Do You Have What It Takes to Succeed as a Hardware Entrepreneur?

How do you know if you have what it takes to succeed with your product?

Developing a new product is no simple feat, and neither is getting it reliably manufactured. And, perhaps most challenging of all is figuring out how to get the word out about your product.

As you can imagine there are a wide variety of skills required to make all of this happen. Before you dive in and start spending big money, you should first evaluate if you have what it takes to make your product a success.

Sure, some serious engineering is required to develop a new product, but that can always be outsourced.

I argue that there are more important skills, traits, and characteristics required by hardware entrepreneurs that can’t be easily outsourced, and that’s what I’ll be discussing in this article.

NOTE: This is a long, very detailed article so here's a free PDF version of it for easy reading and future reference.

Long-term Vision

The number one most important thing to have is a vision for what you want. You have to know what you want in order to make it come true.

This vision needs to be larger than just a product idea. You ultimately need to build a company. Typically, a company can’t be built around just one product.

You should start with only one product, but you have to have a bigger long-term vision, whether that be an entire product line or how you want to change an industry.

Ask yourself, what do you want for your company? Do you want to sell your company in 5 to 10 years for millions of dollars? Or is this a family run company that you want to pass down to your children?

Ideally, you should even have a vision that goes beyond your company.

What are you going to do after you sell your company, hopefully for millions of dollars? What do you want to do with your life then? Include your ultimate end goal as part of your vision.

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Passion

You have to have unparalleled passion for your idea, your vision and how you want to change things. There’s so much work involved in bringing a product to market that you have to be passionate about it.

If you’re not passionate about it, there’s no way you’re going to have the stamina to push through all the obstacles that you’re going to run into. Without passion you’ll definitely burn out way before you achieve your vision.

You absolutely must have an intense passion for your idea. Obviously, you have to think about other aspects of life, but you really do need to be almost obsessed with your vision.

Adaptability

Hardware development demands that you be adaptable. You will be dealing with everything from product development, to marketing and sales, to operations, to manufacturing, to juggling legal documents and certifications.

There are so many disparate aspects of running a hardware startup. In the early stages, its up to you to do most of this work. At the very least, you will need to manage every aspect of your company.

You don’t have to know how to do every aspect of a startup. That’s just too much for one person to realistically do. But you absolutely must have a working understanding of all the pieces.

Most importantly, you will need to adapt to all the different needs that your business is going to have.

For instance, my background was in electrical engineering when I started my own hardware startup. I’ve always been a very introverted person, so things like marketing, sales and doing trade shows did not come naturally to me. In fact, at times I was terrified!

But because of the passion I had for my vision, I knew I had to be adaptable. I had to learn knew skills and force myself to do the things that didn’t come naturally to me.

Most entrepreneurs want to focus all their effort on the aspects of the business that they enjoy. I recommend that you instead focus on the aspects of building a business that you don’t like, since those areas are more likely to be neglected.

Resilience

There are so many ups and downs when running any type of a new business. With a hardware startup, these ups and downs can be rather extreme.

There’s nothing like the giddy excitement of getting an order, having a successful trade show, or getting your product into a large retailer.

Then there are the low points, that are so low you that you just want to cry. In fact, you probably will cry at some point! That’s because there are so many obstacles in your path, and you have to keep pushing and pushing.

For example, when I sent an early prototype of my own hardware product to a big retailer that had expressed interest, I was devastated when he told me he found the product awkward to use.

Awkward? Are you serious? How dare you insult my “baby”!

I remember being depressed for a few days and I likely shed a few tears too. If you are really passionate about your vision then you’ll likely respond in a similar fashion to any bad news. You pour your heart and soul into your product so any negative feedback can become quite personal.

But I refused to give up and I was determined to figure out why he thought my product was awkward to use, when I was confident that it wasn’t awkward to operate.

It turns out the 3D printed prototype I sent him wasn’t very resistant to heat, and I made the mistake of mailing him the prototype during the hot summer.

The prototype ended up partially melting while in route to him. It didn’t melt enough that it was obvious to him what had happened. Once I figured out the reason for the awkwardness he was understanding since he knew it was only an early prototype. I was able to move forward past this low moment.

You have to be resilient, because I can guarantee that things will not go your way, and you will also be told no over and over again.

If you’re someone that gives up really easily, bringing a new product to market is not for you. It requires absolute resilience and stamina to build any type of business, especially a hardware startup.

Focus

There will be all sorts of things vying for your attention. You must have a laser-like focus on one single product to start with.

Some people I know have lots of different product ideas, but you absolutely must focus on a single product.

Initially you may start with several product ideas, but as you do more and more research you should be able to narrow it down to a single product before you begin full development.

It’s challenging and hard enough to bring a single product to market, but trying to do multiple products at the same time is a recipe for failure.

Money

You don’t necessarily need to have large amounts of money to spend, but you do need a source of income.

There’s a lot of the stuff in the beginning that, obviously, the more you do yourself, the less money you need. For example, if you can design some of the product yourself, that’s going to save on engineering fees.

But at the very least, you’re going to have to support you and potentially your family during the early stages of your startup when you have no income.

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It will typically take at least a couple years before you get to a point of producing a significant income with a hardware startup. Usually this income will begin once you are able to raise significant outside funding.

If you plan to only bootstrap then you may have to wait even longer for the income to start flowing.

You’re going to need some type of outside income, whether that be a day job or doing freelance work on the side, or if you’re lucky enough to have a spouse that can support you during the startup phase.

Eventually, you’ll want to seek outside financing. It’s very challenging to entirely bootstrap a hardware startup to the point of being a million dollar company.

Time

There is always a relationship between how long something will take, and how much it will cost you.

The more of one you have, the less of the other that you need.

For instance, if you have engineering skills and can design your own product that’s going to save you money, but take up more of your time.

Likely you won’t have any time leftover for marketing activities which are critical to do in parallel with development.

Or, you can outsource the engineering, which will save you time but cost you more money.

You absolutely need to closely guard both your time and your money when developing a new product. These are your most precious commodities as an early startup.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. If you happen to have a lot of time available and you have the skills, then you can save money by doing things yourself.

If you have less time or you lack certain skills, then you’re going to have to spend more money to outsource those tasks.

Technical Skills

You don’t need to be an engineer, or know how to design electronics, to bring an electronic hardware product to market. However, being an engineer can definitely help, but in some ways it can also do harm.

I find that most engineers love engineering but hate marketing. However, one without the other will get you no where. Engineers over focus on the engineering while completely ignoring the marketing.

So although you don’t need to be an engineer, you do need to have some level of confidence with technical topics.

For example, you don’t need to know how to design a printed circuit board yourself, but you do need to know what a printed circuit board is.

You need to understand at a high level all the steps to developing an electronic product.

There’s no way you can have a strategy or a plan, or manage other people doing these tasks, if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of those tasks.

If you feel you have any huge gaps in your technical skills and you’re lacking the money to outsource those functions to other people, then another option is to bring on a technical co-founder.

I usually recommend that if you’re a startup developing technical products, it’s ideal if you have someone on your team that is technical.

For example, if you’re a software engineer, you may not know how to design electronics, but you’re still in a technical field. You should have the ability to learn enough about those topics to manage all the people involved.

Building Relationships

Another vital skill is the ability to build relationships. You cannot bring a product to market entirely on your own. You absolutely need to have relationships with others.

You can outsource many tasks but ultimately, you’re going to need to build relationships beyond just the people that you hire.

You are going to need to build relationships with other entrepreneurs, investors, potential business partners, and potential customers.

You have to build relationships to succeed, something that wasn’t my strength, personally. But I quickly learned that I can’t just push this through on my own without having relationships with others.

It’s vital that you start building those relationships as soon as possible.

There are some cases where it’s absolutely necessary to have an existing relationship, like finding an investor.

It’s nearly impossible to get professional investors in your company if you don’t have a relationship with them or with someone that they know. Getting the attention of investors is all about relationships and being properly introduced to them by a mutual acquaintance.

You can not simply cold email a potential investor asking for money. That’s almost like asking a total stranger to marry you before you’ve even had a date.

Start building your network and building important business relationships now because that’s going to be absolutely critical to the success of your company.

Patience

Running a startup is a marathon. It’s a very long-term goal to bring a product to market and build a company around it. In fact, I would say it’s an ultra-marathon combined with sailing around the world a couple times.

It all definitely requires patience. Without patience you’re going to get frustrated and expect things to happen more quickly than is realistically possible.

That can eventually cause you to burnout. You have to understand that all these things take a long time to happen. They can take years to reach fruition.

At the same time, you have to balance patience with maintaining drive and passion for your project. You don’t want to be so patient or easy going that you don’t really care when anything happens.

Confidence

You need to find the right balance between having confidence, yet remaining realistically humble.

You can’t be meek and get a product to market. You need confidence in your idea.

People don’t follow people who are scared. They follow people that are confident in what they’re doing. If you’re not confident about your product and your vision, then no one else will be either.

However, you have to be careful to not be overly confident. You have to be humble, which means willing to seek outside opinions. You always need to be willing to adapt your plan as you continue to learn from the process itself.

This many times means being willing to change your end goal. Typically, the final product that makes it to market will be significantly different than your initial vision. Your end product will be more successful if you are humble enough to accept new input.

That input, a lot of times, will point you in a totally new direction. Remember to be confident in your idea, but humble enough to modify your vision as necessary.

Sacrifices

How willing are you to make sacrifices? There is no doubt that bringing a product to market, or starting a business, requires sacrifices.

How willing are you to sacrifice time with your family? This can be hard to do, and is why a lot of startups are founded by younger people who haven’t started a family yet.

I would never recommend you sacrifice your family for your business, but you have to be realistic about the time it takes to run a hardware startup.

Fortunately, I believe it’s possible to manage your time and make reasonable sacrifices without making your family pay the price.

There are lots of other sacrifices you will have to make, big and small.

For example, you may want to spend your day off binge watching something on Netflix. Well, if you are running a startup, chances are you can’t do that. You need to spend almost every moment of spare time working toward your vision.

If you think I forgot any vital skills that you need to be successful as a hardware startup please share below in the comments section.

The key to success is knowledge of the obstacles that lie in your path and a realistic plan on how to overcome those obstacles. Helping you accomplish this is the goal of the Predictable Hardware Report.

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HansTjade RubenHeath RafteryJohn TeelEver Recent comment authors
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Hans
Guest

So true, John.
I’m a retired El.Eng. with similar experience like you and had a small company too. It’s not only that all those problems really exist, you need to master squaring a circle. Even when you are very skilled, if you don’t have enough money and have do most things by yourself, your product may be eventually outdated before succeeding on market.

John Teel
Admin

Thanks Hans for the comment and sharing your experiences. You make some great points.

Heath Raftery
Guest

Brilliant John, one of your best. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but all of them will require some measure of the elements you describe. I wouldn’t add anything because I think the article is the right depth/breadth, but I would mention that another crucial trait is the ability to generalise or take a grand view of things – for engineers (like myself) this is hard. You have to remove yourself from the alignment of the capacitors and the number of picobangs you can achieve and see your product as thousands of others will – what are their purchases motivated by? What are they trying to achieve? How can the decisions you make and the language you use to communicate your vision provide your customers with a compelling place to put their money?

John Teel
Admin

Thank you Heath and your comment brought a smile to my face. I’m really glad you found this article so helpful. Great additional point about being able to take a grand view of things. This is a point I try to mention frequently but I forgot to include it in this article. You are absolutely right though and you need to look at the big picture before you get lost in the tiny details. This very point is one of the main reasons I created my Predictable Hardware Report service, and I want entrepreneurs to see the bird’s eye view before they dive into full development.

Thanks again for the comment!

Ever
Guest

Excellent article. No doubt your articles are very productive and realistic. The hardware business is extremely hard, a field poorly understood and valued by society in general, everyone enjoys their contributions, but they want to pay very little or at a free price.
Your advice allows you to have clarity and take things slowly. I live in Chile and I see with concern how companies, entrepreneurs and startup want to create a hardware product in less than 6 months. In less than a year they want to have everything functional and that the first prototype works at once, when trying to show that this is not possible they tend to opt out and close to the possibilities. This is a great limitation in Latin America, the entrepreneur does not understand the times of development and completely closes business opportunities.
Any advice on how to take this situation, which for me is very frustrating.
Thank you very much for your valuable advice.

John Teel
Admin

Thank you for the comment, and for sharing your experiences on this topic. I suggest you send any entrepreneur that doesn’t have realistic expectations to my blog for a bit of education on what it takes and how long it takes to get a new product on the market:)

Best wishes!

Tjade Ruben
Guest
Tjade Ruben

Yeah, I agree with John. Before I discover this blog, I was totally lost but after I have a better understand of the journey of a Hardware Startup. I have recommended other hardware entrepreneur in my environment to come here and increase their knowledge.
Thank you John for this blog!!

John Teel
Admin

Thank you so much Tjade for your kind words and for recommending my blog to other hardware entrepreneurs! I’m really glad I’ve helped you become un-lost:)


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