The Paradoxes of Starting Up Your Hardware Startup…
I’ve spent six months virtually hermetically sealed in my hardware startup lab, getting to the point where I could launch my I2C and SPI Education System Kickstarter this morning at 8AM. Over this time, part of me has stood back from the experience and observed what it’s like for one person to deliver this. Each time I think through what I’ve learned in this first part of growing a business, I’m reminded it’s not as simple as some motivational poster to “Follow Your Passion” – words that can ring hollow to the vast majority of people out there that have both passion and commitments that require them to be tied to a far more secure future than what I’m embarking on.
What this time frame has been, is a series of paradoxes; a series of contradictions that hit you again and again trying to upset what balance in effort you try to achieve. That is the first of them too. Balance.
Maintain a balance in your efforts until you don’t.
As the guy behind the scenes… and in front of the scenes… and running lights, sound, fly rail, acting as stage manager and head usher, I have found it very important to get the right balance in my efforts. Certainly having all the time in the day to give to this project makes that easier. I really try to spend a part of each day doing a bit of everything: write code, develop a schematic for the project 3 projects away, draft a press release, manage twitter, work with the logo design crowdsourced project…
… oh hell … I knew I forgot to do something…
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And there’s a prime example – good balance would have been finishing this post, then hopping over there to work with the designers. Then you discover that one of your designers thought “incorporate electronics motifs” meant “add Waffen SS lightning bolts to your company name”. Balance means getting the most bang out of your day as possible. But ditch your balance at a moments notice to bring focus to anything that’s about to spin out of control. The balance is important so that you don’t burn out on anything, and so that you can get some mashed potatoes to offset the peas you have to eat in your tasks each day. But be ready to spend a lot of time eating peas on occasion. Speaking of food…
Eat, but don’t eat.
Once you’re in the groove, when the information is coming through your eyestalks and flowing out your fingers, and the QFP just went down like you were meant to solder from birth, you look up and realize the sun is down. It’s 7:15PM, you’ve soldered a full kilo of 0805 passives across a phalanx of circuit boards and are now wondering why your hands are shaking, and you have to squint at your prototype and everything smells like rosin flux. You, my friend, are no longer able to think clearly.
Set an alarm, layout a pan of brownies, keep a bag of gummy bears at your workstation – do whatever it takes to make sure that you get food into yourself on a regular basis. Hangry is a bad place to be when trying to design.
You will, of course, never accomplish more than when you’re in that zone – when the routing is easy, and you see the pattern in the layout, and the magic 10mil trace goes across the board without bisecting your ground plane into uselessness – under no circumstances do you stop. You ride that productivity beast as long as you can because those moments only come around infrequently. I feel such a high level of fulfillment when I come out of that reverie and see a run of high quality work that occurred nearly independent of me even trying. I am not going to stop that to eat a banana.
Don’t stop, but be kind to yourself and stop.
The quality of the product you put forth is only subject to your desire to keep polishing the chrome until your wrist feels like it’s going to fall off. When the ache first starts to set in, that’s when you know you’ve just finished starting, and it’s not like anyone else is going to polish for you. You have got to put away the little voice that says, “dude… go to sleep, man.” Seriously, there is a limited amount of time in each day, and you have a mountain of things to complete. If you want to bring to market that … thing … that is superior to all others, it’s going to take you refusing to give up on polishing that chrome to mirror finish.
Be wary of letting your wrist actually fall off. I remember distinctly a night two weeks ago, working with the exceptional Russian developer who put together the theme for the Rheingold Heavy website. All the graphics on the site were … bad. Scrunched. Just… fuzzy. I had put it off as “problem to be dealt with later” and later had come – and because of time differences LA to Moscow, later meant 1:30AM. I’d worked 28 hours straight repurposing the entire set of contents for this site and now I was going to be damned if I fell asleep with crappy photos. Bleary eyed, I was sending screen captures with rulers held in front of the screen showing that, in-site, the test graphic was 2″ wide but, viewed independently, was 2.125″ wide, and somehow both reported the same pixel width in Firebug. I eventually fell asleep at my desk, woke up in a daze around 4AM and stumbled to bed. I woke up two hours later to a suggestion on the WordPress Support Forum that perhaps I should check the zoom level on my browser. It was at 90%. I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say that more than 4 hours of sleep a weekend, might make you a better engineer and business person.
The last 20% is the hardest. So is the first 80%.
Right now, November 3rd 2014, I’m looking down the barrel of fulfillment, shipping addresses, mail merges, Uline packaging quotes, responding respectfully to value proposition criticism on Reddit, and trying gamely to figure out how to use Twitter. I’m officially putting a stake through the heart of “hardware is hard”. You know what’s hard. Everything. Every goddamn thing that you’re doing is hard. This last “sales, marketing and delivery” 20% of the project is really hard.
I have no clue how to write a press release. So what, write it.
I have no clue how to prepare a PCB design for assembly: So what, learn it.
I have no idea how to adhere to Franchise Tax Bureau Sales Tax requirements: Who cares, figure it out.
But if I’m honest, and take a step back, looking at all these bizarre hurdles in front of me, I can’t say that any of them are as daunting as the very first problem I faced…
“I have no idea what to design.”
Gather advice and ignore it
Last Monday, I sent the Kickstarter preview link around to friends, family and people with actual marketing experience. Their feedback was invaluable. I have to thank Mark Blacknell and Stu McLellan specifically for sending p.a.g.e.s. of revisions back that focused on tone, and form, and structure – far more than typos. Independent advice on your project is vital beyond measure, and it’s something that I’ve really struggled with.
In my circle of friends and acquaintances, I know many that are involved in technology from a coding, web development, IT perspective, but I am close with all of two people that actually know what I2C and SPI are (strangely, Mark and Stu are not those two people). The input they have all had was crucial in shaping the message that I have now brought to the market.
Last Tuesday, I met my friend Garrett to watch the World Series. Garrett was one of the first people to provide me with comments on the quality and tone of the campaign. He asked me how it was going, and I flashed momentarily to the 8 unread messages in my inbox from people providing advice and suggestions and I realized that it was time to ignore it all and commit the final draft. You have to know when the time comes to stop listening to the outside voices and trust what you believe.
Don’t spend any money, until you do
I already know how Rheingold Heavy will fail, should it fail. It will run out of money. The key to not running out of money, is not to spend the money you have. I can assure you that the plan in my head for staffing, should I ever get to that point, involves staying so lean it hurts and everyone working ludicrously hard on every aspect of the business.
I didn’t hesitate a moment before hiring Cynthia Hatfield to shoot the video for my Kickstarter. It was an absolute no brainer. I have a Canon EOS 60D that shoots in 720p. The video was shot in my lab. I’m in the video. The words are mine. There’s precious little to that video that I couldn’t have done myself… except provide actual talent. The words are mine, but assembled into an actual script by Cynthia. I’m in the video, but lit, framed, positioned by Cynthia. The lab is mine, but the background is adjusted tweaked and organized by Cynthia. The 60D sat on a shelf, because Cynthia brought a real 5D, a lens that fills me with envy to this moment and God’s own tripod.
Don’t spend a single cent you don’t have to. When you have to, spend that money and don’t think twice.
Yeah… Follow your passion
There is no paradox here, unless you count that following your passion results in sleepless nights, indigestion, unhealthy eating habits and occasionally accepting levels of personal hygiene that are borderline gangrenous. The fact of the matter is, I wake up at 5AM most days, because I just can’t sleep another instant. I was thinking about what I was going to do that day before I even woke up. Three days ago, I was getting out of bed and, for the life of me, couldn’t decide if I’d actually received an email, or if I’d only dreamed it. I was already making plans on what I was going to do based on that feedback. Spoiler Alert: it was actually a dream; the email came two days later. I was very confused. (Probably shouldn’t have stayed up until 2AM troubleshooting CSS with Vitaly).
I sometimes wonder if I’m doing this because I like it, or because I’m compelled to do it. Since walking out of my last office job on May 30th, this is all I’ve thought about doing; all I could think about doing. Every aspect of it appeals to the engineer in me, the creative person in me; the need to be precise, the need to be abstract. I’m not saving the world, I’m not curing cancer. I’m doing that … thing … that I know how to do, and do well. I am incredibly fortunate to have discovered that … thing. Many people don’t.
There was a day in September, when I realized that I’d gone three days without talking to anyone. I was totally consumed with optimizing the PCB size for the Display Add-on Board and Monday become Thursday and an order went out to OSHPark and an order went out to Digikey and a text message came in asking, “Is everything ok?”
This is unsustainable without abject love for what it is that you are doing. I love a challenge, and I love hard work in equal measures. I am all consumed with the idea of teaching electronics topics to other people that find it as equally fascinating as I do. I must design things and see them built and feel prototypes in my hand. I look eagerly for my mistakes so I can know that I know how to fix them.
I have so much I have to do; I can’t do anything but this.