, too; one of the challenges the duo faces is in tailoring the right taste to the right market.
Corn puffs “are known everywhere you go there,” Mina said. “The reason I wanted to bring it here is the American market is shifting toward healthier alternatives, and that’s something we’ve seen even on campus among freshmen who are looking for snacks.”
To start, the students are working with a shipping container’s worth of the product, sent overseas from Mina’s grandfather. They’ve used that to present samples of different flavors to test audiences — a main takeaway in the Howe School’s entrepreneurship education, and also in Lean Startup’s teachings.
“The first step they taught us was to get out of the building and interview random people to find out who your actual target is,” Manukian said. “Is it people who are diabetic, or who want gluten-free food? That’s going to be the hardest part of the project, figuring out who to target.”
Rapidly shifting to consumer tastes
One of the advantages at Lean Startup Machine was the ability to speak with presenter Mark Annett. While many aspiring entrepreneurs had ideas for tech products, Annett is the founder of Snack Builder, a startup that encourages creativity and healthy eating among children by encouraging them to make edible designs with carrots, nuts, crackers, celery and the like.
“His message was that team is more important than the product, because as a team, you can always make decisions effectively,” Mina said. The lean method, she said, is to find out the problem is, assess the current solutions, and figure out how to shift your idea to becoming what consumers want.
That’s where rapid prototyping and customer interaction come in, Manukian said.
“When you interview consumers, that’s when you change your prototype and do it all over — go back out, see what they want again, and see how happy they are when you deliver what they actually want,” she said.
Conversations with other entrepreneurs gave them ideas about how to pursue growth plans through social media. For instance, Manukian said, they got the idea to create blog posts that were essentially games, encouraging people to decide what they wanted in a snack.
“And in the end, our snack would come up for people who were interested in something healthy,” she said. In exchange for an email address, they would send samples to people who took the quiz, “and that’s how you actually get a consumer base.”
The Stevens advantage
While the event was useful, both women are quick to credit the School of Business and their professors with the kind of instruction that made them comfortable in a room packed with entrepreneurs. In particular, they mentioned the focus the school puts on the development of entrepreneurial thinking and presentation abilities, which is emphasized in many classes through project work. That sort of training is why they both plan to complete master’s degrees at Stevens upon graduating in May.
Stevens Professor CV Harquail incorporates the cutting-edge lean startup techniques into the senior design courses, and encourages every student to attend events held by the group. That coursework hones the tools they refined at Lean Startup Machine, and reinforces the values taught in class — that only through focused, data-driven prototyping can entrepreneurs succeed.
“Jasmine and Nayad are committed and focused, willing to take on the hard work of creating a real business,” Harquail said. “The hard part is what comes next — they still have a lot of work to do, but it will be supported by what they learn through the curriculum and activities of their senior design classes.”
In her Project Management class with Professor Donald Lombardi, Manukian said she learned how to take a project from the idea phase to funding and execution — crucial for her snack project. In class, she presented an idea to bring a Stevens campus to Governors Island, in New York.
“A lot of my presentation skills come from practicing for all the presentations I’ve done in my classes,” she said.
Mina, meanwhile, brought her pitch to Professor Gaurav Sabnis, an expert in marketing, to refine it for a potential audience.
“We went over the whole pitch, every single thing, like what I should and should not take out,” she said. “That really did prepare me to go in there and not ramble on about the product, and instead just tell them what they need to hear.”
The team is now looking ahead — both to the Innovation Expo, where they’ll formally show off their business, and beyond.
“It gave us a path on what we should do if we want our business to succeed, and that’s definitely an advantage, because I want to pursue this after I graduate,” Mina said. “It gave us a map, and a lot of open trails to explore, and if we had stayed home that weekend, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity and would have less direction on where we want to be.”