Here at Swie.io we work with companies designing their products on a daily basis. We’ve seen how some brilliant products went off budget due to manufacturing issues. We’ve seen startups fail because their projects were delayed for one year. Hardware is hard, we get this, but what can we do about this? This is exactly why we invited John Teel (@JohnTeelIEE) for a virtual cup of coffee to share his experience on product design. John is the president of Predictable Designs, a company that helps entrepreneurs bring new products to market.
Before we jump to the interview, remember that for a limited time only you can get all PCBA orders under 20 pcs for 50$ flat fee using promo code SWIEPD50.
Radu - Hi John! Please tell us more about yourself.
John - Well from a very early age I’ve been obsessed with computers and electronics. In fact, in my grade school yearbook under a section titled “Can you imagine…” for me it was “Can you imagine John Teel not talking about computers?”.
As a child, for every special occasion I only wanted electronic toys so I could tear them apart to see how they worked. As a young teenager I started programming in assembly language and then soon thereafter I began building electronic circuits. I was pretty much born to be an engineer.
But at the same time I was also very passionate about entrepreneurship and I remember going to the library to read every book I could find on how to start and run your own company. The entrepreneurial side of me took a break though as I pursued my education and career in electronics engineering.
A few years after I finished my B.S degree in electrical engineering I began working on my Master’s degree at the University of Texas. My focus was on microelectronics. Initially, I wanted to specialize in microprocessor design. But then I was hired by Texas Instruments (TI) and I ended up working in a group that did mainly analog circuit design. I fell in love with analog circuit design mainly because it was more mathematical in nature than digital design. I love mathematics and physics so it was a great fit.
I worked at TI for about 10 years. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to design numerous integrated circuits (microchips) which became extremely popular with many of them ending up in products from Apple, Intel, and other big name electronics companies. One of my designs happened to be the best selling product in our group.
After spending almost a decade in a cubicle doing design work I started to get the itch for something different. My wife and I had recently vacationed in Alaska and we both absolutely fell in love with the place. So I quit my job at TI and they hired me as an independent consultant. This allowed me to live anywhere I wanted and to work almost entirely from a remote location.
After two winters in Alaska we next vacationed in Hawaii and then fell in love with paradise. So shortly thereafter we moved to the island of Kauai, Hawaii where I continued to consult full-time for Texas Instruments.
We lived in Hawaii for almost 5 years when TI decided to eliminate all external consultants. So that’s when I started doing freelance design engineering via Upwork.com (Elance.com at that time) mainly working with entrepreneurs.
After about a year of freelance work I then officially started my company Predictable Designs which specializes in helping entrepreneurs, startups, makers, inventors, and small companies develop new electronic hardware products. That was about three years ago now.
Radu - Do you remember the first product that you worked from idea all the way to execution? Tell us more about it.
John - I designed dozens of successful products for TI from idea to market, although of course there was a full team of marketers and engineers working to make them a success. None of those products were my idea, so I only take credit for the development aspect of those products.
Around the time I quit TI I also began working on my own product called a Pop-up MicroLite which was a simple consumer lighting product that could be attached to any surface to provide illumination of that surface. I fully developed that product on my own.
I got my product to the point of having a prototype when I was then able to get some interest from a few big retailers. I then used that interest from retailers to partner up with a large manufacturer who financed all of the manufacturing and inventory. The product was eventually sold in 500 retail outlets in 3 countries.
Although I learned a tremendous amount during the process of developing and launching this product, it ultimately wasn’t the success that I hoped. This is why I always stress to entrepreneurs to focus on minimizing your risk.
With Predictable Designs I’m now in a position to not only help entrepreneurs develop products, but I can also share with them all of the lessons I learned launching my own product.
Radu - What trends have you seen in Product development throughout your experience. Is the process different inside a multinational company vs a startup? Can you elaborate on the difference in cycle time?
John - The most important trend I’ve seen is the whole maker movement which has helped eliminate some of the barriers for entrepreneurs to develop new hardware products. This includes everything from 3D printing to the availability of suppliers like Swie.io that provide the ability to produce and assemble PCBs at a very low cost.
The biggest difference in the product development process between a big multinational company and a startup is planning. Big companies do a lot of research and detailed planning when deciding to develop a new product. On the other hand, most startups I’ve seen tend to just jump right into it without enough upfront planning.
For example, before starting full development of a new product, big companies tend to do considerable research into the market need and the key development challenges. They also usually will first put together accurate estimates on the cost to develop the product, and the cost to scale it to mass manufacturing.
Most importantly, they also calculate how much the product will cost to manufacture, how much they can sell it for, and how much profit they can make. This is done all before actual full development begins.
They are able to calculate all of these costs because they begin with what I commonly call a “pre-design”. This simply means they perform enough high-level design to be able to estimate all of these costs without worrying yet about all of the fine details that have no significant impact on these costs.
On the other hand, entrepreneurs tend to just jump right into full development without enough upfront research. Many will run out of money before the product is fully developed because they drastically underestimated the costs to develop the product. The same is true with all of the costs to scale to manufacturing, and most entrepreneurs completely neglect the scaling costs.
Finally, entrepreneurs usually only try to calculate the manufacturing cost after they have it fully developed. This is a major mistake. You really need to know all of these costs before you begin spending the big money to fully develop the product.
Radu - We’ve heard people talking about Agile product development for hardware but the fundamental distinction between software and hardware is the development cycle. When you talk about an 6-18-month product development cycle, you talk about creating a product that except for a few super users giving you a few clues is really a gamble because the technology is new. You don’t really have any choice other than to build it and deploy it and see because you’re a year and a half in front of the go-to-market, which is just so different. How does that affect the development? How many iterations are too many iterations?
John - Yeah, that’s definitely the biggest difficulty when it comes to hardware. My primary advice is to first of all adhere to the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept popularized by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup. Keeping the first version of your product as simple as possible can have a drastic impact on shortening the development cycle time.
Using modules for complex circuits such as wireless radios and high-performance microprocessors can also help reduce the development cycle time.
My other suggestion is a crowdsourcing campaign. Entrepreneurs have to remind themselves that no market feedback really matters unless money exchanges hands. For example, surveys can be an okay way to get some early feedback, but just because someone says they will buy your product doesn’t really mean they will.
So you have to be careful basing your decision to proceed on survey results or the opinions of friends and family. Crowdfunding is a great solution because not only do you raise funding, but you also get real market data because people are spending their hard earned money on your product.
Radu - From your experience which is the #1 challenge a hardware development team has to face?
John - Oh there are so many challenges but the biggest challenge I find startups facing is not surprisingly, money. It’s not cheap to develop and launch a new hardware product. In fact, it’s almost always a lot more expensive than most entrepreneurs think. So you really need to have realistic expectations on how much it will all cost, otherwise you’ll run out of money before you ever make it to market.
Radu - How early in the cycle is manufacturability being considered? Is that an issue? How often do manufacturability issues delay the delivery of products? Why isn’t manufacturability being considered earlier?
John - In my experience it’s best to begin focusing on manufacturability once you have at least a partially working prototype. I don’t mean a Proof-of-Concept (POC) prototype based on a dev kit like an Arduino, but a prototype that you hope to turn into something that can be manufactured.
If you start too soon then you’ll get bogged down with all of the complications of designing for manufacturability. But at the other extreme you don’t want to wait too late or you may find that you need to significantly redesign your product to make it manufacturable.
Radu - What final piece of advice you would to HW development teams looking to shorten the cycle, reduce the cost while still satisfying consumer needs?
John - Keep the first version of your product as simple as possible, and minimize the amount of custom design required especially for more complex functions. Start with the minimum feature set that you believe is required for your product to solve the intended problem.
Finally, plan and research upfront as much as possible before you actually begin the full development. This will go a long way in lowering your costs and shortening the development time.