Startup Spotlight: GRIT

Nov 27, 2016

Startup Spotlight: GRIT

Nov 27, 2016

This week we spoke to Tish Scolnik, co-founder and CEO of GRIT. GRIT is a social enterprise working to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities by offering the GRIT Freedom Chair, which enables people to move beyond the pavement.

GH: What is your name and role?

My name is Tish Scolnik and I am a Co-founder and CEO. I’m part of the original design and engineering team behind the product, but my role has certainly evolved. And as is typical in any startup, I get to wear many hats! From strategy and operations to accounting, marketing, and sales, I’m always learning.

GH: What is GRIT?

GRIT is a social enterprise working to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. Our flagship product is the GRIT Freedom Chair, which we call the mountain bike of wheelchairs because it enables people with disabilities to move beyond the pavement. Thanks to its patented lever drive, the Freedom Chair is easier to propel than a regular wheelchair and more powerful. Similar to shifting gears on a bike, the hand levers give the rider more power to climb over hills and roll through grass, dirt, sand and rocks with ease.

Exploring parks, relaxing on the beach, and wandering around town are activities that able-bodied people take for granted, but for many people with disabilities, these simple activities are out of reach because their regular wheelchairs are impossible to push off road and for long distances. Unlike most wheelchairs that only use expensive proprietary parts that have to be ordered through medical device companies – and take a long time to be replaced – the GRIT Freedom Chair uses bike parts that can be bought inexpensively and quickly at any local bike shop.

GH: What was your Eureka moment: how did GRIT get started?

It started out as a research project at MIT, and evolved into a company. As we got further along with field testing, we realized our many prototypes had evolved into a product, and the market was ready for it.

GH: How did you build your team?

I’m lucky to have co-founded GRIT with classmates of mine from MIT: Mario Bollini, Ben Judge and Amos Winter. We already had a great working relationship from all the years of research. But we were a little heavy on the engineering! [All of us have degrees in Mechanical Engineering]. We rounded out the team last year when Glori Blatt joined us as Director of Ecommerce and Marketing and Jesse Caldwell headed up our work overseas.


GH: What is your company philosophy driving your company culture?

There are so many beautiful places to explore–from parks and trails to our own backyards– and we believe that everybody should have access to them. Spending time outdoors, particularly with friends and family, makes for a better overall quality of life. And that’s what we help our customers do.

GH: Startup life is full of failures and ‘make it work’ moments – can you identify how you bounced back from one of yours? 

It sure is! As a company that makes a physical product, we have some particular challenges related to manufacturing, inventory, and shipping. Our goal is to hold enough inventory so that we can ship within 1-2 days of receiving a new order, but we have to balance that with the need to ensure that we don’t tie up all our working capital in inventory. This summer sales picked up more than we had forecasted (which is a good problem!) but it meant we ran out of inventory. And because that wasn’t challenging enough on its own, we then had a manufacturing problem with one of our vendors that set us even further behind on re-stocking. Long story short, we were out of inventory for the rest of the summer, and we lost a lot of sales momentum. We bounced back by being clear with customers about what the lead-time was on new orders and why that was the case. We also worked out much more detailed projections so we can be more flexible about re-stocking in the future.

GH: What did you learn from your first users?

A lot! We’ve been working with users throughout our design process to create the Freedom Chair. It wouldn’t be nearly the product it is today without all of their input and feedback. But fast-forwarding to our first customers, one of the things we learned early on from them was how we needed to improve our packaging for shipping. Of our first dozen shipments, everything arrived safely, but the box itself often arrived looking tattered and worn out. Not a good first impression! We added additional padding and started using reinforcement straps, and now we don’t have any shipping issues.

GH: What has the Boston ecosystem provided you?

We couldn’t imagine starting GRIT anywhere else! The Boston startup ecosystem is brimming with resources. We’re thankful to MassChallenge and the Social Innovation Forum for accelerating us when we started GRIT. Both provided amazing connections to mentors, as well as financial support. The MIT D-Lab Scale Ups program was also an early source of financial support as we launched GRIT.

GH: What is the Boston ecosystem lacking from your perspective?

I wish the Boston ecosystem had more support for hardware companies making large, purely mechanical products. We see a lot of support for connected hardware, wearables, and electronics, but our needs are different.

GH: What’s the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?

Best: The best piece of advice we were told was to focus. Focus, focus, focus! If you try to do much, you won’t do anything well.

Worst: The worst piece of advice we received was being told that as engineers, we wouldn’t be able to manage running the business, and should bring in outside management with more business skills to do that. While we’re fully aware of where our skill gaps are, we were able to bridge that with mentorship. And ultimately, our passion for the company makes us best-positioned to lead it.

GH: What was the best thing that happened to you last year?

We moved into our own office! Over the last few years we’ve worked out of several co-working spaces from MassChallenge, to the CIC, to Industry Lab. Last October we moved into 56 Roland Street and made it home. It’s a bright, airy space with lots of windows. And while we miss the camaraderie of co-working, it’s pretty nice to have our own space!

GH: What does the future hold for GRIT?

We just recently secured a contract with the VA to provide the Freedom Chair to veterans at no cost to the end user, so we’re excited about building our efforts there. And as a team of engineers, we’ve always got new product ideas floating around 🙂


Learn More about Grit here

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