Anyone who has tried to start a business, no matter how big or small, knows how much work it is. And if you’ve never tried it but are thinking about doing it at some point in your career, the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in Allentown is home to several of them. Now imagine starting that business and making it succeed for more than a decade.
One entrepreneur who has achieved that milestone is Matt Sommerfield of MTS Design & Manufacture, located in Bridgeworks. He was recognized last month for his entrepreneurial endeavors when he was honored at the “40 Under 40” reception and awards ceremony hosted by Lehigh Valley Business. According to the LVB web site, “The 40 honorees were selected for their commitment to business growth, professional excellence, and the community.”
We decided to ask Matt about how he got started, how he’s benefited from being part of a business incubator program, and what’s next for his company in its second decade.
1. You’ve been someone who has had a talent for inventing and designing things from a young age. Where did that come from, and how did you nurture it growing up?
It’s always been natural for me to be making things. I was the kid who took apart every appliance in the house at some point to learn how it worked and had space in the basement for building rockets, experimental devices, and just about anything else I could think of.
Fortunately, I had mentors in my father and uncle who were both engineers and were always fixing or making things, too. The best gift I received from my parents was that they let me follow my ideas and didn’t tell me no.
2. When you talk about the “human-centered approach” to product development, what exactly does that mean? How do the products you design for clients create a better life for the end user?
When we approach products, we understand that there will be a person using this product someday and it needs to be safe, intuitive, and solve a problem they have. The best design projects come from collaboration with clients who understand this focus rather than developing a product that serves their needs or is built from some clever device that is interesting but doesn’t add value to a prospective customer’s life.
We worked on office seating a number of years ago that was in response to popular chairs that had six or more adjustment points to achieve a comfortable fit. The competitive product could be a very comfortable chair IF the user understood the adjustments and actually used them properly. In reality, the product was too complicated for the user to adjust properly and the promise of the most comfortable chair was never realized for many.
The chair we worked on had three intuitive adjustments for the size of the person, and the comfort was adjusted automatically by the weight of the person sitting in the chair. By understanding the user and designing a product that worked perfectly for them, our product achieved the promise of a comfortable chair for every person, every time.
3. How do you help mentor other startups like yours in the Lehigh Valley? How important do you think mentoring is for a startup business, and what can startups learn from the relationship?
I participate in startup weekends and university tiger sessions as a mentor and judge, as well as belonging to three organized groups of business owners who discuss problems and opportunities their businesses face.
I also teach product development at Lehigh University and Cedar Crest College and bring in interns to work in the office when I can. Cultivating a community of successful innovative businesses is important to me so the region can be vibrant and we have a strong local network of potential collaborators who share knowledge so we all have the best chance of success.
4. How did your time as an incubator company at Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, and now as an anchor tenant, help develop and grow MTS? What did you get from being a part of an incubator program?
The incubator program at Bridgeworks has benefitted me most in terms of the culture and mindset of the businesses there that want to share, help, and learn from each other. When faced with a technical or business challenge, there is always somebody in the building I can go to ask for help or advice.
The programming and mentorship provided by the incubator also gave us background and best practices to avoid common mistakes, while learning from others. As an anchor tenant, I still benefit from the community interactions and program resources as business is constantly evolving, and learning is a lifelong process.
5. What is next for MTS now that it has graduated from the Bridgeworks incubation program and has succeeded for more than a decade in business?
As we enter our second decade of business, we look to take on larger programs and clients. We are building a strong team and portfolio of industry leading products that support our credibility as the go-to resource in the region, and eventually the northeast, for comprehensive product design and specialized manufacturing.