Episode #19 – Importance of Technical Advisors and Product Simplification

Published on by John Teel

In this episode of the Predictable Designs Podcast I discuss the importance of finding a technical advisor, and how critical it is to get help upfront to simplify your product.

I share a couple of stories to highlight the importance of simplifying your product. One story is about an entrepreneur that likely saved at least $50,000 by eliminating one secondary feature of his product.

The second story showcases another entrepreneur that greatly simplified his product development by changing one feature specification.

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John Teel

Links mentioned in the show:
TheHardwareAcademy.com

Download the PDF transcript of this podcast episode.

Podcast Transcript:

John Teel: Hello, everyone. This is John Teel, and I’m so excited to have you join me again for another episode of the Predictable Designs Podcast. This is going to be another solo episode today. I’ve got some really important things I want to talk about.

Do keep in mind, in the future, I will still be doing interview podcast as well. I feel like there’s a lot of different things that I want to talk about that I feel like a solo podcast is the best medium for me to share these different things with you. This podcast is going to continue to be a mix of solo podcasts with interviews.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I want to talk about today’s topic. I’m like you. I’m always in a constant state of learning. As the years pass and I work with more and more entrepreneurs, I get more and more wisdom. I learn more ways that can really help entrepreneurs succeed with their product.

I’m always learning from my experiences of working with lots of different entrepreneurs. I am always gaining new insight into what the struggles are, where the mistakes are made, and ways to overcome these issues. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

The first thing that I want to talk about is a step that I believe is mostly not followed by a lot of entrepreneurs. It’s not something that I’ve even really pushed too much in my content in the past.

I’m going to be going back and editing some of that content and changing that because what I’m about to say, the two things I want to talk about in this podcast, I really feel are so important to the success for hardware product from an entrepreneur. The first one is, to get a technical advisor. This especially applies if you’re a non-technical founder.

Even if you’re a technical founder, perhaps you have experience with software, but you don’t understand hardware, that’s still a case where you really need to have a technical advisor.

Even if you’re an electrical engineer who is, say, good with hardware, and also software, the odds are, unless you’ve brought your own product to market, you’re probably not going to have the knowledge and experience on every step all the way from developing the product all the way to manufacturing.

It’s really important that you bring on a technical advisor who has that bigger picture vision of what it takes to bring the product to market.

I think that’s just really important, no matter what your experience level is or how technical you are, although it’s even becomes much more important, the less technical that you are.

This technical advisor needs to be someone that’s independent from either the freelancers that you’ve hired or a design firm that you’ve hired to do the actual work of development.

You want this person to be completely independent. This isn’t someone that you want your design firm to also be your technical advisor. You need a third party unbiased advice, and opinions from this technical advisors.

Definitely, you need to find someone that is not directly involved in the actual design of the product, the design firm, or the freelancers.

Instead, this consultant is going to help provide oversight of the product development so they can help with such things as resolving any technical issues or conflicts between the different engineers.

If your software guy blames it on the hardware and the hardware guy blames it on the software, then your technical advisor can be there to help you. They can also really help a lot by performing design reviews.

Although that could be done separately by someone that’s not your technical advisor, you can also just hire people just independently to do a design review. Ideally, your technical advisor has the technical experience, to be able to do design reviews, to help resolve any technical issues, to help you manage and provide oversight for your freelancers and developers, and to help you judge the quality of their work.

That’s always one of the biggest risk. If you don’t have the skill that you’re outsourcing, then it becomes challenging for you to be able to judge the quality of that job or task that you’re outsourcing.

If you’re have no experience with electronics design, and then you outsource that, then that’s where a lot of entrepreneurs they get burned. They end up with something that doesn’t work even though they paid for it. You need to have a technical advisor that has the skills to be able to judge the quality of the work, while it’s ongoing.

For instance, they could do a design review before you, perhaps, make a payment to your developer or firm, or they could do a design review before you go to prototype the product because it’s much easier and cheaper if you find design errors in a design review than having a prototype made and then finding the problem.

Bringing on a technical advisor can help in lots of ways like I said. They can just provide general technical guidance through the whole process. That visibility that they hopefully have in the full cycle, is really, really important because the majority of people, regardless of their experience, if you’re an engineer, and you work for a big tech company, you only see one small part of the full cycle.

For instance, when I was a design engineer at TI as a microchip designer, I wasn’t involved in marketing efforts, or necessarily too much involved in manufacturing, or even quality testing.

There were all these other engineers that handled different areas. That’s just the way a big company works, is everyone is specialized. Most engineers working for large companies may not have the visibility or the understanding of the full cycle and every step that it takes to bring a product to market.

Ideally, your technical advisor should be someone that has gone through this entire process, ideally, as part of a startup or advising another startup. That’s my first tip, is to find a technical advisor. The second step that I want to discuss is something that I’ve come to realize, I think, is probably one of the most important early steps that a hardware entrepreneur can take.

That is to simplify your product. Complexity is really the death of a hardware startup. It’s just until you’ve gone through the full cycle of developing a product and bringing it to market, it’s really hard to have an appreciation for how complex the whole process is, and that’s with a relatively simple product.

If you’re developing a really complex product, then you’ve magnified everything, you’ve magnified your development costs, your development time, how long it takes to get to market. Most importantly, you’ve magnified your risk because developing a more complex product just has a lot more risk with it than if you developed a simpler version of that product.

Product simplification is really another aspect of a minimum viable product or MVP. That’s a term you hear thrown around so much. I wanted to hit in or target in on the product simplification aspect of that.

A minimum viable product is really you approach that more from the customer’s perspective. What is the minimum feature set that the product has to have to solve the core problem that the customer is having? That’s typically the way you approach an MVP. A lot of that is identical to what I’m describing as product simplification.

Product simplification is more looking at the technical side of the design, and not necessarily which features are the most important for the customer.

It’s looking at that, but it also looks at which of those features are the most complicated or the most complex to develop. That’s what I think is really important that you focus on, is not just the minimum viable product from the customer standpoint, but also the simplest product that you can get developed.

The simplest means the cheapest to develop, the fastest to develop, and the fastest to get to market. Those are all different elements of the MVP. I want to give you just a couple examples of the value of going through this extra effort of simplifying your product.

There’s a couple stories I want to tell. I had a member recently join my Hardware Academy program. This member is very technical, very smart guy. You could tell he had spent a lot of time specifying his product in great detail, all the features that he wanted.

He understood a lot of the technical complexities, but he wasn’t necessarily an engineer, and he wasn’t someone that had gone through the whole cycle. He did not have the visibility to see all the issues and the complexities that one particular feature of his product was causing. There was one feature of his product that magnified the complexity of the product by so much.

Thankfully, this feature was not really one of the core features, it was very much a secondary feature. In this case, the feature I’m talking about was wireless charging.

Without giving away too many details on the product, he had a fairly simple product. The one product was very simple, and then he wanted to be able to use a wireless charger to charge the battery in his main product, which was the simple product. The other device is the wireless charger. He wanted a custom wireless charger.

He wanted a fairly complicated custom wireless charger that also included motors that could align the device being charged so that the two coils for the wireless charger align properly because you have to have the two coils aligned together to be able to transfer the power wirelessly. He had this wireless charger with motors, and that so complicated his design.

First of all, now he’s got two products he’s developing. He’s developing his core product and he’s developing a wireless charger. If you think developing one hardware product and getting it to market is complicated enough, then try doing two products.

This is something I see so often, is people with a product idea where it really requires two or more products or devices. To the entrepreneur, they see this as one product because, in their mind, it solves a single solution and they’re going to sell it together, but from a development standpoint, they are two separate products.

If you have two separate devices, then you can, at the very least, double all of your cost. In this case, I think that adding this extra wireless charging feature was going to probably triple his cost because the wireless charging product, especially with the motors, was probably twice as complex as his core product.

He presented the product in the Academy, and myself and some of the other experts, immediately commented that, “You’re adding a lot of complexity by having this wireless charging function.” There were probably a half a dozen different suggestions made to him on much more feasible ways of implementing the charging.

He, of course, immediately, once all the information was presented to him, he realized that going the wireless charging route was not the way to go because he’s had increased his development cost because, like I said, you’re developing two products now. You’re prototyping two products.

You’ve got two printed circuit boards that you’re prototyping, two sets of enclosures that you’re prototyping. Now you have two products that you need to get certified, so now you’ve doubled your electrical certifications. Then once you go to production, now you’ve got two devices that you need to have injection molds made for.

As you’ve probably heard me talk about it in other places, injection molds are expensive. All of a sudden, you’ve doubled all of this cost and it makes it so much more complicated to get your product to market. In this case, we, pretty much with a few suggestions, were able to simplify his product development by at least three times.

I would estimate that this suggestion alone probably saved him $50,000 to, perhaps, $100,000 in the long run if he had chosen to bring his original product to market. In addition to it being two separate devices and all the complexities and cost with that, the fact that one of the devices had motors and moving parts, then that just opens up all types of other complexities and failure issues because a mechanical solution will almost always fail before an electronic solution.

It was just greatly magnifying the complexity of this product. This is just an example of how simplifying your idea in the beginning once you understand the implications of all the different features. Once you understand those features, then you can decide which of these features is the most important and is worth the cost.

This is really one of the reasons I originally started the hardware report service that I have offered for a couple of years, is I wanted to give people visibility into the cost for the various features that they were considering for their product.

Another example was another member that had joined the Academy, and he had a streaming video product. He came in wanting the best of the best. He was looking for resolutions of 1080p, and he was wanting to stream this over a cellular protocol.

Immediately, I went in and others went in, and explained to him that, “Okay, it’s doable, but you have to understand that 1080p video is a order magnitude more complicated than doing just 720p HD video.

One of the main reasons being is just the data throughput speeds required for 1080p is much higher than 720p and what you end up getting into is that causes you to migrate from a microcontroller solution to a microprocessor.”

There are some high-performance microcontrollers that are capable of supporting 720p streaming a high-definition video. However, there are no microcontrollers that have the processing speeds required to do 1080p video. What you’ve locked yourself into is now, instead of a simpler, easier to develop microcontroller based solution, now you’re having to go into the world of high-performance microprocessors.

A microprocessor drastically complicates your design. First of all, they tend to be so complicated that you almost always want to start with some type of module solution, but microprocessor modules tend to be really quite pricey.

That’s going to really impact your profit margins and eventually, you would want to substitute, get rid of the module solution, and replace it with a custom design, but designing a custom microprocessor-based solution is really complicated. It takes a lot of revisions to get it right.

That’s just going to greatly extend out your development time, your development cost, and your product cost. That one simplification and the member ended up coming back and saying, first, he really wanted 1080p and felt it was necessary, but then as he started thinking more about it, he realized that’s just a nice to have, but it’s not really a requirement to solve the core problem that he’s trying to solve.

By simplifying his product down from 1080p down to 720p, that minor change or seemingly minor changed, probably, simplified his product at least in half, maybe three times or more simpler. It’s just it really can have that profound of an impact on your development cost, certification cost.

These are just two examples. There are so many examples of cases where just understanding the long-term cost of various product features, if you understand those upfront, it’s so much better because it allows you to to select your feature set with the knowledge of knowing not only what features do customers require, but which of those features are the easiest to implement.

You always want to start with the simplest version, the MVP, and then expand from there. Actually, I felt this is so important. Why I’m doing the podcast is I recommend that all entrepreneurs spend a significant amount of effort upfront trying to see if they can simplify their product from a technical standpoint. The two cases I’ve given are electrical simplifications, but this can also be for mechanical simplifications. The first story I told you about the wireless charger was a little bit of both because the wireless charger had mechanical capabilities, but mechanical capabilities can also really add a lot of complexity to your product.

You need to understand what that’s going to cost you, what the downside of those features are.

In fact, it’s something I’ve started because I’ve seen so much value, like I said, that the one member I feel like probably saved at least $50,000 over the development lifetime of his product or even more, and then the other, the video streaming product, was also that simplification reduced his development cost by many thousands of dollars.

Now actually I’ve started encouraging all new members in the Academy to submit their product to myself and the other experts in the Academy, and just get feedback on ways to simplify the product.

These may be feature changes like getting rid of the wireless charger, but they also may be implementation suggestions like don’t use a microprocessor, use a microprocessor module, or don’t use a custom RF circuit, instead, use an RF module.

There are lots of suggestions like that that can drastically simplify your journey to market if you do them upfront. That’s really the two things that I wanted to talk about today. Bring on a technical advisor regardless of your technical level, but especially if you are non-technical or even if you’ve never brought a product to market or been involved in the full cycle from idea all the way through manufacturing.

Then bring on someone that has that visibility. Any money that you spend paying that consultant, I guarantee you’ll save much, much more than that. Just like I had for the example I gave with the wireless charging, that was at least a $50,000 savings on his development and manufacturing and certification cost.

You can hire a lot of engineer consultants, you can be a member of my Academy for a lot of months for over $50,000, so don’t be too frugal at the beginning with wanting to spend any type of money in that regard because the return on investment on any product simplifications is just astronomical.

Definitely, definitely, definitely find a technical advisor, and definitely either work with them or join my Academy or find an independent consultant that can also help you work to simplify the product so that it’s more feasible for an entrepreneur or a startup with a limited budget to develop.

You need to save the really, really complicated products for the really big companies that have millions of dollars to spend on development and have teams of dozens of engineers because that’s what it’s going to take.

If you’re trying to compete in that room with just you being a solo founder or a small team, and you’ve got a few thousand dollars to spend, there’s just no way it’s going to be feasible for you to compete with companies that have to spend millions of dollars to get that product developed.

They’re not spending that kind of money for the fun of it. They’re spending that kind of money because that’s what’s typically required to develop a really complicated product.

You cannot spend enough time upfront trying to work to simplify your product by understanding both the core needs of your customer and the relative technical complexities of those features.

That’s it for today’s podcast. I hope you have found this helpful. I hope this, the suggestions I’ve given you today end up saving you lots of money and making you so you can get your product to market faster, at cheaper costs, and ultimately a better chance of succeeding with your product.

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