Making Something From Nothing: Sarah Boisvert Of New Collar Network On How To Go From Idea To Launch

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Success is about people, not your product or technology, and it is most important to respect and value your team. People can read through slogans — Remember the Ford “Quality is Job 1” slogan when their products were being overtaken by Japanese quality cars and trucks? Fancy Christmas parties don’t make up for taking advantage of good, loyal people. Be genuine in your relationships and the benefits of an engaged team will fuel your success.

As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Boisvert.

Sarah is the Founder & CEO of the New Collar Network that provides Digital Badge micro-certifications for New Collar Jobs like operating a 3D Printer or repairing a robot. Sarah came to workforce training from manufacturing, where she was a co-founder of Potomac Photonics, Inc. that invented and built lasers for micro-manufacturing, including the Laser used in LASIK eye surgery.

Photonics Media Press published her first book, “The New Collar Workforce”, in January 2018, and her 3rd book, “How to Get a New Collar Job” will be released by Art Guild Press in early 2022.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Well, my Dad was my inspiration! He was an entrepreneur and was always solving problems which taught me how to be successful in my own businesses. Most importantly, he believed I could do anything I wanted to do! He was a part of what Tom Brokaw calls “The Greatest Generation” that had achieved so much, especially fighting for democracy against Hitler in World War II. Many years later a French business executive said to me, “Of course you think everything is possible — you’re American”! I guess those GI’s made a huge impression on the countries they freed from the grip of the Nazis.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “If you’re going through hell, keep going!”
I try to remember that when things are tough. It does not help to wallow in self-pity and stop fighting. In order to succeed at anything, we must keep moving forward as any business that has survived hard times can verify.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Marketing High Technology by former Intel Vice President Bill Davidow was written in 1986 but the principles are as strong today as they were then. His emphasis on market segmentation strategy starts with designing what he calls the Complete Product and that has been a guide throughout my career in building products that meet customer needs in every area surrounding the technical.

One of my best examples of how I used the complete product concept was with a laser marking application for Anheuser-Busch in which I was working with a joint venture partner. Lasers were failing from overheating and so our head of QC and I visited the huge production lines in the Los Angeles plant. Clearly the maintenance staff was not reconnecting the laser cooling system after routine checks and to the horror of the engineer with whom I was working, I asked if the staff could read the cooling warning labels. “Well,” answered the VP of production for the beer company, “we think most of the supervisors can read, but many can only read Spanish!”

I quickly saw that we needed a complete product that paid better attention to the actual user. The product design team installed a temperature sensor that shut down the production line when the lasers over-heated and the problem was solved. In addition, the cost of a line going down is astronomical in high volume production so our customer improved training of maintenance staff to avoid the problem in the first place.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?

In my opinion, good ideas are a dime a dozen. The good ideas that succeed in the marketplace succeed because of great execution. Execution is tedious and boring to many, but when a process is followed, can bring stellar results.

Execution requires:

  • Identifying your target customer — no, they are not usually a Ph.D. in engineering or science and often are nothing like you! Who is going to use this product and learn EVERYTHING about them that you can without your personal filters!
  • Competitive Analysis — look at who else is out there and how successful are they
  • Competitive Advantage — do you have one? If not, why would anyone buy your product?
  • Product Differentiation — Whether or not you have a big competitive advantage, how will you differentiate your product?
  • Complete Product — if you want to conquer mainstream markets, be sure your product doesn’t just meet technical needs, but also addresses training, service, etc. at a high level of market acceptance.
  • Prototyping Your Product — prototypes confirm “proof of principle”, demonstrating that your idea is viable. But again, it’s a process: build prototype, often utilizing 3D Printing, test, evaluate results, iterate design, repeat. While at some point you have to stop and get to market, the more extensive your prototyping process, the better chance you’ll launch with success.
  • Designing for high volume production — think you will be successful and have to manufacture millions of parts. 3D Printing is getting so much attention today and is a great rapid prototyping tool but it is slow [read: expensive] for high volume manufacturing. Think through your volumes [consumer products for sure; aerospace not so much] and how you will build those products. This is a critical juncture since production method often impacts material choice.
  • IP — determine if strong IP is critical to your product and find a good patent attorney. Although VC’s usually are looking for a company with a strong IP portfolio, think about whether or not you can afford to defend a patent if a big player tries to copy it. Strong marketing starting with product development and being first to market — which a good prototyping process will ensure — are in my opinion as big barriers to market entry as patents.

Ok, I’m going to stop there, but you get the picture — be methodical in your processes!

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

Today with the internet that is not too hard, but you have to remember to dig deep. Go beyond company websites and look at retailers, distributors and customers. AND talk to them! Retailers and distributors are always looking for new products so they are usually excited to help you design just the item they need to be successful.

For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

I’ve already talked a bit about execution but really it’s about working with good people, be they employees, mentors partners, or consultants. I’d highly recommend connecting with the NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnerships if you have a physical product. They are in every state and give great advice.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Just 5? There are so many!

  1. Success is about people, not your product or technology, and it is most important to respect and value your team. People can read through slogans — Remember the Ford “Quality is Job 1” slogan when their products were being overtaken by Japanese quality cars and trucks? Fancy Christmas parties don’t make up for taking advantage of good, loyal people. Be genuine in your relationships and the benefits of an engaged team will fuel your success.
  2. While my partner and I genuinely respected everyone with whom we worked, it was not until I learned about LEAN, the continuous improvement program, that I saw how we could empower people to improve our operation. LEAN can be utilized in every function of the organization and while the goal is cost reduction through improved efficiency, the real power of well-implemented LEAN is creating an engaged workforce. Who knows a task better than the guy or gal doing it? So, trust that they really do want to make their own life easier and will come up with the best solution to improving tasks. As a great byproduct, people will feel empowered at work and that can only create a more satisfying workplace.
  3. Everything changes. So, be prepared to respond quickly to changes in every aspect of the business, but especially market disruptions. When Covid hit, the New Collar Network had a nice little business training workers in Santa Fe, NM as well as at about 12 remote member locations around the country. With the buildings in which we operated closing, we had to pivot to an online platform. I was not sure it would work but I had few options. We pride ourselves in our unique hands-on training on machines like 3D Printers but miraculously we found a $268 printer that could be drop-shipped to the customer and combined with our on-line digital badge micro-certifications! For less than $1,000 a student had a home printer and training to operate, maintain and repair it, as well as design in CAD software. I would not have made that move without the forced Covid shutdown and I now see the potential for a business that is exponentially larger than my original model.
  4. Entrepreneurship is more work than you can ever imagine! I often feel like the over-the-top government interest in fostering startups does not take into account that working as an entrepreneur is not for everyone. Despite well-laid plans, the unexpected will happen and the buck stops with you or your closest senior team. Employees get sick which is really challenging in a small startup, and someone has to make payroll, man a booth at a trade show, and so much more. So be sure you prepare your family and friends to understand when you miss Thanksgiving — again!
  5. There is never enough capital. My biggest mistake is always to underestimate how much money it takes to do anything. Anything and everything from product development to hiring a stellar sales closer costs much more than you expect. Plan for more funding than you think you need and then add more!

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Not enough product ideas are run past the end user…seems simple, doesn’t it? But I find inventors — like everyone — live in a little circle of like-minded people. You need to break out of your familiar mindset and talk with real potential customers to get honest feedback.

And most importantly, take their advice! Don’t sweep comments like, “Is it free?” under the rug.

Gather up data and most importantly, use ruthless critical thinking in evaluating what you have learned and how you should or should not change your ideas about the product.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

I find the most important consultants are on the technical side, especially prototyping a product that can be economically made in high volume production.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Bootstrapping is not easy without public funding such as the SBIR Small Business Innovation Research Grants. But that is how Potomac Photonics funded our lasers! All without giving up equity or having someone else trying to dictate your company’s direction. But it limits growth.

I’d advise bootstrapping to get some revenue generated and demonstrate that your business model and product works, and then to fuel growth you’ll most likely need outside funding.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

During Covid, the New Collar Network students built 30,000 face shields for the Navajo Nation and Pueblos in Northern New Mexico. While people were running around trying to figure out how to 3Dprint PPE’s, my vast experience in manufacturing found a tried and true affordable old-school method could produce high volume quickly and cheaply. Going back to die cutting!

I also believe that we can bring back the middle class and bridge the wealth gap by providing digital badge micro-certifications for New Collar Jobs like running a 3D Printer or repairing a robot with NO college degrees. My non-profit work for the New Collar Network is bringing these trainings to people across the country.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Aw…thanks for the kind words! Our digital badge micro-certification and 21st century US DOL registered apprenticeships are the start, and we now need to get more companies hiring based on skills rather than degrees. That is how true equality can happen in hiring.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I think that Warren Buffett sees what has been lost in a rush for companies to make stellar profits.

I’d love to talk with him about how we can bring back the middle class and bridge the wealth gap. We all can’t be billionaires, but people need well-paying, engaging jobs to support their families.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Making Something From Nothing: Sarah Boisvert Of New Collar Network On How To Go From Idea To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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