095: Solve End-User Pain for Consumer Product Success - MAKO Design + Invent

095: Solve End-User Pain for Consumer Product Success

MAKO Design + Invent – September 29, 2021

With Dan Soviero, Founder of Signature Athletics

Dan Soviero is the Founder of Signature Athletics, a highly successful sports gear company selling products all over the world. Dan is also a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient, and like me, started his business while back in school. Today Dan is going to share some valuable knowledge on how inventors, startups, and small manufacturers can use the power of truly understanding a customer’s pain point, and using that understanding to create and sell highly successful products.

Today you will hear us talk about:

  • A popular concept vs a problem solving concept.
  • Used the process of creating value to create more products
  • Tried whitelabelling to other brands, but couldn’t best solve the end-client’s pain points.
  • Used innovation from the end-client.
  • Use one sentence to solve a pain point for your end-customer.
  • You can come up with an invention idea by focussing on a problem and thinking hard about how to solve it.

The Product Startup Podcast
Episode 95: Solve End-User Pain for Consumer Product Success
With Dan Soviero, Founder of Signature Athletics

00:00 | Kevin Mako (KM): Hello product innovators. Today, we learned from the founder of a ten million dollar athletics gear startup on the power of focusing on solving customer’s pain points with your product.

00:12 | Voiceover: You’re listening to the Product Startup Podcast. The show that helps bring your product idea to life, by chatting with successful inventors, product developers, manufacturers, and hardware industry professionals. Our goal here is to get to the bottom of what makes a product successful, from initial idea to getting your product on store shelves. We’re taking you step by step to build a functional product and scale your product business. Hosted by Kevin Mako, one of North America’s leading experts on hardware development for small product businesses. Now, on to the show.

00:49 | KM: Welcome back everyone. Today, I’m very excited to introduce Dan Soviero to the Show. Dan is the founder of Signature Athletics, a highly successful sports gear company, selling products all over the world. Dan is also a Forbes thirty under thirty recipient. Like me, he started his business while back in school. Today, Dan is going to share some valuable knowledge and how inventors start. Small manufacturers can use the power of truly understanding a customer’s pain point and using that understanding to create and sell highly successful products. Now, on to the episode. Hey Dan, welcome to the show.

01:22 | Dan Soviero (DS): Kevin, thanks for having me. Really excited to be here.

01:24 | KM: I appreciate you taking the time, I know you’re busy doing a series A raise at a ten million dollar valuation, I know how busy that is. So thanks for taking the time to help with all your words of wisdom to the show today.

01:34 | DS: Yeah, thanks for having me, happy to make the time.

01:36 | KM: We’re excited today to talk about the value of solving a pain point and how important that is, both in the product development side of things, but also as you’re going to market. And the value of problem-solving in the marketplace with products. First and foremost, before we dive into all of that, how did this business all start for you?

01:53 | DS: Yeah, so, I grew up in South Florida, I was always a three sport athlete. I love just competing, I grew up with an older brother, I think that really helped kind of push me in sports and also in business. So, when we were younger, we just… We always wanted to make our own money. My brother kind of led the way and then I followed in his footsteps and we started with a mango stand. We would knock mangoes off the tree, set up a stand and sell them back to all the neighbors.

02:23 | DS: And then, as he aged out and went to university, I started a private lessons business, doing private lacrosse lessons for kids. And that was my first kind of exposure to management. We went from me personally doing like five lessons a week to doing like thirty lessons a week and needing to contract some of my friends to come and do the lessons. And I just organized and took some money off the top. And in the process, build a checklist, here’s what you need to go out and give a great experience to the player.

02:56 | DS: Some of these guys would forget balls, like the most basic thing. And so, I realized I wanted to start a business, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to build a team, and I wanted to do it in a way that was more scalable, with less people and not being as people intensive. And so, when I got to university, I went to St. John’s Division One Lacrosse scholarship. And as I was sitting at practice one day, a ball ricocheted off the post, hit me in the back, I picked it up and I was like, light bulb moment, this is it. All these balls are the same, we can make a better ball, and that was it.

03:34 | KM: And you’ve made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and then obviously the Signature Athletics has become a great success startup story. Talk more about Signature Athletics and what they do.

03:44 | DS: So, at the end of 2020, we created Signature Athletics, which is the parent company of Signature Lacrosse. Signature Athletics is a tech enabled sports apparel brand that’s changing the way players get their gear and what they can expect out of their gear, by transforming the traditional bulk order process to an on-demand model.

04:06 | KM: Talk about that more. How does that work? I know you’re into a number of different products in this space as well. So it’s interesting you’ve got the apparel side, but you’ve also worked on the balls, and other things in and around the sports. But all with this concept of, you know, focusing on really solving a major pain point with your customer, how did that experience start as well? Because, I really… You know, I talked to you before the show about how you try, you know, something that was popular versus something that really solved the pain point and really found a clear winner there.

04:33 | DS: In 2016 or 2015, I was playing lacrosse at St. John’s, had this idea for the better ball, went ahead, got a sales job that summer, made enough commission to invest in our first container of balls to bring over to the states. I thought, you know, I’m going to sell these balls over the course of 12 months, it’s about one hundred and twenty thousand dollars worth of sales, this will give me enough cash to pay for my living expenses. And when the container… Before the container even arrived, as it was on the water, I was able to pre-sell the entire container in thirty days.

05:10 | DS: And I called up all the coaches that had recruited me, all the colleges, and, no I’m not going to transfer, but, you should buy these balls. And then, fortunately, the lacrosse community is incredibly supportive. So, that product’s market fit became really clear, so we ordered the second container, started to bring it in. I started to think about my time and playing division one… Playing a division one sport, and then taking a full class load, is ten, twelve hour days, and then you throw a company on top of that and it’s just an unrealistic workload.

05:49 | DS: So, after my freshman year, I decided, I’m going to transfer to division two. I can still get a full ride scholarship, and I’ll have less of a time commitment to the sport, to playing, and I can focus more on the business. And so, when I transferred from St John’s down to University of Tampa, that process was about six to nine months, from the time I made the decision, until actually making my way down to Tampa. Over the course of that six to nine months, we were able to get up to like four or five hundred K in sales.

06:22 | DS: We started to look at hiring. I started looking at hiring my first team member, that quickly came to a second, a third, a fourth. And then, at the end of my sophomore year, we were just over a million in annual sales. We were up to four full-time employees, and I was learning more in a thirty minute conversation with a mentor than I was in an entire course, at university. So, I made the decision to drop out, focus full-time on the business. I started to just inundate myself in business books, Good to Great, Traction, all the classics.

07:02 | DS: And one thing I was reading at the time was about, as you’re building a team, you don’t want to build in silos. You want to be really collaborative, especially in that early stage. And so, connecting the end client with the product is super, super important. And so, I’m thinking to myself, okay, when we just hired our first sales guy, how can I keep him really pumped? We have this awesome ball, we’re going to… What’s the next product in the pipeline that’s going to really give us more to sell? And at the time, I wasn’t thinking like, who are we? And what’s our identity? I was thinking, what’s another cool product we can sell?

07:48 | DS: And so, our sales guy is on the phone, he’s making all these calls, he’s doing this… Fidget spinners were big at the time, and, as he’s doing this, I’m sitting there looking at him and I’m like, huh, what if you put a fidget spinner on the… As the end cap for the lacrosse stick. That would be a cool, like knickknack product, retailers could put it at the front of their store on the checkout counter, it’s a nice upsell, and so, we embarked on that product. About nine months later, we brought the product to market, we did a big rollout, we launched on social media.

08:28 | DS: We had, I think, close to a thousand people shared the video of the fidget spinner, butt end, when we first released it. Which is… On social media, to get a thousand people to share in a direct message, one of your pieces of content is ridiculous, it’s awesome! The caveat to that was, the number of actual purchases was about ten. So, even though we had this highly shareable piece of content about this new product, we got a ton of awareness around it, it didn’t fundamentally solve the problem. And at that point, everybody probably had a fidget spinner.

09:10 | DS: So what’s the difference between a fidget spinner and then having one that can also go on the end of your lacrosse stick when you’re not even going to end up using it in a game? That doesn’t solve a problem, it doesn’t make you perform better, there’s no real benefit. So, that was a real eye-opener for me personally, to take a step back and say, okay, we just spent six months, we spent a chunk of change, what’s the lesson that we learned? And how are we going to take that and apply it moving forward, so that we don’t make the same mistake twice? Which is something we talk about internally all the time as part of our culture.

09:50 | DS: And so, when we took a step back and we really compared, what did our premium lacrosse ball solve? What did the fidget spinner butt end solve? What was the difference? And the lacrosse ball solves a very clear problem. The traditional lacrosse balls in the market go bad in about two weeks, ours lasted twice as long, now it lasts even longer. But, it lasted twice as long, so players were able to get more reps out of every ball, which increased the ability for the coach to have a great practice, for the players to have a great practice. And then, what did the fidget spinner solve? Nothing!

10:31 | DS: And so, that was when we made the decision, okay, at our core, any product we bring to market has to solve a very clear problem that we can communicate in one sentence or less. And if we can’t do that in our initial product report, our IPR, we call it, then we’re not even going to develop the product.

10:53 | KM: That’s very powerful stuff. And I really like the fact that you did this through experience, you’ve tried both avenues, essentially. And that is a tough thought process, as you’re going through as an inventor developer, a lot of these features or ideas that you think of, it doesn’t necessarily trickle down to true value for the customer. And hindsight’s 20/20, and everybody is sitting there thinking, well, that’s obvious or whatever else, that the fidget spinner might not have been as successful as the performance ball.

11:23 | KM: But, I can tell you, I’ve seen it in working with hundreds and hundreds of startups in the product space, where it’s easy to get kind of consumed in the moment and be thinking about sales, or be thinking about uniqueness, or especially, in your situation, you guys must’ve been on cloud nine when you had all that success on social media. Because it seemed like market validation, but the reality was, that it just didn’t solve the pain point to the point where somebody would actually whip out their credit card to purchase the thing. So this is an incredibly powerful story.

11:53 | KM: And, what I love about that is, you use those lessons, you learn… You use that failure to reinforce your brand and to figure out the brand values that you would never go forward with another product, unless it solved a major problem for somebody. And what I really like about it, is that you can highlight that problem in one sentence. And I think that’s something very powerful for anyone who’s got an invention idea or a product idea, no matter what stage you are in development, think about it. Can you describe this accurately in one sentence? And does that one sentence really seem like it hits home with solving a pain point?

12:28 | DS: Yeah, and then go validate that one sentence solves a problem, by going in and talking with your clients, and saying, hey, here’s a problem that we’re going to set out to solve. If we solve it this way, would that be a solution you’d be willing to pay for? Would you be willing to pay more for it than what you’re using right now? It really… The way we kind of thought about it was, when you truly solve a problem, it’s timeless, when you follow a trend, there’s a lifespan. And when you’re bringing a product to market, everyone can say, and you run a great company that I’m sure has a timeline and a process for bringing products to market, should happen.

13:13 | DS: You know, like the supply chain gets completely disrupted, because a container ship gets stuck in a canal, like, and all your product that you’re bringing in the market is on that container ship. Like, so, things happen, timelines get delayed, timelines get sped up, and getting the timing right to launch a product that’s trend-based, there’s so much risk, versus if you really fundamentally solve a problem that’s timeless. You’re going to have clients at the door, at any point when you do launch.

13:52 | KM: Absolutely! Tell me a bit more about how you use this to actually scale your product business beyond the ball.

14:01 | DS: Yeah. So, after we went through the fidget spinner button experience, we took a step back and we started to think, okay, at the time we… Community is something that’s really important to me and my wife, Maddie. And so, when I did decide to drop out, I had… I was working twelve to fifteen hour days between lacrosse, school, and the business. And I made a conscious choice, I didn’t want to lose that work ethic. And so, as soon as we launched, I said, okay, or as soon as I dropped out, we launched another business. And that was a community-based youth sports management company.

14:46 | DS: And so, I… My wife really runs that business and has done an incredible job. There’s now like five hundred kids in the programs that she works with. It’s all here locally in Florida, and it allowed me to continue doing something that I’m really passionate about, which is coaching the next generation of athletes. So, I’ve always coached… Since I was probably sixteen years old, I’ve coached. So, over ten years now, and I usually end up coaching the younger age group, ten, eight, and nine year olds. And when I went out at the beginning of the season, I was restringing twenty nine out of the thirty sticks on the team and the thirtieth kid, I was just like, here, take my stick, because I don’t want to string another stick.

15:34 | DS: I played division one lacrosse, and these kids who are showing up with the stick that they bought from Dick Sporting Goods or wherever, I can’t even throw with that stick. So we know this is a fundamental problem, if we solve it, it’s actually going to increase retention across the entire sport, which is going to grow this sport, which is going to grow our market. And that’s really the biggest opportunity within the niche sports, is, how can you grow participation? And so, we took a step back and we said, can we make a pro-strung stick? As if I strung it, that’s game ready, right off the shelf.

16:13 | DS: And, super easy to think about and say, and I thought for six months, no problem. Three trips to China later, I spent a month at a time over there, it took about 18 months. We ended up figuring out that the factories that were making the sticks, the factory workers thought that they were sandals. They thought they went on your foot, they didn’t even know what it was used for. And so, having the coaching background, me and my wife, I took her over there on my second trip, and I was like, we got to give these factory workers at the clinic…

16:52 | DS: We got to show them what the sticks can be used for. So we taught them how to pass, how to catch, we showed them videos of games, we showed them… We went outside to a field and we actually played. And, by the end of it, they were like, you could see it kind of click. And they started to understand why we had this 250 page stringing manual, and why we had this intense quality control process, and how important it was to… The… Increasing the probability that a kid has a successful experience with the sport. And so, we brought that product to market. I had, growing up, broken an insane amount of sticks, because I was very physical as a player.

17:38 | DS: And so, when we went over to Asia for the first… To build the shaft for the stick, we brought… I brought over my favorite shaft, the one that I used all growing, and I said, we want to make a shaft like this, it’s scandium and titanium infused metal. I took it to a scandium factory, the guy whips out a knife, the factory owner, he scrapes the metal with a knife and he just starts cracking up. And I was like, what’s this guy laughing at? Like, I’m sitting in a car, I don’t understand what he’s saying and he’s just laughing at me. There isn’t an ounce of scandium in this product. And I was like, really? Huh.

18:16 | DS: And it turns out that one of the other brands in the sport, who I won’t name, just had a sticker on the shaft that said it was scandium, but there wasn’t actually any scandium in it. And so, when we took… There wasn’t even titanium in it, it was alloy. And so, that really pissed me off, because I had broken so many sticks and… So part of our go to market for this pro-strung stick that comes game ready, right off the shelf was, let’s offer the first lifetime warranty, and let’s really push the whole market forward, and make it so that everybody has to build products, not built with obsolescence, but built to actually perform.

19:00 | DS: And so, we were able to do that, and then, we looked at what are the other problems in the market that our clients have, that we could solve. And stringing a net to a gold frame takes about two hours, so, we created a quick connect goal that takes about five minutes. And so, between our balls, our sticks, our goals, we had… We’ve done about over ten million in sales, in the last four years, just with Signature Lacrosse. And so, through that process, about two years ago, we took a step back and we said what’s a broader sport agnostic problem that we could solve, that would really help make these sports more accessible?

19:52 | DS: Help get more kids involved, and give more kids the same experiences that we were fortunate enough to have, through sports growing up. And, that was where we decided the biggest problem in the market is, ordering uniforms, and fan gear, and equipment, custom with your team’s branding on it is a nightmare. It sucks for the program, it sucks for the parent, it sucks for the player, and most importantly, it sucks for the program director. Because it’s plagued with time consuming and efficiencies, there’s way too many cooks in the kitchen and it’s filled with errors. So, we solved that problem.

20:38 | DS: And that was what prompted us to create Signature Athletics. And we raised a seed round at the end of last year. And then, now we’re in the middle of our series A. We’ve proved the concept in Lacrosse and now we’re getting ready to scale all the other sports.

20:57 | KM: What’s so powerful about these stories is, they all come back to solving a pain point. What I find quite interesting is that a lot of inventors, or want to be inventors, folks who say, you know what, I haven’t come up with that aha moment. I think your story is very powerful to say, look around you and start with the pain point. Because, especially when you were working on the sticks, the fact that you really identified the pain points, and then you were able to just, through will, and time, and effort, figure out ways to solve that.

21:28 | KM: It wasn’t that the solution was there in front of you on day one, it wasn’t that the invention idea popped into your head and you said, okay, I’m going to solve… I figured this out. But what you did do, and it seems to be your brand promise and really what is at the core essence of your business is, you’ve searched for the problems first, and then once you find… Once you see the problem, then you go, you know, as hard as you can to try and figure that out. If you can’t find the solution, I’m assuming you move on. But most of the time, you know, human nature is, if you have enough curiosity and if you really care about what you’re doing, and if you are noticing that there’s a major pain point out there, you will find the way like you did with all of the things that you mentioned.

22:09 | KM: And that’s so powerful, not just for people who don’t have an idea, but even if you’re sitting on your product idea, you’re in development, or you’re thinking of your next version of your product, it’s very powerful to consider how all of that factors in, really focusing on the pain points, which really is the core messaging here, and then working backwards to how technically you’re going to solve them. And we do that all the time, at the design firm, at MAKO Design. Because it’s continually a blend of, okay, I’ve got this solution, mixed with, well, I partially have the solution, but I also have this problem with either a specific part of the product, or piece of the market, or whatever else.

22:46 | KM: And then we work collaboratively, to actually find the solution there. But it all starts with that aha moment, that isn’t the invention itself. It’s really identifying the problem, the pain point, and everybody, no matter what walk of life, no matter where you live, no matter what you’re doing, you can find those pain points in your own life. And then just start thinking and theorizing, how am I going to solve those problems? Because Dan, you’re a perfect example of somebody who’s done that over and over and over, just based on this theory.

23:13 | DS: Yeah. I’m flattered, and I really appreciate it. But also, I think there’s value in that one sentence, and the reason that there’s so much value in that one sentence, that communicates the solution to the problem is, it forces you to not get lost in the development process. Because a lot of times when you go through the development process, it’s like, well this feature would be nice to add, this feature would be nice to add, this feature would be nice to add.

23:50 | KM: Yeah, we call it feature creep.

23:51 | DS: Yeah. Feature creep, that’s a great way of describing it. And at the end of the day, when you’re solving a problem, you want to get an MVP out and in the market, and you want to get that client feedback, that feedback loop is so critical. Because, what you think is the right solution to the problem, might not be what the clients think is the right solution to the problem. Or it might not be… It might be the same solution, you might just need to communicate it differently, or you might need to add one feature, or you might need to tweak one thing in your sales process. There’s… When you’re solving a fundamental problem, you’re typically changing behavior within your client as well, and that’s hard.

24:38 | DS: A lot of people don’t want to change, and so, when you’re getting your MVP out to the market and you don’t overload it with all these features, it’s an easier adoption, and it’s an easier opportunity for your clients to give you quality feedback on what would make this more easily adopted by the masses. And not just that, those early adopters.

25:03 | KM: I love how you mentioned MVP. It’s something we talk a lot about on the show, of getting a really good quality product out there, that solves one major pain point, maybe one or two key features. Do those features at a high grade, make it great. And you can afford to do that, if you’re focused, as opposed to, if you try and do everything, many things are going to collapse or you’re just simply not going to have the resources. So first and foremost, get the MVP version out there, but done at a high quality, then listen to your customers.

25:33 | KM: And Dan, I want to segue that into your story about white labeling, that we talked about before the show, how you started white labeling to these major brands was just an incredible leap of basically distribution exposure. However, it didn’t really stick to the core model, can you explain how all that worked and what the kind of learning points were out of that?

25:55 | DS: Yeah. So, when we first got started, like I had said I was in college and so, I was managing a full student athlete division one schedule, and as the container was coming over, I was able to get the complete container sold in thirty days, in the summer. And so, I was able to allocate a lot of time to that, I was working like twelve, fifteen hour days, in the summer. But then, when school started back up and athletics started back up, I realized time was going to be a huge bottleneck for me. And so, I thought about, alright, well, what’s our average order value right now?

26:40 | DS: And it was a couple, like a thousand or two thousand dollars, it wasn’t huge. And so, I thought, okay, well, who buys the most balls at one time in the market? And then I thought, well, Under Armour is a big player, maybe I should just go talk with them. And so, I figured out how to get in touch with the licensing group that was responsible for all their lacrosse equipment. I pitched them on the idea, they loved it, we signed a three-year agreement, and we started working on it. Where they put in their initial orders, and so, that got us a ton of distribution, a ton of sales, it was relatively easy to manage.

27:30 | DS: And then, what we realized was, solving that one problem with the ball wasn’t enough. We wanted to do… We wanted to solve it… We wanted to keep improving and iterating on that solution. And then, we also wanted to solve other problems. And so, as part of the iteration to the ball, it was okay, well… If you look at the history of a lacrosse ball, it’s gone from being a leather bound ball, to a porcelain ball, to… At one point it was like, a fish skull was used as the ball, with the native Americans. So there’s been all these different iterations, and, it’s natural that there would be a next evolution of the ball and we want to be the ones driving that.

28:21 | DS: And so, that’s not going to happen when we’re white labeling, and we’re not going to really be able to do that if we’re not in touch with that end consumer. And so, we made the decision that white labeling wasn’t the path for us, even though we were doing a couple million in sales, it was… We really need to go direct to the consumer, it’s going to give us a much healthier margin to reinvest into that innovation. And it’s going to give us that feedback loop with the end consumer, so we can really start to understand, as we’re developing this next generation of a ball.

28:58 | DS: What do the clients… What do the players want? What do the coaches want? What do the refs want? What do the fans want? And what we ended up nailing down through that process is, there were really three key things. The ball needs to improve the safety, for the players, the ball needs to be more digitally visible. So, everything is moving… Everything is already on your phone, if you can’t track the ball the way you can track a hockey pocket, a hockey game, like it’s going to be hard to watch. And then, the ball has to improve performance.

29:33 | DS: So, there’s ways to engineer the ball. If you think about the technology behind a golf ball, it’s not a perfectly round ball, there’s those divots in it. So there’s ways to innovate the actual design of the ball to make it more aerodynamic. And so, all of that came from client feedback, it didn’t come from us just sitting behind closed doors and thinking about a solution. It was… what would really solve… What does the next generation look like? How does it solve this problem? What are the problems that it could solve?

30:09 | KM: And tons of great lessons here for hardware startups. Really appreciate your time being on the show today. How can people find out more about Signature Athletics?

30:18 | DS: Yeah. You can follow me on LinkedIn, Dan Soviero-Signature Athletics, or you can check out our website, signaturelacrosse.com. And, we are raising our series A round for anybody interested. And, yeah, I really appreciate being on the show. Thanks so much for having Kevin.

30:42 | KM: Thanks, Dan. And as always, I’ll put all those show links into the episode notes and what. So whether you’re listening to it, or whether you’re looking at it on YouTube or wherever else, you can just tune in and check out the links below. Dan, thanks again for being on the show, much appreciated.

30:54 | DS: Thanks Kevin.

30:55 | Voiceover: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Product Startup Podcast. The show that teaches you what it really takes to bring your product to market and turn it into a big success. This podcast series is brought to you by MAKO Design + Invent, the original and leading firm in North America to provide global caliber end-to-end, physical consumer product development to startups, inventors, and small product business clients. If you’re looking for product development help on your invention, head over to Makodesign.com. That’s M-A-K-O design.com, for a free consultation from one of MAKO Design’s four design studios from coast to coast. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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About Us: MAKO Design + Invent is the original firm providing world-class consumer product development services tailored to small businesses, startups, and inventors. Simply put, we are the leading one-stop-shop for developing your physical product from idea to store shelves, all in a high-quality, cost-effective, and timely manner. We operate as one powerhouse 30-person product design team spread across 4 offices to serve you (Austin, Miami, San Francisco, & Toronto). We have full-stack in-house industrial design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, patent referral, prototyping, and manufacturing services. To assist our startup and inventor clients, in addition to above, we help with business strategy, product strategy, marketing, and sales/distribution for all consumer product categories. Also, our founder Kevin Mako hosts The Product Startup Podcast, the industry’s leading hardware podcast. Check it out for tips, interviews, and best practices for hardware startups, inventors, and product developers. Feel free to Contact Us anytime for help with your project.