Hardware is hard

Written by:

Axel Großklaus

Posted on:

tags:

Trial and error, practice, skills, experience the ups and downs that make Hardware so hard. We love it!

“Hardware is hard”, they say about startups. At an over 95% failure rate, it is the most likely outcome for any hardware startup. Statistically, you’d have a better chance for a big return if you took your investors’ money to the roulette table and put it all on “17”.

I have been building IoT devices for over 20 years now, worked with many startups and corporations on their products and founded 3 IoT companies myself.. It usually was a bumpy ride, full of challenges, complexity and unforeseen twists and turns in the road. And if anything, each project was a great opportunity to learn, improve and share that experience with others in the field.

The startup culture was formed by software startups and if you build hardware, a lot of that approach just won’t work. Or rather, you have to do many additional things that also must be approached differently.

Doing 4 things at once

As a hardware startup, you actually build 4 things in parallel:

  1. Your product: How does the value of your design satisfy a need of your customers? Every startup is looking for product-market fit as its central goal.
  2. Your technology: The device that is the basis of your product – made up of electronics and software, algorithms, mechanics, and how it all fits together.
  3. Your manufacturing process: Every hardware design is specific to a planned number of units. If you want to make 100, you have to design differently than for 10,000 or 1,000,000. The process and the design have to change with growing sales.
  4. Your team: Working together, learning together, maturing together. Growing the ability to tackle complex designs. Successfully building hardware is mostly about practical experience, not learned theory.

Each of these 4 aspects are present every step along a founder’s way and they require very different approaches. Only the first is “true startup work” that cannot be engineered, while the other 3 benefit from experience and engineering principles.

Each of these goals is a very difficult task on its own. Doing them all together even more so.

Running a development project with different styles at the same time is one of the challenges of a hardware startup.

Startups fail, founders don't

Like any skill in life, building a hardware startup takes practice. When you want to learn an instrument, no one would expect you to play any song the first time you pick up the instrument. Any skill, be it musical, a craft or a sport, takes a lot of time and practice to learn, and much, much more to master.

There is a lot of practice, failure, and frustration on the way. And another saying goes: “Either you hate hardware, or you love and hate hardware”. The struggle is real!

So while many individual startups fail, founders learn every time and get better every time and with it their chance to succeed. Conveying this reality to investors is another challenge of being a founder.

There is growth!

But bleak as this may sound for any IoT startup, it’s not like there has not been any growth. In the past 10 years, IoT has matured a lot.

When we started out, there was hardly any common technological basis. Things like internet connectivity, messaging, backend interfacing, and firmware updates were left up to the individual founder and this resulted in lots of semi-working homebrew tech or reuse of web technology that was readily available but would just not work for embedded devices.

These days we have MQTT, OTA frameworks, messaging standards, orchestration frameworks and so much more.

While IoT still has very far to go, it frees a lot of developer time allowing you to focus on the real tasks at hand, building of your specific technology and your manufacturing processes needed for success.

In a way, IoT is where PCs were in the late 90s. IT needed almost 20 years to put the pieces together and produce a technology that is fit for a wider audience. It will be great to see where IoT is going, now that the technological foundation is laid down.

A few things I have learned

Looking back, here are a few things I have learned:

  • Reflect on the task at hand: With everything you do, consider which of the 4 things above it belongs to and what kind of principles should apply. Also make sure that none of the 4 aspects is forgotten but gets the attention it needs.
  • Manage your goals: Keep the goals you just have to achieve to survive realistic. Consider your experience and the resulting risk. Ambition and technological vision are great for investor pitches and long term success. But treat them like a lighthouse on the horizon. Steer towards it but pay most attention to the stormy sea surrounding you.
  • Design for change: Uncertainty and change are at the core of every startup and your hardware design should reflect this. The remote update function is the most important function in any IoT device. Start with it and use it throughout your development process so it is mature on launch.

Many functionalities can either be done in software on a microcontroller or discrete electronic components. While components may be cheaper, any function that is software can be updated to solve bugs. Also, put just a bit more resources into the design. A bit more memory and performance allow for bug fixes and new features. Higher data rates and sensitivity on sensors help as well.

Let’s do this!

But the most important thing: Don’t be hard on yourself and your team. You’re doing great! Building a hardware startup is an extreme challenge for everyone involved. If you think, other companies have it all figured out: They don’t! Every startup is chaos and confusion. Bigger companies just had a lot more time to mature and can pour a lot more money into everything and easily make up for failure from existing business. And often, the chaos in large companies is similar or even worse, they just have better marketing to cover it all up to the outside.

But even with all that chaos and failed products, we’re still all here! Building, to make our ideas a reality! And to some day ship those millions of units and make a lot of……people very happy!

Like when learning the piano, frustration and endless practice are a natural part of the way and required for growth. And even so, in the end we’re all here and putting ourselves through this, because we love music, and we love building!

You can listen to more of my IoT Thoughts in this IoT Builders podcast episode.

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