Meet COMMON Member Holden Bonwit
COMMON member Holden Bonwit’s career has spanned from designing reconnaissance tools for the US military (awarded “most envied high tech gadget” by special operations forces) to creating clean-tech products and massive batteries for the electric grid. After a decade of engineering, he found himself focusing on the broader aspects of business, providing advisory and management consulting services to early stage businesses and investors, usually targeting expansion to new geographies, efficient scaling, and proper use of external capital.
From the earliest age, I’ve always enjoyed turning new ideas into real things. As I matured, I grew from building LEGO creations to building widgets to building companies.
Along the way, I’ve noticed a lot of parallels between bringing a product concept to production, and helping a company grow. A key theme through these projects has been collaborative adaptability — the intersection of collectively building with others, while simultaneously updating a team’s understanding and worldview with new information.
It’s critical to be able to absorb new information and assimilate that understanding to improve your work. Instead of staying locked in our outdated, narrow worldview, successful teams constantly iterate and improve their product, and simultaneously update their understanding in light of new information. Since each project has a limited resource, either money from investors, or time and energy from the team, it’s really important to gain the most out of every bit of expenditure. A great way to constantly grow value, then, is to repeatedly build and release new versions of a product or service to a test market increasing in size. During this repeated process of pushing towards a release, teams conduct experiments with the build itself, as well as with the market itself through channel and end customer testing. A constant stream of feedback, then comes from the continual debrief process. Each release inevitably brings unique challenges, and each team equally brings its own strengths, so there’s no magic amount of time between development cycles. Instead, it behooves the team to ask itself: is there any way we could cut by half the time until our product gets into the wild? It may not be possible due to election cycles, tooling costs, crop seasons, or otherwise — but it’s almost always worth an investigation.
One key outcome of rapid testing is often discovery of some product-market mismatch. Despite our best efforts, these learnings will catch us off guard, and we need to learn to embrace the new information — it’ll likely save us time and win us customers in the long term! Working backwards, then, the entrepreneur / team needs to be ready to accept the insights of this new challenge, integrate it with the previous product spec, and move forward again. Across the board, besides believing in their end-goal with a deep, unrelenting passion, successful entrepreneurs tend to update their worldview and position based on new information. Famously, Twitter was a podcast directory before the team realized the broader market demand for micro-blogging; profits are still in question, but I doubt the podcast directory would have attracted 300 million active users.
On a more personal note, my team once worked for months on perfecting the mechanical and electrical design of an in-home electric car charger. However, since mass-market adoption of electric vehicles (and therefore our charger) would require significant behavior modification by drivers, the market wasn’t ready for a stand-alone product yet. In other words, we were focused on the details before the consumer base was fully on board with the larger concept. We realized the little charger needed some type of strategic support pillars first, so instead of focusing on the product itself, we had to shift to other points of the user experience outside the product we’d become so invested in. We built a nation-wide network of service people to aid with the launch, installation, and user experience walk-through. This was the right call; our corporate customer was happy with the “full solution” that we were bringing to market, end customers got a better feel for their new lifestyle with the product, and it is still selling 5 years later. We learned that customers want solutions, not products.
Adaptability enables us to leave our prior design baggage behind, to embrace the feedback we’re getting (from investors, end users, and partners) to get closer to our goal. In short, it’s rare that our own, original idea of success will look exactly like the vision of success that the world embraces.
After accepting input, we must move forward and collaborate with teammates. The group aspect of this is pivotal as any one individual is bound to see and hear feedback through their own lens — and undoubtedly misinterpret at least one detail. By working together and comparing notes, we can retrain our sights on the goal that much more accurately.
Innovation stems from incremental improvements of disparate fields — it’s important that we play to our strengths while leaving room in our plans for others to use theirs.
Take my wife and I, who recently decided to relocate to Vancouver, BC, through a long and enjoyable process. We were highly considering a number of cities in the western US and Canada — and planned our travel chunks in advance, visiting with local friends and family in each place to update the understanding we had through our internet research to really experience the city. We made sure to stay flexible to new amazing opportunities while on the road by leaving open-calendar time at regular intervals. It’s easier to be flexible when you’ve got a backup home under you — a camper van was our main vehicle. We embraced a collaborative approach by generally splitting up planning — for example, my wife generally plans where we can stay, and I generally plan transport (planes, trains, automobiles, hiking, bicycling). In total we spent 150 nights on the road, which you can read about here.
In a community like COMMON, people and companies with vastly different skill sets share the far-reaching goal of improving the world. I’m excited to come together with members that are working towards a better world, and I want to contribute my strengths and collaborate with other COMMONers to make that change happen.
Along with that, now that we’ve settled down in Vancouver I’m keen to train my eyes on my own latest project: building widget companies! I want to take my lessons from building products, and my lessons from building companies, to build socially and environmentally impactful startups in the hardware space. Please get in touch if you’d like to collaborate, trade advice, or just share stories!
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Email Holden: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Holden on Twitter: @hbonwit
Visit Holden’s LinkedIn Page: Holden Bonwit
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COMMON is a creative accelerator and community for social businesses and projects. We help entrepreneurs build, launch, and promote products and ideas that take care of the planet and all the creatures on it.
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Follow us on Twitter @commonworks