Lessons Learned Archives:

The Lessons Learned series featuring NYU entrepreneurs’ first-hand accounts of challenges faced in starting a business and the lessons learned along the way.


Lessons Learned: Passion Holds Out

Paul Dariye is a first year graduate student in the Management of Technology program at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. Before NYU, Paul was in Northern Cyprus. Paul has had an eventful journey since leaving Nigeria in 2009 to further his studies.  The 5-Day Lean Launchpad with Steve Blank remains the most challenging and engaging class I’ve taken to date at NYU. It was a very electrifying experience. From a road trip to New Jersey to a party organized by Google, those five days felt like much more than just a…

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Lessons Learned: Do It Your Way

Chase Denison is a freshman undergraduate in the Stern School of Business. Chase is the founder and owner of Vybe Sunglasses. He is also a captain of NYU’s Baseball Team. As entrepreneurs, we seem to fall into a habitual cycle trying to mirror other successful entrepreneurs we know and revere. We follow their footsteps to accomplish our own goals. Most people think in terms of a set of “rules” scribed in stone on how to be a successful entrepreneur. Well to that, I say— no. Rather than…

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Lessons Learned: Rethinking Programs in the Social Sector

{{unknown}}Angela is a 2nd year Masters of Public Administration student at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, specializing in International Development and Policy. Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad course is a 5-day intensive course that allows teams of students gain real world experience in how to turn an idea into a business.  When I was in middle school, my mother had an entire backyard devoted to gardening. Having read somewhere that plants grew faster and benefited when coffee was added to the soil, I…

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Lessons Learned: The Importance of Organization Sustainability

Project College (formerly Knowledge Access Initiative) is an NYU student-run organization that strives to improve financial access to college for high school students in New York City. Their year-long program provides students with extensive education on all types of financial aid and individualized application assistance.  Every year, one million students across the United States who are eligible for federal aid never complete the FAFSA and likely don’t apply for other forms of financial aid. While some students choose not to pursue higher education, many students…

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Lessons Learned: Fail and Fail Again (Until You Succeed!)

Michael is an NYU student and serial entrepreneur. He recently founded Skylight, an app that’s transforming how you find your new home.  Michael is a graduate of Draper University and the Founder Institute. Life takes us onto very interesting paths. An advertisement came up in my Facebook Newsfeed, and suddenly, a stroke of serendipity followed. I was presented with the opportunity to attend Draper University for the summer, a school for entrepreneurs founded by the famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Tim Draper. Attending DU has proven to be…

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Lessons Learned: The Customer Comes First

Taking Root helps restaurants who want to be sustainable reach that goal by making composting simple and cost-effective. Within moments of introducing our idea to Steve Blank, he asked: “Is your idea for a non profit or a for-profit business?” Immediately, we understood that we weren’t here simply to solve problems. We were here to create financial value by addressing key customer concerns. And so our journey began. Entering the 5 Day Lean Launchpad class, we felt confident. Our idea was simple and foolproof, but we quickly…

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Lessons Learned: Mission to Haiti

Marc Albanese is the co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Smart Vision Labs,  a digital health startup that will revolutionize the way you get your eyeglasses with its smartphone-based portable vision examination device. Smart Vision Labs was a participant in the the 2014 NYU Summer Launchpad program. 

Greg Van Kirk autorefracting with the SVOne
Greg Van Kirk autorefracting with the SVOne

I found myself in a rural village in Haiti, packed inside a crowded van with 16 other volunteers – all exhausted from a full day of vision tests. My colleague, Greg Van Kirk, and I were physically tired but mentally invigorated. As part of the refraction team, Greg and I helped to refract nearly 250 community members over a six hour time-frame, and we were rewarded with the smile of a woman seeing clearly for the first time, possibly in her whole life. Refracting involves determining the prescription of somebody’s eye – either automatically or manually. In the process, we successfully field tested our smartphone-based autorefractor (the SVOne), something we have been working towards over the last two years.

Working with VOSH

The trip to Haiti was organized by the Pennsylvania chapter of VOSH. VOSH, or Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, is an international organization whose purpose is to provide vision care worldwide for people who can neither afford nor obtain such care. The PA chapter of VOSH visits Haiti four times per year for a week. In August, the PA chapter visited the Cap Haitian region. This trip was led by Dr. David McPhillips, the president of VOSH International and a veteran of over 40 mission trips. 

Dr McPhillips
Dr McPhillips

Smart Vision Labs

Smart Vision Labs was founded nearly two years ago by Yaopeng Zhou (Stern MBA 2015) and me (Stern MBA 2008). Yaopeng and I were good friends going back to graduate school at Boston University, where we developed an advanced microscope for assisting researchers in testing drugs for diabetic retinopathy. In the summer of 2012, Yaopeng shared with me his idea for a smartphone-based autorefractor (or, technically, an aberrometer), utilizing similar concepts from our graduate school days. We envisioned using such a device for solving the problem of refractive error related blindness in the developing world (roughly 250MM in the world) and for testing children (nearly 85% children age six and under and 70% of children age 16 and under have not had a thorough vision exam). Greg Van Kirk joined our team as the Director of Social Venture earlier this year. Greg is an Ashoka Globalizer and World Economic Forum “Social Entrepreneur of the Year”. Greg has taught as adjunct faculty at the NYU Wagner Reynolds Program.


A Day in the Life of a VOSH Mission Trip

Each morning at 8AM, the team piled into a van in Cap Haitien to head out for the day’s vision tests. The trips took us all around Cap Haitien, including into the more rural parts of the surrounding countryside. On Wednesday, my first day of the trip, we visited an old church about 30 miles outside of Cap Haitian. When we arrived, there were already 100 people waiting for vision services. Within 20 minutes, the VOSH team – assisted by local assistants and translators – unpacked the van and setup several stations.

The Workflow

When a new patient entered the church, he or she filled out a form with their name, age, and any eye concerns. Many required assistance at this first step as they could not see or read. The first station in the workflow was visual acuity (both for distance and reading). Once completed, the patient walked over to refraction to obtain a prescription. Next up was eye health and, finally, a station where the patient could be fitted for glasses if necessary (though most patients walked away with at least a pair of sunglasses). Last, patients with severe eye issues or unique prescriptions were referred to a hospital.


Refraction Station

The refraction station consisted of three steps: autorefraction, manual refraction with a retinoscope, and the prescription write-up. The refraction station was led by Dr. Elizabeth Groetken, an optometrist based in Iowa. This was Dr. Groetken’s first mission trip, and she brought her daughter Kara along, a college student who wanted to share this experience with her mother.

The Refraction Team
The Refraction Team

During the testing, Greg, Kara, and I worked on autorefraction. We primarily used the Retinomax portable autorefractor, but also used the Smart Vision Labs SVOne with a subset of patients. Next the patients were funneled to Dr. Groetken who verified the results using a retinoscope. During our testing in Haiti, two moments really stood out for me:

Clear Vision for the First Time

During one of tests, we met a 50 year old woman who was complaining about her vision, and never being able to see far away. We tested her vision, determined her prescription, and then gave her glasses. Once she looked out through her glasses, she gave one of the biggest smiles I have seen in my life. The moment still gives me goose bumps when I think about it.

SVOne in action with the author, Marc Albanese
SVOne in action with the author, Marc Albanese

Success with Children

For adults, both devices were largely providing readings which were inline with the visual acuity testing. Then the children arrived. We saw a case in which the Retinomax posted OD -2.75 and OS -1.75 for sphere for a child with 20/20 visual acuity. In that particular case, the optometrist called us over and asked for a SVOne consult. We performed the refraction and measured a +0.25 sphere for both eyes. At that point on, the optometrist – who was thrilled at our results – insisted on sending all children directly to our device.

Marc Albanese and Greg Van Kirk
Marc Albanese and Greg Van Kirk


The mission trip to Haiti was a defining moment for both me and Smart Vision Labs. For me, the trip was personally rewarding because I was able to contribute to a team that helped hundreds of people receive vision care, some for the first time in their lives. For Smart Vision Labs, we were able to show that the SVOne could provide accurate and reliable results. We look forward to the next mission trip and working with more optometrists in the future. If you would like to hear more about our trip or learn more about the SVOne, please contact marc at smartvisionlabs.com.


Lessons Learned: The Science of Customer Development with Steve Blank

Steve Blank’s 5-Day Lean Launchpad, held at NYU on August 25-29, 2014, was a transformative experience for young entrepreneurs like myself looking to gain experience in and expert insights on launching a start-up.  My team partner, Logan Winston, and I were fortunate enough to be accepted into the program.  For anyone interested in Steve Blank’s methodology, check out his great summary talks online: “Steve Blank on How to Build a Lean Startup” “Steve Blank, Evidence-based Entrepreneurship, The Lean Startup Conference 2013 – 12/10/13” “How to Build…

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Lessons Learned: Do Customer Interviews Even When You Don’t Think You Need To

Sensory Percussion builds powerful technologies for creative musicians. Our first product is a new system for electronic percussion that captures the true expressive nature of drumming for artful control of digital sound. I admit to a considerable amount of hubris before entering the Summer Launchpad program nearly 3 months ago. I was excited to have the support and guidance of SLP while my brother (also, my cofounder) and I figured out how to turn our prototype into a business. But, I found the idea of…

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Lessons Learned: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone to Understand Your Customer

VoiceHacker (formerly Speech Empowered), helps busy professionals improve their public speaking and presentation skills through biofeedback and a supportive online community. VoiceHacker began as an iOS app that evaluates a user’s voice quality and walks the user through warm ups to achieve an optimal voice. As a voice teacher, I believed that this fantastic tool could solve a serious need in the market. However, upon initial customer development interviews, I realized that the market I thought would most need the app didn’t seem interested at all. This is how…

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