Gavin Armstrong on The Genius of Creating Simple Solutions to Complex Problems
Our CEO, Gavin Armstrong recently had a chance to take part in WeWork Labs inaugural Pitch Night competition. He then had a chance to be interviewed by WeWork Labs, talking about his journey with Lucky Iron Fish and his advice to future entrepreneurs. We are excited to share the full interview with all of you here.
President and CEO of Lucky Iron Fish Gavin Armstrong is no stranger to pitching in front of a panel of intimidating investors. He appeared on the television pitch show Dragon’s Den and won a “significant investment,” he says, and he placed third at WeWork Labs inaugural Pitch Night competition (Armstrong is a Labs member at University Ave in Toronto, Canada). And he did it with a surprisingly simple product: an iron fish that imparts iron into any food cooked with it to combat global iron deficiency. Armstrong spoke with WeWork Labs about resisting the urge to overcomplicate his product, innovation in the fight against global hunger, and his advice for future Pitch Night finalists.
WeWork Labs: Where did the idea for Lucky Iron Fish come from?
Gavin Armstrong: During my undergrad and Master's in university, I did some volunteer work and fundraising work in refugee camps in Northern Kenya and Dadaab, and became aware of not only of issues around hunger, but of hidden hunger, or malnutrition, which impacts billions of people around the planet.
I came back to the University of Guelph and I wanted to do some PhD research on solutions to combat that. And I found out about research that was happening by someone named Chris Charles who was doing work on cooking with iron to combat iron deficiency, which is the largest source of hidden hunger. I worked with him in Cambodia, and he wanted to go off to medical school, so I continued the research he was doing. I developed the Lucky Iron Fish through that process, and then commercialized it.
WeWork Labs: What’s been the most challenging part of launching and growing the company?
GA: At the beginning it was doing research and commercializing at the same time. Those things can be conflicting in an untrusting world. But I felt that it needed to happen at the same time to be able to validate the work that was being done. So, though it was a unique process, I'm still happy that we did it that way. I think ultimately right now, we're trying to scale as a global company, to have one simple product that can help 2 billion people. Doing business internationally, to try and get to such a large audience, can be very complicated in countries with different cultures, or just even different regulatory and legal frameworks. But we're making strides and we're getting there day-by-day.
WeWork Labs: Let’s talk more about that. Have there been any roadblocks related to regulatory issues that came out of left field?
GA: I thought the value proposition of the Lucky Iron Fish made a lot of sense—it’s a much more affordable solution for iron deficiency with higher compliance rates compared to other alternative solutions, like iron supplements. So I thought that everyone would easily want to adapt it, and the sell would be quite simple. But because the healthcare systems globally are quite complicated, the Fish is not an easy substitute just to change purchasing products, and so that's what we're running up against. Challenges with governments, trying to understand how policy decisions are made, and how you can actually integrate this into preexisting health frameworks.
WeWork Labs: What strategies do you use to communicate that value proposition to potential customers?
GA: We're really trying to be data driven. Understanding not only the cost effectiveness of using the Lucky Iron Fish, but also what both the economic and the health impact of iron deficiency is on the community and on the countries. And how having a major reduction in those rates by using a solution like the Lucky Iron Fish could really benefit that community. We're trying to get more data on health care costs, on productivity, household income—all things that aren't necessarily thought about on the very broad level of how the Fish can have an impact.
WeWork Labs: As your team grows, how are you creating a culture that values new ideas and new ways of approaching problems?
GA: It’s really important that we understand what the ultimate mission of the company is, and remind ourselves that even a bad day in the office can help improve lives through the product. One of the advantages of being at WeWork Labs is that there are opportunities to grow as an individual and as a company, including the services and mentorship. We as a team can have bonding exercises and go through the learnings that are offered, so we can grow as individuals but also an organization. But really it's just about reminding ourselves why we're here and what we're trying to do.
WeWork Labs: Let’s talk about innovation within your industry. How do you think private company efforts to solve these types of global hunger problems will advance in the future?
GA: I feel like this is a time when everyone's looking for complicated solutions to combat those complicated problems. High tech, apps, 3D printing—it's all kind of fads. I don't believe the solution has to be complicated, I think it can be as easy as putting an Iron Fish into your cooking pot. It's about utilizing the innovation in front of you, and not trying to jump on a bandwagon to something that's preexisting. There's a reason why we're not going to be the next tech company; it's because we have a simple product. We don't need to try and change who we are just to fit in.
WeWork Labs: How do you stay true to what Lucky Iron Fish is as a company in regards to keeping things simple?
GA: When you talk to people who are going through those more complicated solutions, you hear about the barriers that they're facing, and it's almost a motivation to not want to go down that path. We have our own problems. We're not perfect and we've got a lot of things to deal with, but I'm not tempted to go that way. It's more about being selective. If we’re looking at incubators or applying for grants, it’s about making sure that we actually are going to be a good fit and get things out of that. I've been a part of incubators that are super tech- focused and it just wasn't for us. They wanted us there because the story was great, and I appreciate that, but ultimately we weren't really helping each other; it was just time spent.
WeWork Labs: Congratulations on placing at Pitch Night! What’s your advice to future finalists?
GA: When you’re prepping for the pitch, WeWork Labs has access to a lot of great mentors who are experts on things like design for the PowerPoint or telling your story. But no two experts are going to have the same opinion, so it’s important not to try and get too much feedback because it’ll be contradictory and it can confuse you. Remember what you want to do and ask for the help that you need to craft that message.
It’s also really important to customize your deck for the audience or else it comes robotic. I like to get a feel for the audience and ad lib a few things as well. But no matter who you’re pitching to, if it’s not at least somewhat customized for them, it’s going to be too scripted.