For many of our alumni, it’s apps and software ideas that pull them in. But not for Ben Arneberg. This 3DS Alum may have started in software with the team at his 3DS Harvard program in 2012, but when he went out on his own he entered the physical product world and never looked back. A former Air Force Engineer with a passion for entrepreneurship, Arneberg is now at the helm of a luxury kitchenware brand –– Willow and Everett –– that he started with his wife. With Willow and Everett on pace to do over $5 million in sales this year and another brand in development, it’s safe to say that Arneburg is officially a serial entrepreneur. But that future wasn’t always so clear. I sat down with Arneberg to learn more about how his entrepreneurial journey started and where he plans to go from here.
What first got you interested in entrepreneurship and what drew you to 3DS when you did it in school?
I don’t know if I would be a full time entrepreneur today if not for 3 Day Startup. It was an amazing experience. And I’m not just saying that, it was truly a life changing experience. I grew up in small town Wisconsin and went to school at the Air Force Academy and was a was an engineer for the air force. But as I look back, my whole life I’ve been entrepreneurial. I just didn’t have many role models. And I always grew up assuming that entrepreneurship was either having a franchise and running a McDonalds or maybe, if you’re super lucky, you’re Mark Zuckerberg. I just didn’t even really know what it would take or if it was feasible to be a full time entrepreneur. In college I kind of dabbled with a few business ideas. But when I got to grad-school in Boston after I left the academy to get a masters in computer science, one of my friends at Harvard had seen these posters and called me up about the upcoming 3 Day Startup program. It was at Harvard law school in 2012, and it was led by Bart Bohn. It absolutely blew my mind. I had spent four years in a military institution and I just hadn’t been exposed to that world. Being around all these other students who were hungry to do business was an invigorating, intoxicating environment. What the program really took us through was getting out and doing it. Hitting the streets, asking the customers, going through the lean startup model. You could have studied for years and not have had as much practical experience. That’s what I loved about it. I feel like most people’s tendency is to read books and conjecture about it and just do a lot of talking but never get around to doing it. 3 Day Startup is the complete opposite. They’re like just do it, just see what happens, get the MVP up. It’s just like a splash of cold water. After, my team ended up shelving our idea. But six months later we got together and decided to pivot it and came up with this idea for a mobile app that would remotely monitor your patient’s wound healing. We ended up submitting it to Harvard’s President’s Challenge and became finalists. We got prize money, and started working with patent lawyers. It was just an awesome experience. And that was all from the same group that met at 3 Day Startup. They are now Parable Health Wound Care Technology
How did Willow and Everett get started after that?
I had to leave the Parable Health team because I had an Air Force assignment in DC starting. But during that assignment I realized that I just had this entrepreneurial bug. I had to get something else going. So I started looking at other business models, listening to podcasts and got into the idea of starting an ecommerce business. I started a fitness brand in 2014. That ended up fizzling out, it didn’t really work. But I took what I learned from that and, in 2015 with my wife, launched Willow and Everett. We sell everything through Amazon. We even got to meet Jeff Bezos a few months ago, which was really cool. And then I started another business last year with a business partner in Virginia called CubeFit. It’s a healthy office brand and the tagline is “Redeem Your 9-5.” It’s trying to keep people fit and active on work days. So we made a product, a 3-dimensional standing desk mat that has topographical features that allows you to subconsciously move while standing at a standing desk. So it’s kind of like a fidget toy for your feet. And that brand is up and running, selling on Amazon as well. The difficulty has been that I actually had a full time job while doing all this, so I had to really outsource a lot of work. But a few months ago, I was able to end my time at the Airforce and really focus on my businesses.
What has your experience been like with making physical products instead of software?
When I first started out trying to do these kinds of products, it was a challenge trying to figure out logistics, manufacturing, and marketing and everything. It’s almost impossible for someone just starting out to have a good handle on everything they need to do. Our kickstarter for CubeFit was actually much easier because I had two years of experience under my belt for manufacturing products, bringing them overseas, all of that. You really have to know what you’re doing. I think the more difficult piece isn’t even necessarily the product itself and the development, I think it’s really the marketing and getting the word out.
How did you grow and develop Willow and Everett and CubeFit?
The high level, we looked for areas where there was strong demand, looked for ways to create that solution, and take those products to market. We’ve chosen from the beginning to do that on Amazon. We try to batch launch products because we know we are going to have a few failures, we just don’t know which ones they are going to be. We still kind of use the lean startup method and try to get products to market fast, see how they do, and make improvements. The fastest way we’ve been able to grow is by just bringing products to market that our customers need. We’ve managed to be very lean while growing very quickly. Aside from contractors, it’s just been my wife and myself.
What is the next step for you as an entrepreneur?
We are looking to sell in Europe starting this summer. And we want to bring better, more complex products to market. We’ve considered selling on our own website in the future. And we are also planning to launch a third brand and test it in the online space before bringing it to retail.
What would your advice be to an entrepreneur getting off the ground?
I would say, if you’re not sure, just start trying. Because you are going to very quickly determine if you like it or you don’t like it. And then, as far as what to do first, there is so much information these days that I would just start listening to some top entrepreneur podcasts just to get started. And go to local meetups for entrepreneurs. Take advantage of resources like 3 Day Startup if that’s available. Explore your options and absorb as much information as you can. It’s the best time to be an entrepreneur.
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