My journey to Lean Learning with the ChefShield experiment

My name is Mark Larman. I’m the Founder of the ChefShield Corporation. One day my girlfriend was cooking burgers on the stove when she let out a huge “Ouuuuuch!!” We were actually having a conversation at the time, so I was watching her while this took place and felt somewhat guilty as I smirked at the site of her dodging these tiny little bullets of oil. Of course, there wasn’t much oil in the pan at the time, so she wasn’t hurt too bad and didn’t mind me finding it slightly entertaining. Cooking fish on the other hand, I found out a few nights later, is no laughing matter. Anyway, when the immediate humor of the scenario subsided I actually felt slightly guilty. Guilty not just for finding it funny, even though she too managed to laugh at her battle to safely flip the meat without getting scalded, but guilty because if all goes well ;-) I’m asking this woman to go through this for me on a regular basis. Of course, I’d already experienced being burned in a similar fashion, but our relationship is reasonably new and as a bachelor I admittedly didn’t cook much. So how could this reasonably go on for years to come. There has to be an answer! Then “Eureka!” I thought of The ChefShield. Which was actually first named the Spatulumbrella. So the original idea for the ChefShield was basically to create a spatula with a shield on the front to block the oil from hitting the cook, with an added cone shaped poncho on the back to protect your forearm if you were to reach to the back of the pan and push the tool deeper than the shield.

A little research led me to understand that there weren’t any similar products on the market, and that over 43 million spatulas were sold every year in the US. I ran the idea by a few friends and got positive responses, so I promptly found a good patent attorney and filed a provisional patent; admittedly not such a lean undertaking, but I felt it to be a necessary step to move forward. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Now I went on to interview engineering teams, NDAs in hand, and selected the team that actually started sketching my idea during our meeting, while also not asking for a pound of flesh on the invoice; The Prototype House. During that timeframe I had the idea that we should make the “spatula” end-piece interchangeable so that you could swap out different shapes and materials to consolidate the proverbial cylinder full of cooking tools into one. This also allowed us to focus on engineering one main tool instead of having to sell a different ChefShield for every fork/spoon/deep fry strainer and other shape on the market. A week after contracting the engineering team I had my second, and much more artistic, sketch of what the ChefShield would grow to be.

You’ll notice that we did away with “the forearm poncho” in the spirit of creating a “minimum viable product.” But we’ve still got plans to incorporate that piece in future versions.

Then came the 1st 3-D image.

Then after some feedback to make the shield wider, we had something we could run with. The top and the bottom shields are controlled independently by two buttons on the handle and they are able to sit flat against the stem of the tool, raised at 45°, or at 90°. This also helps with the forearm coverage that I mentioned.

“Now we’re talkin’!” I showed a few store managers at Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, and Sur La Table and they liked it. They acknowledged that they didn’t have any tools to solve the oil splash back burning problem effectively. The splatter guards were only found in Bed Bath & Beyond at the time, but they still required you to lift them up to work with the food, while also locking in moisture; which could change the cooking style. The managers also found the interchangeable end-pieces feature very interesting as one noted that kitchens are getting smaller and people are stuffing more things into their drawers. This manager almost seemed more interested in the interchangeable piece than the shield, which I would come witness in some of my surveys done during the experiment.

I first met Adam Berk at the Venture Hive in Miami, where he hosted a Lean Startup event. I remembered his teaching based on Startup hypothesis’ and thought this would be perfect for an experiment, so I sent Adam an email with my hypothesis. A couple of emails and comments later on the Lean Startup Trello page and I had the following hypothesis for testing:

“I believe that if The ChefShield Corporation set up a website landing page with a payment processing form and a looping video of a functional ChefShield, rotating, opening and closing, along with an explanation of the value proposition in preventing cooking oil burns while offering the ability to consolidate multiple cooking tools into one, that we could get 100 pre-orders, for $20 each, within 30 days. I need $10,000 to complete the second half of the prototype development, manufacture 1 working prototype, build a website, and pay for the website hosting.”

Adam let me know to run my own preliminary experiment to sell 10 ChefShields first, and then we could work on the larger online experiment in the form of my website or via one of the established crowdfunding sites; which would be advantageous given their traffic.

So I was off to the races!! Laminated 3-D image, square mobile payments app, and newly minted business cards in hand I decided it would be wise to go door to door. I got to 15 houses on the first day. I suppose I forgot what it’s like to pitch people in their homes, besides the fact that many people weren’t home at all. Either way, I’d sold my first 3 ChefShields, letting them know we’d deliver the product in August and also received some great feedback even from those that didn’t buy. The people that didn’t buy still thought it was a great product idea, but they expressed that they don’t fry food anymore so they wouldn’t make use of it. I also felt a bit of skepticism from some of them around the pre-ordering and giving me cash in hand with only a picture of a product to come. But when I stopped my by parents’ house on the way home and let them know what I was up to, I was promptly met with shock that I would be so bold and told that this door-to-door strategy was not wise. A little thought led me to believe they were right. I was reminded that soliciting people’s homes was illegal, and that anyone could mistake me for an intruder or a threat and shoot me while leveraging Florida’s infamous “Stand your ground” law; at least supposedly. So after promising not to knock on any more front doors, I was off to the mall a couple of days later. It turns out that chasing people down to talk in the mall is actually pretty tough. I was nearly always met with a crazy look that said “what do you want and why are you holding me up.” I quickly learned that starting off with “can I ask you a few quick questions” was not going to work and dodging mall security was no fun, so I abandoned that strategy too. So instead, over the next 2 weeks I pitched everyone I saw and didn’t feel too imposing to speak with about the product. My landlord bought one, my maintenance man, my girlfriend of course, and a few people at a barbecue.

Then came the 3-D printed prototype!

Now I was on a roll. Doing double-time, I found myself selling pre-orders everywhere from local meetups to the cashier at the grocery store. Before I knew it I was past 10, into the teens, and now I’ve sold 25 as of yesterday. I even met a woman along the way that’s offered to use the partnerships she has in place to help get us on the Home Shopping Network.

So what have I learned?

1. People will buy the product

2. We could sell more than 100 given the right exposure and platform. This has led me to believe that our first launch should be via Kickstarter versus my own personal website. Many people I spoke to actually suggested Kickstarter as well.

3. Approximately half of the people I showed loved the shielding from burns feature and found that the interchangeable end-pieces was a nice to have, and half thought the opposite. This threw me off at first, but it’s understandable.

Surprises that I didn’t expect

1. People own an average of 10 kitchen tools, 4 of which being spatulas.

2. Spatulas are changed on the frequent end, annually, and on the infrequent end, never.

3. My own solution of wearing plastic gloves to shield from being burned was unwise as people gave me reports of the oil melting the plastic on their hands and getting an even worse burn.

I got the following notable product feedback:

1. Make the end-pieces as thin and flexible as possible.

2. Be sure to include a deep-fry strainer in the core set of end-pieces.

3. Consider the size of the shield and ways to make it smaller when not being used. The shields will also be detachable for easy washing and size changes depending on particular style of cooking or the user’s skill-level. I’d actually had the thought at first to design the shield to collapse in a similar fashion to a Chinese hand fan, so we may evolve the product towards that after the original MVP’s launch.

4. (Eventually) Offer various colors and custom logo/design options. Some people tried to pre-order different colors, but I couldn’t make any guarantees along those lines. The proposition to put a University’s logo on the shield and sell the product in the bookstore also came up.

So this preliminary experiment was a success and based on these learnings I would identify that there is a viable market that is willing to pay for the ChefShield. Based on these results I will move forward with the completion of the development of the working product, film the video of the ChefShield being used with interchangeable end-pieces, and run a 30-day Kickstarter campaign.

I’ll follow up with the results as soon as they’re available. We’ve recently completed the technical drawings and specifications so we’re ready to move forward with the production our first working unit. I expect to be able to launch our Kickstarter campaign by the end of June.

Stay tuned!