Renetec Inc.’s Sasha Shturma on the Demo-Building Experience That Left Her Burnt Out and How She Got Through It
As told to WeWork Labs
“At Renetec, we're making a smart display module for embedded systems that enables creation of user interfaces with only web tools. Think of a microwave or washing machine that needs a control panel—our product would let you create a user interface for that as simple as a web page. We needed a demo really quickly, but we didn’t have the resources or the time to hire people so I decided to make it myself. I came up with the idea of an air quality monitor that would show real-time date from humidity, temperature, pressure, gas, and UV sensors. It required an enclosure that would hold sensors and our display module, as well as all the electrical assembly. I had two weeks to create UI, understand how to properly read data from sensors, and learn 3D modeling and soldering.
I approached the process iteratively. The first version of the demo device had sensors connected through a breadboard, and plain white HTML page to display the sensor data. Adafruit python libraries were a tremendous help in getting correct reads from sensors. If I had only documentation, it would take me much longer. Integrating UI and data was super easy—that’s what our module is about. So that was the first version of our demo device. Next, I had to transition to real design, and I was pretty anxious about it. I honestly think I’m the worst person at doing design.
To aid me with design, I used color palette generators, free icons, and Dribble for inspiration. I made multiple drafts in Sketch and asked my cofounder and friends to help me choose the best one. It took me about four hours to translate my design into HTML/CSS with the help of online resources and some libraries. I looked up different health effect levels of environmental data that comes from sensors and made UI dynamically change colors depending on the ranges.
All of that was relatively easy; the hard part began with 3D modeling. I took Fusion 360 courses through Lynda and investigated some open-source models to see how other folks have tackled the problem. Fusion 360 is great, but not intuitive in many cases, and with my lack of experience, what I thought would take me five minutes took me hours. The frustration was building up, and I couldn’t let go of the tool until I got what I wanted, so I was working non-stop. Some of my colleagues were concerned if I was even eating.
Another frustration came when all the cables needed for assembly (HDMI, few micro-USBs) came too fat and too long to even remotely fit in my box. I had to cut out plastic from connectors, cut and solder back to make them shorter. My cofounder found a very thin, flat HDMI cable, which was a happy moment. Soldering the HDMI cable was not for my skill level.
All the soldering happened at night in my boyfriend’s garage. He taught me the basics, and several nights until 2 or 3 a.m., I was assembling all the parts and switching from the breadboard to the actual device. Since I was soldering for the first time, I made mistakes and had to re-do some things multiple times.
I finished the demo, but I also got a minor burnout. I wanted to lie down and do nothing. So that’s exactly what I let myself do when I was finished—have one day off to proudly do nothing! In hindsight, I should have taken more breaks because it probably would have made me more productive.
Throughout the process, I wanted to give up multiple times. But I kept asking myself, what would be worse? Not finishing the demo and feeling like a failure or pushing myself a bit more and being happy and proud of this thing I made that helped the business? That was what motivated me. I wanted to feel good and feel accomplished, and that kept me going.
It also helped a lot that other Labs members were really supportive and curious about what I was working on. They’d say things like but this isn’t what you’ve been trained to do, and I’d tell them, that’s true, but that’s how startups are. You learn things you never thought you’d need to learn. They thought that was awesome, and it really kept me going and helped me believe I could do it.
At a startup, you have to be open to learning and failing. If something doesn’t work, find someone who has more experience and ask them to guide you. And if you take on a project, push yourself to complete. You’ll be happier in the long run.”
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