20 Experts Share Their Best Advice for Hardware Entrepreneurs
Engineering, prototyping, manufacturing, logistics, marketing, funding and sales. These are just some of the areas of expertise required by entrepreneurs bringing a physical hardware product to market. It can be overwhelming, so I asked various industry experts to provide their best advice for hardware entrepreneurs.
Their advice is worth gold. The quotes below are in no particular order, so be sure to read each and every one.
1. Keep it simple.
“Simplicity beats options every time. No complicated device has ever beaten a simple one -- and history is full of examples where the machine with fewer options (iPod, iPhone, Google, Gmail, Sonos, Wii) wiped the floor with their more complex rivals.” -- David Pogue, Yahoo Tech founder/editor; writer/correspondent for NOVA, CBS Sunday Morning, & Scientific American
2. Don't be afraid of hardware.
“If you want to work on hardware, don't be deterred from doing it because you worry investors will discriminate against you. Physical things are great. Hackers love to build hardware, and customers love to buy it.” -- Paul Graham, computer scientist, venture capitalist, and co-founder of Y Combinator
3. My own advice -- focus on minimizing your risk.
"One of the best ways to minimize your risk is to limit your development costs. For example, at Predictable Designs, we provide design service packages with fixed, published pricing. Fixed pricing always lowers your risk compared to open-ended hourly billing. Also have a second, independent engineer review your design before prototyping, especially if your product uses complex electronics. This extra review will drastically reduce the chance of errors." -- John Teel, electronics design engineer and founder of Predictable Designs
4. Begin marketing from day one.
“Many startups and hardware manufacturers are engineers and forget that building a successful business needs two key activities to be done in parallel -- product development and marketing. One of the best ways to do that is to build an audience on social, grow an email list and start making relationships with online influencers before you need them. Build it and they will come is a recipe for failure.” -- Jeff Bullas, social media marketing strategist/speaker
5. Don't worry about scalability, at least in the beginning.
“In the early days of starting up, the ability to scale is overrated. Your priority, in short, is proving that people will use your product at all. If they won’t, then it won’t matter if you can’t scale. If they will, then you will figure out a way to scale. I’ve never seen a startup die because it couldn’t scale fast enough. I’ve seen hundreds of startups die because people refused to embrace their product.” -- Guy Kawasaki, former chief evangelist at Apple, author of The Art of the Start 2.0
6. Develop a product for a market, not based on your biased opinion.
“A lot of founders are inspired to build a consumer product that solves a very personal pain point, and they tend to assume that their target customer is just like them; a great place to start, but it can lead to limited thinking or overestimation of market size. So I like to see them be very honest with themselves when doing early research around demand for their product.” -- Renee DiResta, co-author of The Hardware Startup
7. Begin with a minimum viable product.
“The Lean Startup is a new way of looking at the development of innovative new products that emphasizes fast iteration and customer insight, a huge vision and great ambition, all at the same time. As you consider building your own minimum viable product, let this simple rule suffice -- remove any feature, process or effort that does not contribute directly to the learning you seek.” -- Eric Ries, creator of the Lean Startup methodology
8. Design for manufacturing.
"Designing a hardware product is not the same thing as designing a manufacturable hardware product. DFM (design for manufacturability) needs to be an integral part of your design thinking from day one. If you don't have experience with hardware manufacturing, then make sure you find somebody who does, and learn from their knowledge and their mistakes.” -- Jeremy Blum, electrical engineer
9. Make customers an integral part from concept onward.
“You don’t build it and they will come. You have your target customer be an integral part of your entire launch, from concept and beyond. Pay attention to what they say because it’s critical to your product’s success.” -- Daymond John, investor on Shark Tank and author of The Power of Broke
10. Network with other hardware startup founders.
“If you are a founder building a hardware-based business, I encourage you to get to know other founders who have built successful hardware-based businesses at scale, and go deep on the financials of their journey. You might be surprised how little equity is actually required to build a marketing-leading, cash flow positive, high growth, hardware related company.” -- Brad Feld, entrepreneur and venture capitalist at Foundry Group
11. Position yourself as an expert while you develop your product.
“It's so easy to get consumed with the development of making the best product. But in order to get your physical product to market, you need to position yourself as the expert in your field. You won't be able to make a significant impact on the market unless you are recognized as an authority in your field.” -- Leonard Kim, brand strategist
12. Select a co-founder very carefully.
“Don't rush into a founder relationship. When choosing your initial team, look to the people you've worked with before and respected. Talk to them. Have real conversations about the company and potential outcomes. If it's someone new, take on a smaller, constrained project first to test out working strategies. Make sure that you've chatted through conflicts, disputes and exit scenarios.” -- Brady Forrest, Highway1 hardware accelerator
13. Capitalize social media at every step.
”Utilize social media both before and after the launch in the most efficient manner. Before the launch, social media audiences can help by providing quality feedback, new ideas and interesting angles regarding upcoming products and in some cases help shape certain elements or even provide the inspiration for a new product concept in whole.” -- Dennis Koutoudis, marketing expert, LinkedSuperPowers
14. Innovate for an existing market, not for a new market.
“A lot of people try to innovate and change the world. While I think that is noble and great, I know there is value in finding an existing market's needs and creating that product for that market. That's the definition of an entrepreneur. Using this technique is also more of a sure bet than innovating and making something never done before that you have no idea if anyone is interested in.” -- Brian D. Evans, Inc. 500 Serial Entrepreneur
15. Validate the problem, focus on benefits and leverage experts.
“Our advice to early stage hardware companies is focus on five things -- validating and articulating the pain they eliminate or problem they solve, benefits versus features and being laser focused on tech product development, cultivating a community of believers and early customers, efficiently using their cash by leveraging experts and community hubs like makerspaces and reflecting great leadership and a community mindset.” -- Noramay Cadena, co-founder of Make in LA
16. Prototype early to test your market.
“When building your device in a hardware startup, prototypes are important for a few reasons. Not only to check the viability of 'can this product actually be built,' but also to gain an idea of the real costs. Once you have built one, you can start to knock down the tall poles and set up vendor agreements that will save you thousands down the line. Most importantly, you can get the prototype into the hands of your real users.” -- Chris Gammel, electrical engineer, Contextual Electronics
17. Plan for problems.
“Research and build in time for failure. Literally, plan to fail. This doesn't mean your entire project won't succeed, but rather accounts for the hiccups in production that you will more than likely suffer. A prototype may turn out to not have the best design, a deadline could get pushed back in manufacturing due to Chinese New Year, or you may discover a critical flaw that sends you back to the drawing board. Allow for these things when planning and communicating a launch timeline.” -- Andru Edwards, tech product reviewer at Gear Live
18. Strive to maximize your cash flow.
”The most important thing for any startup is cashflow. If you run out of cash, you’re dead. With this in mind, find good partners and outsource as much as possible. This allows the startup to focus its resources (and cash) on its core competence and take advantage of the expertise of its larger partners.” -- Sunny Trinh, VP of Sales-Southwest at Arrow Electronics
19. Develop a product people can't live without.
“You need to step back and think, what will compel someone to purchase your product verses your competitors? Successful companies develop products that become so useful it's integrated into our every day lives. It makes us think, how did we live without it?” -- Kevin Nether, tech product reviewer
20. Plan early for manufacturing.
“Navigating the critical transition from prototype to production is one of the most challenging and important phases in a product’s lifecycle from idea to shelf. Historically, this often involved opaque processes, unapproachable tools and incomplete information to make decisions that are difficult and expensive to change later. To maximize your probability of success, incorporate the downstream manufacturing point of view in the design process.” -- Scott Miller, CEO of Dragon Innovation
I'll end with one final quote of advice -- this time from my idol Albert Einstein -- that applies especially well for hardware entrepreneurs -- “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”