In Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, a choice is laid out in the form of two diverging roads. While many interpret this poem as an encouragement to take a less traveled road, the poem doesn’t say this. Frost presents us with two paths that really look about the same. While he would like to have tried both ways, he had to decide and then “way leads on to way”. He won’t return to try the other path. A choice is made and then Frost tells us how he will describe this decision in the future. He admits that he will likely point to this decision as one that made a difference. “Telling this with a sigh”, how can we make good decisions and then how do we live with decisions we have made?
- Gather the facts: It is best to start out in an analytical mode. Understand the financial implications of a decision. Learn about the players already involved. Get information on the product if this is a career decision. Put information about an offer in writing and solicit input from experts on what is fair and appropriate. If you are deciding about a more personal matter the same concepts apply. What is the personal cost of proceeding? What will change in your life and does it matter? Size up the pluses and minuses. Write them down if that helps you get organized.
- Consider the “way leading on to way”: Many choices we make will lead us down a path. Usually we can tell if the path is a good one. A degree in education will likely lead to a teaching job at lower pay but at great personal reward if this is your calling. A degree in engineering will open up many doors but will likely lead you to a desk job with less freedom to take blocks of time off or to work at home. Deciding to join a more established company could lead you to a number of job possibilities within the company but you will be a small fish in a large pond. Picking a smaller company will give you more chance to lead but you will not learn as much from others as you will likely be the only expert in your area. As you consider how the way will lead to another step, think about whether that path is where you want to be.
- Heart check: While an analytical approach is a good backdrop for any decision and should shape how you feel, the tie-breaker is almost always the heart. More often than not there are two paths that both look pretty good. Perhaps like Frost one of the paths looks a bit more worn than the other but it is hard to see very far down the path and really there are few paths that haven’t been trod. What alternative feels right to you? Where is your passion. What do you wake up thinking about? Even if the direction you are leaning is the least understood, it might be the best for you if your heart is there.
- Be brave: When you have weighed facts and honestly reviewed your heart’s desire, it is important to be brave with the decision. Have confidence in your abilities to do a job or make a move or change a career or launch a project. There is little that can’t be figured out with the right attitude and some passion. If we are not brave in our decisions they get made for us. Sometimes the options go away. Sometimes time and resources force our hand. So, when there is a decision to be made, make it and move.
- Move forward knowing that you will spin the tale: This truth is a bit of a relief. We pick a path and it makes us who we are. When we look back we usually tell the story that our wise decisions got us to where we are. And honestly, we are right in part. If we make our decisions with the facts coupled with the heart and we bravely move forward we are likely to lead a life of adventure and learning. We are likely to be satisfied with what we have become. We are likely to be happy with our choices.
We all have choices to make. Be thoughtful, heart-full and brave and then pick your road. And God bless you on your journey!
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The Legend: The Phrygians needed a king. An oracle decreed that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. A farmer named Gordias shows up on an ox-cart and got the job. Out of gratitude, Gordias’ son Midas dedicated the ox-cart to Zeus and tied it to a post with an intricate knot. An oracle again prophesied that the one to untie the knot would become king of Asia. Alex showed up and attempted to untie the Gordian knot. When he could not untie it, he sliced it in half with his sword. Apparently that was good enough and Alexander the Great went on to rule Asia.
The Gordian Knot of Start-ups: Every start-up faces at least one unsolvable problem. Every leadership team worth its start-up salt knows that these problems, no matter how insurmountable they seem, have solutions if approached with the right mindset and attitude. Sometimes the solution is to slice the problem in half. In any case the approach needs to include out of the box thinking and acting.
Roadblocks seems inevitable in a new company. These can come in the form of schedule slips, cost overages, performance issues, customer delays and more. With a start-up company there is little room for error and the problems can feel insurmountable. This is the test of leadership. While there is no simple approach, here are some ways to slice through your Gordian Knot.
- Redefine the problem: See the situation with deep clarity and really understand the limitations presented to you. In some cases a solution or work-around will come up with a calm and studied approach. The key to this work is to not panic and react but to let the problem unfold. Gather the facts. Clarify the obvious alternatives. Dig deeper. This added perception is very valuable and often is overlooked in our haste to resolve. For example, if there is a slip in the schedule due to a delay in supply perhaps there is a way to substitute in another part or delay the addition of that part to the end of the manufacturing process. Maybe a partial ship of the late supply would keep the project on track.
- Trade-off: Often times you can have it all but not at the same time. If a project is in jeopardy due to functionality or cost perhaps there is a way to trade-off one for the other. Can you spend on a component or transportation mode that puts you back on schedule? Or, can you push a piece of functionality out in time and keep on track with the release? Prioritize and then respond with a trade-off that keeps your values and company goals on track.
- Lead with confidence: Often an optimistic approach is just what is needed to blast through obstacles. This starts at the top. Even if there are what appear to be insurmountable problems, a great leader will dig deep and project confidence in the outcome. This shouldn’t be an arrogant or dictatorial response but one that reaches into past history and reflects on similar times and good outcomes. There is a time for realism but as you approach a big issue the first approach should be positive and should engender optimism about the future.
- Lead with humility: Humility isn’t a sign of weakness. Knowing what you know and what you don’t know is a sign of inner strength. If you are open to the ideas of others and realize that the collective wisdom of peers and subordinates often results in a better answer, you will often find a path through what appears to be an impossible situation. If you have hired well and there are people in the organization who are not like you, there is a good chance that their perspective will be different and could help with a solution.
- Redefine success: There is a point where a problem requires a new definition of success. Alexander the Great decided the successful “untangling” of the knot was a slice with his sword. His success wasn’t what others expected but it was success none the less. In a start-up company this is often called a “pivot”. When the product being developed simply can not get you where you need to go it is time to redefine the company’s success. Perhaps the change will drive a new design or a new market approach or even a new product family altogether. But success can be redefined and the right kind of leadership can rally the troops to this newly defined battle.
Gordian’s story drives us to think about the impossible problem. It should also drive us to think about creative, out of the box solutions and the idea that bold problem solving defines leaders.
“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll
I built a model of the Lunar Module when I was 12. I still remember how building it made me want to climb inside the real one and land on the moon. I was channeling Neil Armstrong and was certain that being an astronaut was my calling. Years later I graduated from Neil’s University, Purdue. I was not bound for space but I was bound for a career in making things. Taking great ideas and transforming them into a real shipping product is a pleasure that, for me, far surpassed bits and bytes or blurbs and spiel.
I’m in love with making things. Even here in Silicon Valley, the home of “dot-com”, there are big and small companies designing and building hardware products to sell to other businesses and to consumers. HW start-ups are the new “killer apps”. Funding for HW start-up companies has taken off over the last five years. Granted the number was low to start with but with this enthusiasm for hardware product companies, we are putting the Silicon back in Silicon Valley. HW accelerators like Hax Accelerator and Highway 1 give these start-ups a home and help with the challenges of funding, building, importing and distributing products. Kickstarter campaigns and companies like Bolt have given life to companies that otherwise would have languished waiting for friends and family to help with funding. Companies like Box Clever and MindTribe help these companies with the design itself. Companies like Dragon Innovation and OpsTrak Consulting help companies productize and launch into the market.
Building a hardware company is more complex than a SW only company but shouldn’t be feared. In fact ramping up a HW product is a blast and I highly recommend the ride. Below are some of the key aspects to consider when building a HW company:
- Connected: While I’m focusing on HW companies, no HW is independent of firmware, software and/or user interface. As a matter of fact the reason for HW’s resurgence is all about the internet of things. Everything is connected these days. We have moved from connecting on our computers to being connected in our cars, our homes, our clothing and in almost every industrial device. Bring in expertise or contract with the experts to be sure your HW product connects.
- Concurrent: Small company or large, there is value to designing for manufacturing and the supply chain. Often referred to as DFM, the idea is to think about the manufacturing processes while you are designing the product. Sometimes the best way to get that perspective is to bring people in with the expertise. An easy partnership is with a contract manufacturer (CM) who is lined up to build your product. It is in their best interest to help you design your product so that it can easily be molded, assembled, fabricated, tested, labeled and shipped. If you don’t have a CM in mind yet or if you can’t get their attention due to your volume or company size, you can get the expertise from consultants or companies who have decades of this very type of experience. Bring your expert in before the design is locked in. Hold a design review and take into account the time it will take to make modifications to the design to make it more build-able. Don’t wait until you are on a critical path to release and then consider the ease of building the product.
- Cost: Cost consideration often goes hand in hand with DFM although they are slightly different ideas. When designing a product you likely have a cost target in mind at which you will make enough money when selling your product to propel your company to success. But if you are off in your estimate by a factor of two or even off 20%, that can be a company showstopper. It is possible to iterate a design to get to a targeted cost but each change in the product costs money and the installed base needs to be considered. Ideally you know what your design will cost and you have taken into consideration the material, processes, labor and OH required to build and ship. If you have some margin in your plan you can survive a decision to quick-turn a PCBA or expedite components as you begin your ramp. Consider your cost of goods sold (COGS) budget. Get real quotes. Estimate labor time and cost. Don’t forget SG&A, material mark-up and profit from the manufacturers. Finally, if there are internal resources assigned to ramping the product their costs should be assigned as well. It is best to have a margin of safety in your model as you start so that the first product out the door can cost more without breaking your business model. That gives you some wiggle room and those costs can be whittled down later as you ramp.
- Cash: One of the challenges to building a company that ships a product is that you have to invest in inventory, labor, space and sometimes machines to build the product. If you choose to build in-house you will need use your cash to set up a manufacturing process complete with quality and inventory control. You will likely need an MRP system to manage material and control inventory and ship orders. If your demand has its ups and downs you will want to add temporary labor and will need to train prior to the up cycles. With today’s infrastructure both in the US and in Asia, there is no need to develop a manufacturing process in-house. It is possible to entirely outsource your product build, distribution and even return and service process. Outsourcing isn’t free from costs and challenges. A clearly worded Manufacturing Services Agreement (MSA) and a solid relationship with executive management is the first step in solidifying your success. Staying involved in the process is the second step. Be there during builds and participate in the development of the assembly and test processes. The CM partner might be the expert in manufacturing but the product knowledge is in the OEM’s court.
- Collaboration: This last attribute is wise advice for any kind of company but especially if you are a hardware company. The strength of your company is rooted in the brilliance of your design of course but the other factors that add to longevity, resilience and profitability are the supply chain, distribution channels, customer service capabilities, first customer’s adoption and marketing of your successes. All of these require relationship management. Even larger companies need to partner. A smaller company can be made by its success in partnering. Sometimes the product you are shipping needs to play in an environment that isn’t in your control. System integrators, plant managers, final customers need to be trained to use your product successfully. In the consumer market you are dependent on distribution and visibility of your product to the end customer. Creating a network of partners is a key element to success.
As children, we enjoy making things. Watch a five-year old with clay or legos. Many who are makers inherently like to cook or sew or build furniture or design products. We like to fix things and build things. This same joy can be found in a company that builds product. I highly recommend it.
“We don’t value craftsmanship anymore! All we value is ruthless efficiency, and I say we deny our own humanity that way! Without appreciation for grace and beauty, there’s no pleasure in creating things and no pleasure in having them! Our lives are made drearier, rather than richer! How can a person take pride in his work when skill and care are considered luxuries! We’re not machines! We have a human need for craftsmanship!”
― Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes author