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,