Archive for Product Development

Start a Business Face First

Previews - Winter Olympics Day -2

Ride face first down a slippery track at uncomfortably high speeds. If you make it down successfully, do it again. Fast. Scary. No, not the skeleton luge. I’m talking about starting a company.

OK, perhaps this comparison is a bit far-fetched.  The sport’s first organized competition took place in the late 1800’s in Switzerland. People have been starting enterprises since civilization began. Back in Switzerland riders raced down the frozen road and the winner received a bottle of champagne. If you win with a company you can afford champagne for life. When you race down the chute in your skeleton sled, the path is cleared for you. You get to practice out of the public eye. You are protected with a helmet and a cool, slick suit. When you start a company, obstacles are thrown in your path by the competition. Everyone is watching. Cool, slick suits are frowned upon. It is, however, a good idea to wear a helmet.

I am not an expert at starting companies. But I have a story to tell. I am working in a start-up company now called Grabit, Inc. and have been on a steep learning curve. And I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for most of my adult life. Here, one can easily observe that starting a company takes guts, perseverance and a willingness to plunge without all of the information. Oh, and it is good to have a brilliant idea.

Summing up some advice based on my early experiences and observations:

  1. Learn fast. There isn’t time to study all of the options. Thank goodness for the internet. Learn from others. Gather information quickly. Make decisions fast based on what you can learn fast. Recently, I’ve had to make a call on a Product Life cycle Management (PDM) system for my new company. This decision could have taken months and could have been complicated. Instead, we relied on recommendations, best practices and low entry cost. If the decision is not a good one it can be undone and we can go on quickly. If it is the right decision we will be well on our way.
  2. Pick the right team. Synergy is your goal. The group that is put together should be greater than the sum of the parts. The skills are important but the ability to work together is more important. At Grabit we have formed a team that works together well. Egos are in check and everyone pitches in.
  3. Consider culture and pace. In the first few months of a company the culture and pace is established. Will the office be casual or formal? Will meetings start on time? What is acceptable dress code? Will people work on the weekends? Is work done in the evenings or on weekends? How does the group celebrate together? The imprint made at the beginning is hard to change. Purposefully driving values and norms will give you what you want in the longer term. We are “pot-lucking” monthly before our lunchtime staff meeting. This breaking of bread brings people together to share something personal. It is building community.
  4. Don’t spend too much money. Don’t overdo the stuff. Grabit’s used furniture isn’t elegant but it is perfectly functional. Shop for deals. Pay as you go for services to keep the risk down. Set an example as leaders in a new company. Fly coach and keep the frill factor low. It is all about cash. Start with careful investment, grow the value and options will open for later stages.
  5. Spend enough money. There is a time when it does makes sense to spend money and that is when it will accelerate your time to volume (TTV) or greatly lower your risk.  The decision can be made by calculating net present value (NPV) but the calculation is an estimate so can be jiggered to give you the answer you are looking for. Use you gut to balance cheap with reasonable. At Grabit we are trying multiple materials paths simultaneously in order to optimize the product while minimizing the time.
  6. Don’t confuse a brilliant idea with a product to sell. Designing something isn’t equivalent to building something and building one isn’t the same is as manufacturing in volume. Launching a product involves creating a controlled, documented design, picking parts and suppliers, developing a process, controlling costs and then marketing to, selling to and satisfying customers. Back to point #2, the team dynamic is critical. It takes a cross-functional team to ship a product. The CEO of Grabit understands this need and has brought in a cross-functional team to drive functional threads simultaneously. I am working on the supply chain design now so that we will ramp efficiently later.
  7. Eschew obfuscation. Or in other words, keep it simple. The most successful companies focus on a few things and knock them out of the park. Grabit’s technology can be used in multiple ways. We are focusing on a narrow set of applications in order to thoroughly solve those problems before moving to a broader set. It is tempting to answer all inquiries but deciding what NOT to do is as important as deciding what we WILL do.
  8. Enjoy the ride. Given that you will work hard to start a business it should be enjoyed. Find the joy in creating something that wasn’t there before. Make your mark. Stick your face out front and sail down the track.

Lizzy Yarnold of Great Britain won the gold medal during the women’s skeleton at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.  She trained hard and competed well. Like Lizzy, if you are fortunate enough to be part of a start-up team, face into the challenge and enjoy the ride.

Leap and the net will appear         Zen Saying

Increasing the Odds of a Successful Launch

ski-jump-lake-placidSilicon Valley is filled with launches. We are a hotbed of new ways of thinking, new forms of work, new technologies and new products. Entrepreneurs flock to this area to take advantage of a diverse, intellectual and risk-taking labor pool. The Valley has start-up think tanks and incubators around every corner. If you want to launch something, bring your ideas and sweat equity to the Bay Area. But, when you get here don’t assume you have all it takes with just a mighty good idea.

Launching is not equal to success. One out of every ten products are successful and even that success is defined quite narrowly. How can a company increase its odds of not only launching a product that makes money but also ramping a product that grows rapidly in revenue and profitability? Much of the success of course is due to the product idea itself. That, in turn has everything to do with the brilliance of the invention and the knowledge of the market. But marketing and innovation are like a two-legged stool. The third leg that is often shorter than the others is execution. The saying that “God is in the details” holds true when it comes to getting a new product out of the door in a state that will allow for a high quality ramp. Let’s get practical about what this means in a product development setting.

1. Start with the end in mind – When a product development effort begins it is often centered around getting two or three prototypes to work. That of course is necessary but not sufficient. Shortly after a concept is built the team should be considering the implications of scale. Handy tickler questions are:

  • What is the volume expectation? Tooling decisions should be made early. Tooling is typically on the critical path. Designing for plastic/metal molding or sheet metal fabrication processes early will save time and money.
  • What does this product need to cost in order to get to the volumes anticipated? Targeting cost at an early stage will aim you at the right supply chain, material and packaging choices.
  • How will this product be used? And therefore what design margin should be used to be certain that quality expectations are met? This drives design verification test (DVT) and highly accelerated life test (HALT) decisions and likely drives material choices.
  • Given the volume and cost requirements, how will this product be built? How quickly do cost targets need to be met? This drives supplier and tooling decisions.
  • Where is the market? Is this a product for a global market or will the customers be concentrated locally? Could this change over time? This drives supplier and distribution channel decisions.

2.  Engage a cross-functional team –  Bring in an expert in manufacturing processes to work alongside the development team.  While a great product is the foundation for success, the house is built with cross-functional cooperation. Bringing a quality product to the customer at the right price point with predictability takes a team. Putting the full monty in place early sounds expensive but it doesn’t have to be. A very small team of experienced operations leaders can connect you with an array of outside services that will offer early fabrication, tooling, design for manufacturing and test (DFM/DFT), logistics and packaging expertise. These leaders should be practical, hands on people who will engage in the day-to-day problem solving. At the same time the right people will be well-connected and will know what they don’t know. They will find the experts using contract manufacturers or consultants. Paying for services amortized into part cost or paying for help by the hour will keep costs down while getting you the help you need.

3. Build fast and frequently – The idea of rapid prototyping has been around for a while but it isn’t used regularly in new product ramps often enough. Especially with additive manufacturing processes, FPGAs and quick turn proto houses available, it is possible to build a few to try out a concept prior to building many. Once you commit to a tool, whether it is a plastic mold, sheet metal punches or ASIC design, you are locking in cost and tweaking is expensive. A common mistake with the fast turn processes is to do the work independently of the final manufacturing process. Then the transition to the volume process is a major undertaking. Work with the manufacturing partners you have chosen to use rapid turn processes that best match what the final process will be.

4. Put together a diverse team – While this isn’t specifically related to execution it is related to performance. Often start-up companies are initially staffed with people who know each other well because they have worked together successfully in the past. Since we feel most comfortable with people like ourselves teams look homogeneous without some conscious intervention.  A recent study showed that start-up companies with at least one women executive made more successful exits and for every 10 percent increase in women executive and director employment, the business’s probability of success increased by six and three percent, respectively. Diversity is more than a gender thing. The highest functioning teams have different types of people. Mix up race, ethnicity, gender, age, thinking styles, life experiences. If this team is managed well the performance will be outstanding. Your output will be stronger and your risks will be lower.

5. Use checkpoints meetings…seriously – When asked, most development managers will insist that their company uses a new product introduction checkpoint process. This is a process that is defined upfront and usually consists of at least five phases: concept, proto, pilot, ramp, end of life. At the end of the phases are checkpoints that serve a purpose of bringing that diverse, cross-functional team together to talk quantitatively and qualitatively about the readiness to move to the next phase. These reviews serve as a kick in the rear for those who are behind. They keep the team accountable and they show the leaders where there are vulnerabilities. Taking these meetings seriously is one way to keep the end in mind and to get full cross-functional attention. These checkpoints are also a serious opportunity to stop the presses. Blindly moving forward when key elements are not ready will cost money at the least and will derail a company at the extreme. Ideally an honest evaluation complete with a review of the warts will allow for a course correction while the project continues. Adjustment is less expensive than redo later and much less expensive than a launch that fizzles due to quality or availability issues.

These five points, if followed, will increase your odds of launching a successful product. None of them are hugely taxing but surprisingly, most companies do not comply with all of these points. There is a resistance, especially in the start-up space, to overlaying processes. Process without purpose is a weight. Process that serves as a support to execution will be flexible and light weight and will save time, reduce risk and help a company launch a winning product.

“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”
―    Aristotle

Product Actualization: Bento Box or Potluck?

During the many trips to Japan I’ve made over the years a bento box for lunch is common sup. Everything is neatly presented and fits into its section. There are many flavors but they don’t run together. Stuff stays where it is put because the box is compartmentalized. Sometimes there are familiar looking little finger sandwiches made out of white bread and what could be tunafish or chicken salad. Sometimes there are creatures of unknown origin. Always there is a neat lid that can be used to tidy up at the end.

It would be lovely if launching and ramping a product was like a bento box. If only we could keep things from blending together. If only the bad things could be ignored in their little compartment and eventually sent away with the lid on top. In the world of new product development, supply chains, manufacturing and logistics, stuff runs together.

As an operations executive I see the organization’s bias to keep things organized, separated, clean. Let the development team work their problems. Don’t slow them down. Let the marketing team think about product roadmaps and forecasts. Don’t second guess. Customer service can deal with quality issues in the field. There is no time to get to root cause with an angry customer on the phone. Just ship them a new one. But alas, without the messy cross-functional conversation and real-time data exchange the results are non-optimal. Sometimes the results are disastrous.

The international economy fluctuations have made the job of forecasting consumer goods next to impossible. I’ve worked hard in a previous position to shorten lead times to allow for faster reaction to changes in demand. But that wasn’t good enough. The breakthrough took place with a move to design the product so that we could postpone differentiation. The work was upfront with the design and marketing teams to design for postponement. The payoff is that a few “assets” could be built into many end products to meet localized needs. The result is less inventory, more availability, better customer satisfaction, lower lead time.

Potlucks are a messy, yummy, eclectic, out of control smorgasbord. When a manufacturing organization puts on a potluck it is the best darn eating you can find. There are typically dishes from all over the world. The tastes mix together on your paper plate…with any luck.

Product actualization done well is more like a potluck. The lines blur and true concurrent work happens naturally. Customer data is vigorously collected and then it flows freely to the cross-functional team. Manufacturing partners are brought in at ideation. The development team thinks about how to design for postponement. Marketing is working alongside the other functions to anticipate the localization needed and to make the product configurable as a last step. There are blurred borders and no compartmentalization and the result is a much more successful business.

Simplicity follows complexity. Business is messy.