In a recent blog I discussed the path to market for entrepreneurs with a strong technical background. I started that blog by telling a story about an engineer named Gary, and his marketer friend named Paul. You eventually learn that Gary and Paul are really Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs (I used their middle names).
The moral of the story about Wozniak and Jobs applies equally well for non-technical entrepreneurs: Each and every one of us has our own unique strengths and weaknesses. The key to success with a startup is understanding what they are and how to overcome your weaknesses and boost your strengths.
For most techie types the biggest challenge is breaking past their introverted nature to actually market and sell their product. For most non-techie types development is the biggest obstacle.
While it can be challenging, it’s absolutely critical that you focus on what you can do well while also acknowledging the areas you need to work on. Then, the emphasis needs to be on bringing in other people to fill the gaps in your own skillset or other areas where you’re not as comfortable.
If you are non-technical, this means you’ll likely need to fill the gaps associated with product development. Start by surrounding yourself with those that have the skills you require. Then, eventually either outsource development or bring on a technical partner.
This article will discuss how those of you with a non-technical can successfully develop your product. You can get over your weaknesses, leverage your existing strengths, and ultimately produce a successful product.
Your Strengths and Weaknesses
When most people with technical backgrounds start the process of bringing a new product to market, the majority of their focus goes into product development.
As a result, market research is typically pushed aside and delayed. Technical knowledge is only one part of the puzzle, however, and it’s important to always keep this in mind.
The point is, everyone has their own struggles. Some like to focus on their strengths and ignore their weaknesses, and others are paralyzed by an over focus on their weaknesses. Instead, simply identify them and formulate a plan to effectively deal with them.
Keep in mind, it’s impossible for one single person to be able to do everything required to bring a product to market. It doesn’t matter how smart you are and how much you know, you’ll still need help from other people to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.
Many non-technical entrepreneurs never make any progress on their idea because they mistakenly believe that development is the very first step of the process. How can they dare to get a product to market if they are already stuck at the very first step?
But, development is NOT the first step in the long process of bringing a product to market. Instead, market research, product validation, planning, and ongoing marketing should be the first steps. So don’t freeze up thinking you can’t proceed with your idea.
Have a Focused Vision and Pursue it Passionately
As mentioned previously, technical knowledge and technical skills are only one piece of the puzzle. While technical knowledge is important, many of the other pieces could arguably be even more critical.
For example, it’s imperative that you have a vision for your product or company and the impact you want it to have on the world. This, I believe, is more important than having a specific technical skill.
If you don’t have a strong vision, the technical skills you bring to the table, no matter how great, won’t be properly used to produce anything of value. You can’t have an idea and simply expect that everything will work out and that others will understand the need for it. Instead, it’s critical to have a long-term strategy and to delineate what you hope for in the future. Don’t dismiss the value of this.
Along with your vision comes passion and resilience. Having a vision that’s important to you will motivate you to stay focused on making that vision a reality.
This is especially important because bringing a product to market can be extremely difficult at times. It’s very much like a roller coaster ride. You will have highs and lows; there will be times when you’re cheering and times when you’re on the verge of tears.
You’ve got to have a focus on your vision and the resilience to push through any obstacles that get in your way. Along with a clear vision, don’t undervalue the importance of passion and the resilience that can drive you to make your goals happen.
Similar to resilience and passion, it’s also necessary to have adaptability. You need to be adaptable enough to figure out how to make your product happen. In a world where you’re confronted with an endless number of obstacles, adaptability is absolutely critical.
You don’t have to know how to do everything, but you have to be adaptable enough to at least be able to figure out what needs to be done and then find the people that can help get it done.
Lastly, it’s important that you network. If you’re great at building relationships and making connections with people, use this skill set to reach out to others and build a network. Doing so is hugely beneficial to a startup.
Focus on Product Development and Marketing Simultaneously
Outside of having vision, passion, and resilience, your hardware startup success depends on product development and marketing.
As mentioned previously, if you’re a technical engineer then the product development is going to be easier for you and marketing will likely be your biggest challenge.
Conversely, if you’re a non-technical founder, then product development will likely be overwhelming and you’ll be more comfortable with marketing.
When bringing a product to market, most engineers focus on product development because their main goal is to develop a new product and that’s what they specialize in.
As a result, they have a tendency to become fixated on the product development stage and forgo marketing considerations until later on. Thus, product development and marketing are typically done sequentially.
However, marketing is equally important, if not more important, than product development, and the two should be done simultaneously. Both are extremely complicated and slow to accomplish.
If done sequentially, you will find yourself investing in product development for years without gaining any sizable market for your product.
While it’s important that you do both at the same time, realize that you don’t have to be one of the very few people who are good at doing both.
There are exceptions, of course, and I don’t want to generalize, but engineers tend to be introverts. They’re great at development and have a lock me away and let me work on my product type of mentality.
But, the biggest mistake you can make is to lock yourself away while you work on your product. You need to expose yourself to feedback, ideas, and support from others and not hide away only focusing on development.
If you’re non-technical, this somewhat applies to solely focusing on marketing as well. However, I find it rare to focus too much on marketing.
Tips to Facilitate Product Development with a Non-Technical Background
As stated previously, rarely will someone excel in both the development and the marketing/sales side of things. If you are non-technical, it’s likely that you will struggle with product development, and you have to find a way to fill in those gaps.
Below are several ways to facilitating product development for those with non-technical backgrounds.
1. Bring on a co-founder
Typically, one of the best (but never the easiest) ways to facilitate product development and marketing when one is not your strong suit is to bring on a co-founder.
If you’re a technical founder and are not comfortable with marketing, a co-founder can help to fill that gap and provide a different skillset for you.
Conversely, if you’re a non-technical founder and believe you would be better at marketing, sales, and person-to-person interactions, your ideal co-founder would be an engineer. Then, you can take on the marketing responsibilities and the engineer can focus on development.
While bringing on a co-founder can be a great long-term strategy, doing so presents many challenges. One of the biggest obstacles people face is that they find it very difficult to find a good co-founder.
Many hardware founders are out there working in their own bubble and they don’t know anyone else running a hardware startup or doing product development. On top of it, their family thinks they’re crazy and doesn’t understand anything their doing. They’re not in an environment that is cohesive to finding another individual that would be useful to their company and a great match for their startup.
Keep in mind that bringing on a co-founder is a serious decision. It’s almost like a marriage! You’re giving away a big, and ideally equal, share of equity in your company so there’s a lot of risk associated with it. If you bring on the wrong person this can have drastic consequences.
Remember, Steve Jobs was fired from his own company by the CEO he personally hired, former Pepsi CEO John Sculley. It’s important that you don’t take this process lightly.
2. Bring on advisors
Another option that is somewhat similar to bringing on a co-founder is to bring on advisors, or people that have experience in your product’s specific market. If you’re in the United States, there’s a great nonprofit called SCORE.
SCORE is an organization made up of retired or semi-retired executives that want to give back and help other entrepreneurs.
This nonprofit is typically a great way to get connected with an advisor who has general business knowledge and advice. You can find someone experienced in business to bounce ideas off of. However, finding an advisor with specific experience in hardware startups will be difficult.
You should also look to bring any experienced engineers you may know on to your advisory team. Many times they won’t be the ones doing the actual design since perhaps they have a full-time job already, but they could serve as advisor to provide some oversight.
3. Join an online community
Online groups are a great way to get the support and guidance you need. One of the best things about them is that you can access them easily regardless of your location and they usually aren’t very expensive.
You would think there would be some fantastic communities for those developing hardware products, but that isn’t the case from what I’ve seen. Sure there are lots of groups and forums on electronics design, product design, or business.
But, I don’t know of any specifically for startups bringing new hardware product to market.
This is exactly why I started the Hardware Academy so hardware entrepreneurs can get support from experts, and connect with other entrepreneurs.
Inside the Academy, members can feed off each other and take advantage of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I look at it like a giant co-founder team; we all work together to help each other accomplish our individual goals.
4. Outsource to a design firm or freelancers
It’s also possible to outsource product development to a design firm or freelancers.
Hiring a design firm is advantageous because they will take care of a majority of the development process for you. You will also get a more integrated team and you won’t have to spend extra time and effort ensuring that all the different parts are working cohesively together.
Despite these advantages, hiring a design firm is expensive. Design firms typically cost over one hundred thousand dollars. Even if you have the money to hire a design firm, investing so much money in a new and yet unproven product is a huge risk.
Typically, I would only recommend hiring a design firm if you have funding through a crowdfunding campaign or from outside professional funding. That way you’re not the one taking on the brunt of the financial risk.
The other option is to hire freelancers. This is by far the cheapest option, but it also has many drawbacks. First, it comes with the added responsibility of finding multiple freelancers to cover the full skillset you need, and then managing those multiple individuals closely.
Furthermore, freelancers come and go. They lose their job, start doing freelance work for a while, then get a full-time job and dump your project before its completed. Then you’ve got a design that’s partially finished, and perhaps even a design in software that no other designers use, and a new designer has to start from scratch.
There are cases that are somewhere in between design firms and freelancers. For example, I commonly work with a small firm in India that started out as just two freelancers. Their prices are lower than most U.S. freelancers but you still get the advantage of an integrated team.
5. Develop your own proof of concept
Another option is to simply start by developing your own proof of concept (POC) prototype. A POC prototype is based on a development kit, like an Arduino for example, that doesn’t require any custom development.
You can create a simple proof of concept prototype just using off the shelf components. This requires a much lower technical skill level than designing a custom PCB.
This is a good option for those that have an interest in electronics, and the time and passion to become a capable maker, but little to no experience in this field.
Another benefit is that POC prototypes are much cheaper than outsourcing the full product development, therefore you don’t have as great a financial risk as you would investing a significant amount of money right from the start.
Building a POC prototype can also be a good intermediate step because it can help demonstrate your idea to others. If you can get funding, then you can hire designers to do the custom work to replace your development kit based prototype.
You could also use a POC prototype to increase your likelihood of finding a co-founder. When you ask someone to be a co-founder, you’re asking them to invest a lot of their time and likely also their money. Having a proof of concept prototype can help convince them that this is a good opportunity.
Once you have a prototype, you can show it to people, get feedback, and start building some interest around your product.
6. Always monitor the quality of outsourced work
As mentioned previously, outsourcing product development has quite a few risks. One of the biggest concerns with outsourcing is the quality of work.
This is especially true for freelancers. If you go with a design firm, they’re going to internally self-manage themselves to a large extent. But not so with freelancers, who usually work alone.
Unfortunately, as a non-technical founder or co-founder, you typically don’t have the skills to judge the quality of your freelancer’s or design team’s work. And, if you can’t judge the quality of their work, how can you effectively manage them?
You must be able to judge the quality of your freelance engineer’s work. This likely means that you need advisors and support in place to help you judge the quality and efficiency of your designs.
An advising team is especially important because, as a non-technical founder, you run the risk of being scammed.
If you have no clue about electronics design and then you pay someone to build a printed circuit board for you, are you going to know that they did a good job or a bad job? That’s a dangerous position to be in and it can open you up to being exploited.
This happens quite frequently; some people prey on those who have an idea and a dream because they know the are vulnerable.
As an example, I had a client contact me a couple of years ago that had hired a “design firm” in China to develop their custom PCB.
They had received a prototype, so they thought everything was going well. However, while they were doing research online they happened upon their exact circuit board for sale on Alibaba.com. They quickly realized the board they bought for thousands of dollars was not custom-designed at all.
Their design firm had purchased an existing board from Alibaba.com and simply placed a sticker over the logo, selling it as their own.
This entrepreneur had spent thousands of dollars and had absolutely nothing to show for it except a board he could have bought himself for a few dollars on Alibaba.com.
That’s a worst-case scenario, but I’ve had multiple people over the years contact me with very similar stories. Therefore, I encourage you to always make sure you have a system in place to monitor the quality of any work you’ve outsourced.
First, I recommend having a formal 3rd-party design review done before sending a design off for prototyping.
Second, be sure to always have an advisory team in place to help guide you through the development process.
Together, this ensures you’re not being taken advantage of by a dishonest engineer or someone that doesn’t have the skill set you need for your project.
7. Teach yourself a new skill
If you’re completely nontechnical and don’t know a resistor from a capacitor, then it’s going to be extremely challenging to take yourself from that level to the point of designing a manufacturable, custom design product. Rarely would this be a viable technique or strategy for someone with no experience.
However, the 3D modeling of your design, creating the product’s enclosure, designing the physical appearance of your product, etc., are things that can be learned.
I believe 3D modeling is something many people can pick up, even if they don’t have an extensive technical background. If you already use complex software and have artistic abilities, then 3D modeling is something that can be self-taught.
One reason I recommend learning 3D modeling is appearance can be a difficult thing to convey to someone else. If you want a designer to make something look the way you want, it requires extensive back and forth communication to convey exactly what you have in mind.
On the other hand, it’s much easier to communicate your ideas related to electrical engineering, and therefore much simpler to outsource this component. “I want a product that has Bluetooth communication” is much more objective than “make my product look cool”.
Because 3D modeling is less technically complicated and more abstract than electrical engineering, I have found it to be very beneficial to learn in order to help speed up your product development.
I went through multiple mechanical engineers and spent thousands of dollars. But I was still frustrated with how long things were taking, especially since appearance was critical for my product.
I eventually got so frustrated that I decided to just teach myself 3D modeling. I knew nothing about 3D modeling, but was able to teach myself about basic injection molding and get proficient enough to do my design within a couple of months.
Doing that on my own made the entire development process substantially quicker. I cut months off my total development time, despite the extra month it took me to learn how to do it.
I saved time in the long run because I was able to make the changes myself and instantly see how that impacted the appearance of the product.
As with all entrepreneurs, regardless of your technical background, it’s important that you have a team of advisors in place to help you stay on the right path.
The worst thing you can do is to keep everything inside your own head. Don’t hide away, trying to figure everything out on your own. That is a recipe for failure and the worst way to go. You need outside help.
Overall, it’s extremely important when developing a new product that you focus on both product development and marketing simultaneously. It’s very rare that someone is great at both, so acknowledge your weaknesses and understand where you need help.
Clarity always comes from being in motion, and you can’t steer a stationary vehicle. So don’t let your weaknesses stop you from proceeding with your idea, just start moving forward!
If you’re overwhelmed trying to bring your product to market, now is your chance to get help (and at a no-brainer low monthly price).
In the Hardware Academy you will get direct access to me as well as support from lots of other highly experienced engineers and experts. You can ask any questions you wish on both business and technical topics. No longer will you being doing this entirely on your own, and we’ll be there for support when you need it!
Whether you have a PhD in engineering, or are a total non-techie, the Hardware Academy will give you what you need to succeed with your new product!