On the show with me today is a woman by the name of Sha Yao, and she has created something very unique. Sha’s product is intended to help people who have dementia have an easier time feeding themselves.

This is something that I really didn’t know anything about when I first spoke with Sha. When I heard how much effort she put into product research and product development and in the manufacturing process and so forth I was really, really impressed with what she was able to accomplish. I think that you are going to be in for a really interesting interview not so much from a marketing perspective but from everything that happens before the marketing happens.

Sha’s company has gone on to be really quite successful with almost no marketing because of everything she did early on in her journey in her research phase, in her prototyping and design phase and in her manufacturing phase and the crowd funding that she did.

If you have an interest in product development, as well as the story of Sha Yao’s journey, then take a listen to today’s podcast!

Full Transcript

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Trent: Welcome back to another episode of the Bright Ideas e commerce Podcast, I am your host Trent Dyrsmid and I’m here to help you to discover what works in e-Commerce by shining a light on the tools, the tactics and the strategies that are in use by today’s leading e-Commerce entrepreneurs.

On the show with me today is a woman by the name of Sha Yao and she has created what is really kind of an unusual product as far as mainstream products go. She’s created a product that is intended to help people who have dementia to have an easier time feeding themselves.

This is something that I really didn’t know anything about and when I did the pre-interview with Sha and I saw how much effort she put into product research and product development and in the manufacturing process and so forth I was really, really impressed with what she was able to accomplish and so I think that you are going to be in for a really interesting interview not so much from a marketing perspective but from everything that happens before the marketing happen and her company has actually gone on to be really quite successful with almost no marketing because of everything she did early on in her journey in her research phase, in her prototyping and design phase and in her manufacturing phase and the crowd funding that she did. So this is a really interesting story and I think you’re in for a special treat so please join me in welcoming Sha to the show; hi Sha welcome to the show.  

Sha: Hi,

Trent: So, it’s a pleasure to have you here; for the folks who aren’t yet terribly familiar with who you are, let’s start with that, who are you and what do you do?  

Sha: My name is Sha Yao and I am an entrepreneur who designs and develop and sell dining wares that’s called ‘Eat Well’ which is a dining set I designed for people to eat independently.  

Trent: Cool so that’s a very niche product. Let’s try and give the audience an idea of kind of where your business is at, these days is there a big success metric that you can share either number of customers or how many units you’ve sold or revenue or something along those lines so they have some idea of where your business is at today.  

Sha: Of course we’re based in Baria, Silicon Valley and after we launched our product, our products have been used in more than 10,000 families and hospitals and facilities.

Trent: All right cool so you’ve definitely got some traction so far; so before we get into the story of how you created the business and came up with the idea and so forth, I just want to dive into a little bit about you. Where did you grow up? And was there any stories from your childhood that indicated that you might become an entrepreneur one day?  

Sha: Of course I was born and raised in Taiwan, it’s a small island but I believe that people who have visit there know that we are very passionate to people. And when I grow up I actually didn’t even think about I will be an entrepreneur; my dream was to work for a big company. But what I know is I have a passion in design and I believe that good design can change people’s life and make better life quality.

Trent: And so what were you doing just before you started your company?

Sha: Before I started my company, I worked for a guitar design company in San Francisco.

Trent: What kind of design company?

Sha: A guitar, we design and produce carbon fiber guitars which are very unique and the sound is in a very good quality.  

Trent: And so to be clear, design is really your passion, that’s what you went to school for it, that’s where your education is and you were headed down a career in design until you came up with this idea. Correct?  

Sha: Correct! Exactly! My major in college is really in my advanced degree is in Industrial Design which is making physical product design.

Trent: Okay, so now that brings us to the idea itself you do have a particularly call it not mainstream product and then let’s get you to explain kind of what it is first and then explain how you came up with the idea for it.  

Sha: Sure. It’s a dining ware set which includes bowls and cups and spoons and is a very powerful set that I came up with the idea because of design this sad is because I was inspired by my grandmother who have dementia. So I don’t know how many people who are listening to the broadcast know about this but dementia is something that once you are diagnosed with it there is no current cure.  

And your family members will be we all will have to be your caretakers to take care of you almost 24 hours a day and eventually they make everyone’s life not that easy. So I grow up with it because my grandmother had that and my mom and my uncle was the primary caregivers.

So, when I saw my grandmother became not able to eat by herself, also by my family’s size, they have to take care of her and it is not an easy task to do. So that’s why when I got a chance to design something I really want to contribute myself and I know I’m not a doctor to cure her but I know I can definitely design something to make her life easier.

Trent: So what did that process without going too far into the School of Design but I am curious what did that process kind of look like when you think, “Okay, so here is this problem that I want to solve, my grandmother can’t feed herself, I want to enable her to do that” at a high level, walk me through the process that you went through.  

Sha: The process is— it’s varies but for my product in the very beginning I actually didn’t really focus on eating but I chose to work— I decided to come up with the idea to develop something for people with dementia. So I the first step is, I volunteer in the Adult Day Care centers and to work with professional caregivers and to figure out what kind of problems that people with dementia may have during the whole day.

And also on the other side, what tasks will the professional caregivers do to help people with dementia. And after that, I record every small details then I separate those problems during a day for example, the three directions I came up after observations for one year.

The first one is about wandering off problems. So it’s a very unique problems they may have is to wandering off in the street. It’s like maybe they go buy some groceries and they forget how to get home. Yeah. In the second direction, it’s about their interaction so they will be liking of socializing skills, so I really wanted to develop something to let to be Bo especially my grandmother to have some media to communicate with me, that’s the second direction.

And the third direction is about the things I’m doing. It’s about daily activities. So it’s including passing getting clothes on and eating and walking and everything. Yeah. So I nail down the direction and I started to clean up some scratches, drawings to show the professional caregivers and ask for their opinions.

And after that they think eating is really one of the very potential their action to go on because most of the caregivers have to assist them to eat at least twice a day and it’s a private primary you need everyone to do. And once they eat less or the way they have a weight loss problem and their house condition will dramatically go bad. So that’s the reason why I go for this direction as the first step.  

Trent: Okay, so a fair amount of research on the front end and then you decided to probably come up with some prototypes I’m guessing prototypes into the hand of these people, got some feedback, made some revisions and ultimately settled on a design that satisfy the need or the problem that you were trying to solve. Now that in time, you really still weren’t planning on starting a company were you?

Sha: Oh I didn’t, I was just trying to do something good to people like my grandmother and also their family caretakers. But during the time I did a research at the design I reached out to Alzheimer’s Association and also support groups in many cities and I also attended numerous caregiving events like the annual biggest event in the country.

So, I definitely need those people and they keep asking say, “Okay, I think it’s it is a really good idea, so I wish after we talk and we can really receive the product later” and that’s why I started to have that kind of idea like to produce the product. But in the very beginning to be honest I didn’t really plan, I didn’t have any plan to make it to the market yet.  

Trent: Like you made a handful of products to be able to give to your grandmother and whoever else but it’s not like you went and did a production run. Okay, so now we’re at the point of commercialization. What were some of the first steps that you took once you decided, “Hey there’s a business opportunity here” What were some of the first steps you took to launch the business?  

The first step is I came out of a business plan, so although many people said it’s not as out of date and but I personally I think is very helpful. It actually helps me to put all my resources together and to realize what is my weakness. For example during that time I barely have any funding by my time outside and I didn’t want to ask for any money from my family as well. And but I do know the importance of the marketing and the sales strategies or the best. It’s a fast way now to you know events just have some exposure in social media.

So in my business plan I think like, “Okay, this is what I can’t do” I can’t attend a few design challenges or competitions and to help me spread the words.  

And also I attend I definitely attended a few a lot of events actually in Beria to see what kind of pitching skills I need and how people see this as if they are like me. And so I talked to a lot of people during that time. Then I chose to run to run a crowdfunding campaign during that time.

And before that, one of my strategies actually works so I attended the Stanford Design Challenge, the topic during that time was specifically they wanted design to help seniors to have a better quality of life. So I was very excited when I attended because I never think about there will be some people have the same goal as me to help those peoples in need.

And I was lucky to be the first to win first place and also receive not much like $10,000 during that time, although it’s not much. I always tell people it actually helps a little bit because after tax it’s only $6,000. And it’s also when I also since I also file my patent so it’s actually just a little bit compensation but the benefit comes with it is I was able to present my work in front of 200 very prominent, very professional industry pioneers and that really opened many doors for me. And also it helps me to run a successful crowdfunding campaign 2months later or a few months later.

Trent: Okay so in a nutshell you decided to write a business plan as a part of that you decided that you would enter design contests, you end up winning one of those contests which gave you exposure and gave you a little bit of money and then after that you ran a crowdfunding campaign, do I have that right?  

Sha: Yeah and the campaign actually goes well at least during that time since I didn’t know any marketing skills or I didn’t spend any money on the ad besides except that the costs for making the video altogether, I actually received a lot of help from my previous classmates and also friends and families.

For example, I have someone to shoot the professional products photos for me in the school studio and I personally practice and to film the video by myself like at least five times and to come up with the best script I can ever have. And so just you know put at risk for forced together and to come up with a good and decent crowdfunding campaign page. And it helps me raise $100,000 during that time and some very satisfied with the outcome and it also helps me to have my first funding to round the production.  

Trent: Yeah, no kidding $100,000 is a meaningful amount of money to have one right when you’re at the very beginning of your journey. So you now have your crowdfunding campaign complete, you have $100,000 in the bank, what happened next?

Sha: What happened next is another challenge for me so the manufacturing process is actually very tricky and if people ask me some opinions that the mistake I will never take next time when I do it is the manufacturing process actually. So it’s a very specific job, if you people don’t have experience, I’ll definitely strongly suggest people to go there and to visit the factories and even one day produce a product. You will have to stay there and monitoring everything and is very tricky that almost the successful manufacturers, they’re all very busy.

So if you are a very young startup company and your orders will not be able to compete with Dell or Apple or someone else big company big then you’ll have to stay there and be friends wisdom otherwise you will never work on your product and you’ll receive the defected quality of products.

Trent: So how long did you stay there for?

Sha: Back and forth I think during the year, I at least stayed there for more than half a year and it’s really just a very standard thing and but in the end of the journey I received the product in good quality and is totally satisfying my customers as well and also because of that I have learned so much.

And another thing is since the feedback is really well, it definitely helps us to be featured in many big name mediums like Time magazine, CNN good and fast companies.  

Trent: So we’ll get to the media coverage in a minute because I have a number of questions about that but what I’m not yet clear on is so you know in design you can you know build something in AutoCAD or SolidWorks or whatever. If you’ve got a perfectly crafted digital image why can’t why couldn’t you just send your card file to the factory and say make this like, I don’t understand why you had to go there and spend 6months there.  

Sha: Oh the reason why is because most of the manufacturing process, they will have to revise part of the design but as a designer, you definitely don’t want anyone else to change it but the thing is you have to make some changes. Because when one of the factories if they are producing your products, there are so many different problems may occur during that time. So they have to control the pressure the temperature and how to cool it down. And you do if you have two parts. And how can those two parts get together and it’s all very critical things you will have to think through and also for just for one example. So when I first designed my product I can definitely assign the materials I want to manufacture the products.

For example my ball, I was thinking I want the plastic material with the silicone base which is what you can make the products in type tipping. But after I visit the factories, then I know, “Oh these two materials actually couldn’t stick together”. So it’s something very— it’s part of the it’s the standard called material and process. So it’s also manufacturing process is a very professional job. So it’s not something that designer can just decide Oh I want plastic. So there are so many different plastic and they have different attributes and you’ll just have to figure those out even though before I decide who I want to work with. I have already contacted more than 10 manufacturers and asked for the pricing and asked for the potential arrows they may have.

I have already rounds several rounds like two to revise the design but I still want everyone; I believe it’s everyone. When you go to manufacturers and they will have to do that and the product will not be exactly the same as you design. But what we can do is part can be changed. Maybe just a little bit. And there are also several requirements for example; I asked my manufacturers the basic requirement is I wanted to be commercial dishwasher safe. So it’s actually higher the bar so we have to only use the materials can be combined together and also high temperature resistance, something like that. It will take so much time to work on but it’s definitely worth it.  

Trent: Yeah, okay so there’s the suffice to say there is a lot of details that require your personal attention during the prototype to commercialized version process.

Sha: Yes.

Trent: All right, so now it’s time to talk about the marketing, what was the first step you took to start generating sales?

Sha: The first stab is participating in numerous eating events and Shows and attended several design challenges I could ever think about.  And after that, I think the biggest one is to run the crowdfunding campaign. it actually helped us so much to spread the word and again much more publicity and also we also have some partners potential partners to contact us for the future development.  

Trent: So did you start selling B2B offline before you started selling B2C online or which one came first?  

Sha: I will say it almost came at the same time because during that time for running a campaign, you really couldn’t decide who will come and just buy your products or kind of like pre-order but since I have been working with a few caregivers in professional world definitely let them know when I’ve launched a campaign. So if they are interested giving it a try and that’s the best time for them to purchase at the best price.

Trent: So for your online sales, what percentage of revenue right now comes through online sales?

Sha: I will say probably more than half because in the very beginning, we only have online sales channels but since after we delivered the products and there are some people who are interested in selling the product for us. So after that, we do have some of the speeders helping us sell the products.  

Trent: Okay, so for the online portion, let’s talk about— first of all, was there any marketing activity that you tried that was a total bomb, just didn’t work.

Sha: I think our bomb is we actually didn’t do much in marketing; that’s the thing I’m still learning and learning for one year. And I for me, I think the most setback, the biggest failure is there actually are many people contact us all the time but I’m not able to catch any chances like as much as I can, that’s probably the biggest challenge.  

Trent: And is that because you just don’t have enough time you’re stretched too thin?

Sha: Yes and also some of them maybe they are very big and for example, if they are asking us to deliver 10,000 sets at once but during that time we didn’t even have the product, we are still developing it. And it is very hard to let them know like, “Oh we are actually not ready yet” and it’s hard to keep them as well eat keep them too. And we do follow up after we produce their product and that’s why we’re running sounds trial right now.  

Trent: So if you if you if marketing wasn’t your strong point and yet have more than half of your sales are coming from online, how did that happen?

Sha: I think it’s because we’re very lucky to receive numerous media coverage. And it’s comes from. We didn’t even know where to be honest because I think maybe it’s also because I think the reason why is because maybe one of the reasons is our product does work. So people who purchase it and share their experience using it and is being featured in those big name media. So when people search online and they can read our story and they’ll link it to us and if they are interested and they just purchase online and they get a product and send it or send emails, “Oh it’s actually works well”.  

Trent: And how did you get all the press coverage was it the byproduct of winning the industrial design contest or did you actually have a PR outreach campaign? I think it’s all natural to be on this.

Sha: It’s all natural to be honest; we didn’t even have that money, we didn’t even have the marketing strategy to back to that time. The biggest campaign ever ran is the crowdfunding campaign.

Trent: Okay so it seems to me that the biggest takeaway for the audience here is this; you became successful because during the research planning and product design phase you took no shortcuts.  You were super, super diligent in making sure that you understood what the problems were, who your market was, what the product needed to do, how it needed to be manufactured and you ended up with an exceedingly high quality product which then helped you to win awards, which then helped you to have a crowdfunding campaign and out of that was an organic level of press coverage and the sales that were generated as a result. Would that be a fair really short summary of your story?

Sha: Yes and with a lot of luck.  

Trent: Well, luck is merely just the by-product of preparation and opportunity; so I don’t know that luck has necessarily played a role although it never hurts.  All right so now we know how to how you got to where you are. Before we close out today, let’s just talk for just a few minutes on what are some of the things that you’re working on right now to grow the company over the next year.

Sha: Okay so this year, we are trying to reach out to overseas customers so we do sign a contract was the distributors in South Korea and we are also talking to a few distributors in Australia. And we do believe that dementia is something worldwide.  

And it’s not just for any kind of person who just happened to forget, it’s something happening all over the world. And I actually wanted to contribute a little bit to the dementia research cause although if there is no current cure can actually help me to sell more products. But I do think is something very serious and everyone to get to know more about this cause is actually of fact a lot of things.

For example, I think if you check the numbers the governments in the United States will have to spend trillions of dollars just for helping on this, it’s actually a back to our economy. There also is some saying maybe people have then seen that happen but it is happening now. And for the company itself, I definitely run more tax rules. The reason why is because although I receive we all keep on receiving positive feedback from our users, I do want to have more solid data and numbers to show people how effective the product can be to either help them increase their food intake or to help the caregivers to save more time for themselves.

And I think it’s the best way to let people know now how a good design can really affect your life and help you have a valid quality of life.  

Trent: Well, I want to thank you very much for coming onto the show and sharing your story if anyone in the audience has a family member who has dementia and they’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, I would like to be able to purchase this” where would they go and get it?  

Sha: Oh you can definitely go online and our website is www.eatwellset.com  and you will be able to see all our more than 20 features applied to the whole set to help your family members each independently. Also actually a very fun fact just a small note; there are also parents purchasing these sets for their children who are learning self-feeding skills so it will be another interesting thing to share and in the future we actually thinking about maybe we can do a smaller sets then to let the grandma and the children can be eating it together it will be very cute.  

Trent: Yes indeed it will, absolutely wonderful. All right well again thank you so much for taking some time to come on to the show.  

Sha: Thank you, have a good day, bye bye.

Questions Asked During the Interview

  • Who are you and what do you do?
  • What are your company’s big success metrics that show the audience how big you are?
  • Where did you grow up?  A story from your childhood that shows a seed of the entrepreneur you’ve become?
  • What were you doing just before?
  • Where did the idea come from?
  • What’s the first step you took to launch your business?
  • What did the first version look like?
  • Big Milestones — Big Leaps and Big Drops?
  • What was the biggest challenge? (Lack of funding, or no experience, etc) Big lesson you learned from this? (and give yourself advice)

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Today’s Guest

Sha is a product designer and entrepreneur who is passionate about designing human-centered products that improve quality of life. She used to work in a carbon fiber guitar design company in San Francisco. Inspired by her grandmother who had Alzheimer’s, she created Eatwell, a tableware set to help people with dementia to eat independently.
After years of research and development, the Eatwell set won a few international awards and is named one of the “25 best inventions of the year” by Time Magazine. It is continued to receive extremely positive feedback from caregivers from different states across the country, and even internationally. She is now working with distributors to deliver more products to people in need.
Sha holds a BA in sociology, a double major in Japanese language & Culture, and a MFA in Industrial design.

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