Manage risk and maintain control on the road to market
Starting a business involves more than an element of risk, and for high-tech startups, those risks are often magnified by extreme technical complexity. The original team is usually small, maybe even just a group of college friends, with combined skills that only cover a subset of what is needed to bring their product idea to market. These are usually quite targeted, so it is not possible to complete product development using only internal resources.
Adding the right skills in the right places is key to minimizing risk and this may involve engaging with external technical contractors. At first, however, trying to find the right specialist help can feel like trying your luck in the dark. And knowing how to manage the relationship in the future is often far from intuitive.
As the startup establishes itself and moves on to creating subsequent generations and perhaps diversifies the product line, understanding and maintaining the optimal mix of skills and personalities may become more familiar.
Some companies have to engage with several contractors. At Anglia, we’ve worked with startups such as a wind power systems developer who engaged not only external inverter hardware and software specialists, but also an RF consultant to help integrate Bluetooth connectivity into part of the solution.
Any consultant worth hiring should have a portfolio of relevant successful projects to demonstrate their credentials. However, things can go wrong; we sometimes had to remedy engineering errors due to the wrong choice of consultant.
Resist the Temptation to Change
Good advice is to be clear about the requirements from the start and avoid the temptation to move the goalposts or change the design as much as possible; save this great idea for a new feature for the second generation of the product, because adding it to the current workload will cause delays and increase your consultant’s bill.
Even without the added complications of changing the design, keeping to the timeline isn’t always easy. When managing the relationship with a consultant, setting milestones for the project provides structure and a way to check that the work is progressing on schedule. If the schedule begins to slip, it becomes apparent in time to take prompt corrective action instead of remaining in the dark until the end of an important phase of the project where the effects of any delay can be more damaging.
Expertise with wireless standards is particularly in demand for many projects today. It can be much more complex than many realize. Designing to connect to a cellular or LoRa network, for example, can seem relatively simple until you get to the finer details of setting up and operating a connection. Although the 3GPP and LoRaWAN standards aim to simplify design and market, the details can become complicated if an application needs to be deployed in one or more international territories.
It is important to recognize that the development and preparation of the final product can take much longer than you think, including all the design and development work. Startups often base their plans on the idea that they can finalize their first prototype and go into production in just a few months. In reality, even simple projects can take 18-24 months or more. All the more reason not to move the posts during the project.
While it’s clearly important to keep the project on schedule to ensure the product hits the market while it’s still relevant, keeping an eye on costs is also essential. In particular, pay attention to the nomenclature of materials. When production begins, excessive prices hit every unit made and losses can quickly add up.
Some popular EDA packages can automatically create the BOM from a given schematic, but it’s important to know if this facility is tied to high-end distributors, whose prices tend to be higher than others. Shopping around can get a better deal. We frequently work with our customers to help them reduce costs and build strong assurances of supply, including identifying a second or third source of parts as well as identifying suitable alternatives that can provide better price availability. than those specified in the original design. Additionally, we can advise you on technical matters without being directly involved in the design work. When needed or requested, we sometimes leverage contacts within industry to help find technical specialists in areas such as IoT, FPGA design, MCU design, high-end wireless and digital power.
While sticking to the plan is essential to keep the project on schedule, it’s also important to allow time for design fixes. There can be big errors that compromise functionality or small errors that mean performance is below expectations. It’s unreasonable to expect every aspect of the project, from proof of concept to development, to go right the first time.
Of course, many aspects of a design can be verified using software, if you have the tools, and simulations can help avoid a lot of trial and error on the bench and in the field. However, some may be difficult to anticipate. Strict size, weight, and power (SWaP) constraints, for example, can be very difficult to assess until a complete unit is operational and includes hardware and software representative of the end product.
While it’s important to resist the temptation to add extra features or improve core functionality, design changes are inevitable. There is always an extra that can be added or an adaptation that could be made, to provide customers with a better experience or greater value, or to win out over the competition. Great new ideas are sure to arise as the project continues. Consign them to the pile of other great ideas to work on for the next generation.
Market requirements and expectations may also change; ideally due to the arrival of your first game-changer. It is important to reach the market and start building from there. Stay in control of your product roadmap and continue to set the tone for future product generations. Also keep in mind that the rapid pace of development in the semiconductor industry can help ensure that these new features become easier to implement with the next silicon.
Trust supply chain partners
On the other hand, external factors can sometimes force a change of plans. The availability of key components may change as the design is being prepared, especially since some consumer ICs have very short life cycles. Obsolescence can require your team to redesign part of the system and can be difficult to predict. It is important to consider longevity when designing key ICs and monitor manufacturer notifications.
Component engineering is a core skill for distributors, like Anglia. If you share the right information about your plans, we can assess the impact on your project if a part suddenly becomes not recommended for new designs, for example, or if there is a last purchase or obsolescence notice. The sooner this is addressed, the quicker, easier and cheaper problems can be solved and an alternative can be devised if necessary. Make sure your supply partner monitors this for you and will alert you to potential issues.
It can be important to be open-minded and flexible, to react quickly to events in terms of availability. This is all the more important given the supply chain challenges we are all facing right now. Startups are often kickstarter funded and must demonstrate progress against critical milestones. It’s important to avoid getting stuck with availability issues, and an experienced channel partner can help you overcome these challenges. There are often opportunities to design a solution if a part is not available and experience in this area can be invaluable if it involves more than just finding an equivalent component.
For new high-tech companies, bringing in the right skills from outside the organization and maintaining control of the project are two of the most important and challenging aspects of managing the start-up phase. Managing outside experts requires clarity, as well as the self-discipline to stick to the plan and avoid the temptation to extend project and design goals.
Bringing a new product to market is never as easy or straightforward as the imagination suggests. Allowing time to manage delays and rectify mistakes is essential, and especially important for managing investor expectations. In today’s climate, supply chain challenges can complicate project management, add delays, and require creative solutions that draw on the skills of supply chain partners.