We’ve been riding the tech startup wave for a few years now, but it’s only recently that the spotlight has swung round to cast a little light on those of us building real, physical things. From wearables to 3D printers, beautiful household objects to consumer electronics, makers all around the world are beginning to produce a whole host of tangible objects, most of which will have to endure some form of manufacturing process before being commercially available to the consumer.
Building a physical product is harder than building software, but sometimes it seems that the rest of the world has missed this fundamental difference. We are still running startups, and this alone seems to automatically and thoughtlessly grouped us under the same umbrella as conventional tech start ups.
Sure, there are a lot of crossovers in terms of scaling a business or finding your product-market fit, but there are many areas in which our processes are — and need to be — different. It can get pretty frustrating, so I wanted to share some of the most annoying things that keep cropping up.
1. Why don’t you just put it on Kickstarter?
Let’s start with the big one. If I had a dollar for every person who had said this to me, I wouldn’t even need to run a crowdfunding campaign.
The landscape for hardware is changing. It is now easier than ever for someone to get an idea or a prototype out into the world and validate its market thanks to platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo. The fact someone can come up with an idea, build a prototype and then raise funds to build and manufacture it from its potential customers is, quite simply, wonderful. Crowdfunding is one of those glorious, mutually beneficial enablers; makers get the validation and finances they need to execute and consumers get to support things they love and play a part in its journey.
However, the downside of how easy and popular these platforms have become — and the recent boom in hardware — is that almost anyone can do it. The average person or consumer is beginning to lose sight of the substantial challenges involved in building and delivering the final product. Building hardware is hard — I won’t write about it in detail because you’re better off reading all of Bolt’s posts — but the bottom line is that it is simply not as easy as “putting it on Kickstarter”.
The amount of work that needs to be done before a product can crowd fund is staggering. Telling someone to just stick a product on a funding platform is like telling someone to run a marathon when they haven’t done any training first.
2. It’s cool but… it looks pretty ugly
It’s a prototype. Funnily enough, I’m not going to ship it with 2xAA batteries taped to the top.
As I said above, building hardware is hard. One of the most triumphant feelings is spending days/weeks/months building something, battling through all the inevitable bugs and quirks (both physical circuitry and software) and then finally… finally… holding a little bundle of circuit board and cable that works. Most of the time, the leaps of progress that have happened throughout the creation of this magical little item aren’t apparent or visible to… well, anyone else.
Clunky or basic proof-of-concept software can sometimes be dressed with a beautiful landing page or a nice app design. We can put our clump of wires in a nice box, but it’s probably still going to be bigger or differently shaped than we’d like it to be, for now.
If someone proudly shows you something they have made, please know how much blood and sweat has gone into it. At the very least, please say “Oh wow!” before commenting on the colour being wrong.
3. If you’re not ashamed of the first version of your product, you launched too late.
Reid Hoffman, the Founder of LinkedIn, uttered these fateful words some time around 2008, in the midst of the tech startup boom. Hoffman’s words reflect a growing philosophy within the startup ecosystem, the core tenant of this being that it’s more important to launch and iterate than it is to endlessly chase perfection. As the entrepreneurial revolution continues to snowball, this is one of the quotes that has come to form part of the startup gospel.
Does it apply to software startups? Absolutely. Does it apply to hardware startups? Well, not so much. Whilst it is important to get a minimum viable product out the door, unfortunately hardware products aren’t afforded the same luxuries as software services or mobile applications.
Aside from the vast expense of actually trying to undertake such a task, it’s virtually impossible to continually iterate and roll out a physical product. If there’s a problem with one of the resistors in your PCB, you can’t just push out a new update to fit it for everyone, including existing users/customers.
A user might say “I love this accommodation booking website. It kinda bugs me that I have to log in before I can search for anything, but it saves me money so I can live with that frustration”. However, no one — not even your mum — is going to say “I’m allergic to this metal clasp, but I love being able to track how many steps I take a day, so I’ll live with this blistering wound”.
Most startups are aiming to launch the most basic version of their product as soon as they can. Whilst a team doesn’t need to be proud of the first version of their product, they do need to have confidence in it.
4. Don’t manufacture in China! They’ll just steal your idea!
This one is a bit like telling a software startup not to go to San Francisco. It’s been said many times before that Shenzhen is “the Silicon Valley for hardware startups” and there’s a reason why this is. It’s because this region is likely the most effective, productive and cost efficient place to manufacture a consumer product.
The belief that you cannot protect your IP in China is an outdated and now largely untrue perception. For most startups, not to mention huge companies, the advantages of mass-producing and scaling in China far outweigh the possible perks of doing it anywhere else.
Of course, if a product is great, then it’s only going to be a matter of time before an almost-identical-but-probably-not-as-functional product appears on the scene, but that’s going to happen whether you manufacture in China or Croydon. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the Chinese love to compliment.
Unless you have some real-world experience of mass production (or China has stolen your idea) it’s probably a waste of breath to share this anecdote with us. Is your area of expertise software? Cool, then I’m probably not going to tell you which cloud platform to host on.
5. So you’re gonna give me one for free, right?
You’ve suggested we just throw that bad boy onto Kickstarter, asked why we’re taking so long to ship, stated the prototype is too big and offered your advice on international manufacturing… but you probably still want one. And that’s cool; we’re building cool products that we want people to want. We’re probably thrilled that you’ve uttered those magical words.
But here’s the main area where hardware differentiates from software: if I give you a free download of my app, or let you use my subscription-based web services for a couple of months, it probably won’t ruin me. Sure, it cost us time and money to develop it, but it doesn’t technically cost me anything to deploy it to you now that it’s finished. However, when you ask me for a free physical product, you’re asking me to pay to give you something. It costs me money up front to let you have this thing that you think is cool.
Obviously every startup will have a different level of tolerance on this one. It likely depends on how much a product costs to make and/or how much it sells for, as well as the company’s current stock holding, demand they’re experiencing for the product and ultimately their cashflow.
The frustrating thing about this one is the expectation and the pressure it puts on us. You wouldn’t expect a friend who is a plastic surgeon to give you a nose job for free just because you go to the pub together, right?
If you think a product is cool, tell us you want to buy one. It will fill our hearts with joy and burden us with glorious purpose and, to be honest, probably means you are more likely to be given a free one when our resources allow us.
Hardware is hard. Be kind to us.