After the Stage: A Year in the Life of a TC Disrupt Finalist

By Neil Joseph, Founder and CEO, Stack Lighting

This time last year, we were about to take the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, where we would walk off with the Marketplace Audience Choice Award. It turns out, a year is a really long time in startup land. Although we accomplished what feels like eons of work in the past twelve months, it definitely wasn’t easy. So, I wanted to share some of Stack Lighting’s experiences with other aspiring founders and the tech community that have been so supportive of us.

Creating a product that combines the challenges of both hardware and software has proved more difficult than I could have anticipated. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges doesn’t just build character or make you feel good about yourself, it also gives you confidence that it will be harder for competitors to quickly follow you. However, the road to get here has been bumpy. And uphill. And full of potholes.

We’ll finally ship our first products to early adopting customers in the coming weeks (a sincere thanks to all of our early supporters). We are now 35 employees strong, up from a team of 8 when we hit the stage last year, and we are now a wiser and more battle hardened band of engineers, product designers, manufacturing experts and managers; but the journey has been testing and we’ve all had to grow as individuals as a result.

We set out to create lights that would automatically adjust lighting levels based on the available ambient light in the room, occupancy and time of day. Ambient light and motion sensors embedded directly in the bulbs collect that data and inform the light’s response, in real time, and then send the data back to our cloud platform to enable some amazing machine learning and data science behind the scenes. It is a beautiful thing to watch, but there is a lot that goes on under the hood to make it happen.

The waterfall approach demanded by hardware, which is necessarily more sequential and stage-by-stage, is thought to be for dinosaurs.

Integrating hardware and software into one cohesive experience forced our team to stretch and learn how to work together in ways that we couldn’t have anticipated. The challenges also, I’m happy to say, resulted in a better product than I initially envisioned. This was not, however, before countless hours of lost sleep, dozens of flights to Asia, way too many cans of red bull, and more than one raised eyebrow from investors who saw the complexity of the problem we were trying solve and immediately spent the remainder of our meeting checking their Twitter feed or reading Medium articles.

One of the specific challenges for combined software and hardware development is that software can be developed fairly rapidly, with the development broken down into smaller chunks and the software development lifecycle handled easily with an experienced software development team, often called an “agile” approach. Hardware, on the other hand, may require many months to show a working component or feature proven to work with a scalable manufacturing process.

Showing our product to the world for the first time at TechCrunch Disrupt 2014.

The waterfall approach demanded by hardware, which is necessarily more sequential and stage-by-stage, is thought to be for dinosaurs. We found that despite the old school flavor it bestowed on us, we needed the waterfall approach to ensure working physical products.

Obviously, the software team preferred the agile approach, which resulted in more than one misunderstanding about what exactly “end to end testing” really meant, and many exacerbated utterances of “it’s DEFINITELY a hardware problem” from our Head of Software.

The problem is that a waterfall approach can be very expensive. You can get a long way toward the end of one phase of development only to discover that you have to go back almost to the beginning in order to ensure the quality of the product you want. Also, some problems don’t present themselves until you actually manufacture in some quantity on a real production line and not just in your lab. We had to experiment and learn without breaking our budget, and it resulted in a series of delays. We had to send some pretty painful emails to our loyal, early-adopting customers — we slipped on our ship date multiple times much to their, and our, disappointment.

And it wasn’t easy to get the attention of the hardware manufacturing ecosystem, either. News flash: that ecosystem doesn’t run at a startup pace. It runs on a big company pace with long lead times and set schedules for component upgrades and deliveries. We had to knock loudly on many doors just to get the needed components for testing, let alone for production quantities, sometimes even having employees be couriers themselves.

The short version is that hardware, especially when combined with building a software platform, is fantastically difficult and nuanced. All of these challenges — which some of our Battlefield colleagues from this year will face as they move forward — turned Stack Lighting into an even stronger designer, developer, manufacturer, and overall company. Although I am thrilled and proud of the progress we have made, it has been a tumultuous journey with high highs and even lower lows. Letting your customers down is a feeling that every founder will experience at some point, and it is incredibly discouraging. However, we are now at the stage where our product will speak for itself. It’s a dramatically different stage than the one I was on last year at this time, and although we took a particularly challenging route, I personally can’t wait for the world to see what our products can do.

Neil Joseph is the Founder and CEO of Stack Lighting. Stack creates responsive light solutions like bulbs and fixtures that have embedded sensors. Each bulb responds automatically to its environment, maintaining the ideal level and color-temperature of light, promoting optimal health while maximizing energy savings.