Welcome to the Design to Product Podcast!
In this interview episode, we talked to Bill Cowles.
Bill Cowles is a Hardware Product Developer at Fiftyswiss, an industrial design and mechanical engineering consultancy. He launched successfully on Kickstarter multiple times and shares some of his insights, as well as some mistakes and lessons that hardware founders make when it comes to getting their products to market.
Today we talked about:
- Bill’s startup experience
- Main things that helped them get to market very fast
- Identifying the market
- Knowing the critical components to put the project together
- Finding the right experts
- Fast prototyping
- Sample projects: Sidewalk Labs, Mirror, Proteus Motion, Move 38
- How to utilize Kickstarter Launch as a startup:
- to fund manufacturing after validating concept
- to get interest in the project and validate concept
- Challenges and mistakes of hardware startups’ founders
- Importance of having right experts in your team or advisors
- How to shorten time to market:
- anticipating components
- putting the right amount of effort upfront
- understand market
- Building good supplier relationship from the beginning
Adar: So our guest today is Bill Cowles. Bill is a hardware product developer of Fiftyswiss and Fiftyswiss is an industrial design and engineering consultancy that focuses on consumer electronics, sporting goods and medical equipment. Was that right, Bill?
Bill: Sure. Yeah, that’s definitely right. And also a lot of IoT products and consumer goods along those lines as well.
Adar: So, yeah, tell us a bit about Fiftyswiss and about your experience.
Bill: Sure. So I’ve been consulting for the past five years now, and I’ve set this up after coming out of a startup called Electric Objects, where for four years I was the Director of Design and Engineering. It was a great experience. It was my first start up experience after coming from working really with manufacturers directly and also consultants earlier than that. So my experience at Electric Objects is great. I was the third hire and helped them bring a product to life in a very short amount of time. We had a Kickstarter campaign that was successful.
Adar: Oh, nice.
Bill: Yep. I think we got around 700,000 interest in terms of dollars. Because of the quick time to market, we really had to push very hard to get a customized product out the door.
Adar: Yeah. You mentioned that you were able to get to market very fast. What are the main things that helped you do that?
Bill: I would say the first thing that really helped was identifying the market as best we could, having a sense of what components were really critical and necessary to get the project put together and then finding the right experts in areas where I didn’t have a skill set to help us build a custom SPC and help integrate with an LCD panel. Really just finding critical experts and working very hard to get prototypes put together and get as quickly to market as possible.
Adar: How did you find those experts? Did you know them beforehand?
Bill: We did not. We found our SPC designer or electrical engineering house through a contact at Avnet. We were sourcing LCD panels and components and I had a relationship with them in the past and they made some suggestions of manufacturers in an area where we were really hoping to get the product made. So it really just came out of talking to component suppliers.
Adar: Got it. And you probably designed a lot of products in the last five years or were responsible for consulting companies about it. So what are some of the products that you’re most proud of or most excited about?
Bill: Yeah, so lots of products since then and so I’ve been lucky to have met a lot of people along the way to help me get into some of these projects early on. Some of them include working with companies like Sidewalk Labs, a Google company, helping them develop an IoT sensor in the ground as part of their forward thinking pebble project. I’ve worked with a company called Mirror, which has a sporting good or really a training equipment for the home, that was exciting. And also a company called Proteus Motion, which came out with a new product last year, they had an award for that I believe.In helping them with really some accessories and some mechanical portions of that project. Recently I’ve just completed a project with a Kickstarter company and that came from another project a couple of years ago, a company called Move38 and their gaming system called Blinks. That was another super fun one. Yeah, there’s been a couple of others. I had a robotics project along the way for 6 months.
Adar: So a wide variety of things.
Bill: Yeah, it’s been a lot of different projects.
Adar: Very nice.
Bill: It’s been really fun.
Adar: Yeah. I think Kickstarter is a great way to not only get initial funding for your project, but also to validate an initial concept or an idea to see how much traction is going to get. Like, what are your thoughts? You went through a couple of them, so maybe that would be helpful for the audience because I know that a lot of founders and product builders usually find it hard to validate, especially because hardware products are naturally harder to create prototypes and it takes a lot of time. So what are some of your tips there?
Bill: I like the Kickstarter platform a lot. I think what you mentioned before, it’s a great platform for getting your initial product out and validating it, seeing who the market is. And like you said, it is tough to do that with a normal process. Just having a couple of prototypes, giving them to friends, family, or maybe a small network of people. Kickstarter does, it gives you a little bit of a marketing edge as well. But I think the critical thing there is you really need to be pretty buttoned up with what your message is and what the product is because you really are producing something for the actual market.
Bill: While it can be a great tool to use for testing, I would think of it definitely as a platform for selling your end product.
Adar: Yeah. And there are a lot of stories about people who are very disappointed from the end result after they were really excited about the product. So you probably have to be very ready when you launch your Kickstarter campaign, like how you do the video and how you raise money. I know that there are a lot of people who prepare a lot of time in advance for their Kickstarter launch to gain momentum, so it’s not a very simple thing. So maybe you first of all had to do a lot of things to validate your concept beforehand because then when you go out to Kickstarter, it’s like a more advanced stage.
Bill: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I think if you’re a startup and you have some backing, the ways that you’ve gotten some of your funding is through validation, through investors, but also maybe a core group of people. Companies that approach Kickstarter have two paths. They can either prepare as much as they can and be ready to really kick off manufacturing, and they need some funding to do that, to pay for supplies or in maybe a less great way to do that is to use Kickstarter to get interest in the project and then you start developing.
Adar: Yeah. And the people who use that to get interest in the project and then people buy their products, have to deliver on something that they’re unsure of. There’s a lot of hard things along the way and maybe we can talk about that a little bit. You work with a lot of hardware founders and startups and you’ve been in a startup yourself. Employee number three, you said. What are some of the mistakes that you see founders make, especially new founders, where it’s the first product that they’re building?
Bill: Yeah, it’s a great question. I’ll try not to get myself in trouble.
Adar: Other founders, not your customers.
Bill: Yeah, I’ll try to imagine some scenarios, but based on reality, I think founders that maybe don’t come from a hardware process have a bit more of a difficult time understanding the challenges of developing a product. So issues will come up that maybe aren’t really solvable, but they become maybe stakes in the ground that become kind of bigger problems than they really need to be. I’m just being very general here, but I think people who have been through the process before have seen some of the challenges that take place throughout the process and they’re able to leap over the problems a little bit better.
Adar: So what are some of the challenges that you see hardware founders deal with and how do they solve these and how do you advise them to solve these?
Bill: I think every project is really different. I find that depending on the complexity of the project, I would have different ways of approaching it. And so, I don’t know, maybe like a medium complex project to get over some of the problems quickly, I think you need to have really a mix of people on your team, and I would not discredit having someone with experience come in and either as an advisor or someone full time, that can really help drive the path a little bit. So getting that experience in with someone who’s been through the process before, I think is really helpful just to get opinions, find solutions a little bit more quickly and help the team in ways that maybe a founder that doesn’t have experience can.
Adar: Got it. What about managing the time constraints? There’s obviously almost always timelines.
Adar: You have to get to a certain point by a certain date. How do you manage that? How do you shorten time to market, maybe in ways that people don’t necessarily think about and can be crucial to reduce the time to market, basically.
Bill: Yeah, I think pre covid there were things you could do, like I’m just thinking in terms of more sort of operations stuff. Decreasing time to market is really anticipating components in the manufacturing process. Making sure that you have enough components on hand, you make a selection early and you stick to decisions on what you’re using for the MCU or the SBC or whatever video display that you’re using and you go and you can pre buy these components. It’s worked for large companies and I think for smaller companies that helps as well. Post covid, when there are shortages of components and supplies, it becomes very difficult. So just being able to manage that will help cut a pretty big chunk of time to market, I think. But I’m going to assume that you’re talking more about development, so I’ll talk about that a little bit as well. I think the challenges pre covid and post covid are still there. Putting in the right amount of effort upfront on a project is critical. Putting together a product requirement document is critical, especially for the engineering side, for the design side, understanding what your market is, what the competition looks like, and getting a sense of how the customer needs to interact with whatever product you’re making. So just getting all of that effort upfront is really important.
Adar: Got it. And when do you involve the manufacturers, the people who should make these products during the prototyping phase, where do you get them to be part of your team, essentially, in building that product?
Bill: Yeah, I start as early as I can, really, to not only maybe help build prototypes, but also interact with them on costing, making sure that your bomb is going to be in line with what you’re expecting. Anything you can do to validate a supplier is great, especially if you can do that early on. So just getting involved in the manufacturing process in a preliminary way is great. It doesn’t cost you anything necessarily, sending out drawings with quotations or setting up meetings or video chat or getting a tour of the factory online or whatever. It doesn’t cost anything except for your time. And I think in the long run it will help you produce a better product.
Adar: Right, and do you usually work with the same manufacturer from the initial stages to when you need to mass produce it as much as possible? Or do you divide that to different suppliers? Like, what are the different considerations between the two?
Bill: Yeah, it really depends on volume. I wouldn’t have Flextronics necessarily make prototypes for me, but if I’m making hundreds of thousands to millions, that’s a different story. If you’re looking for a resource that can do both, I have suppliers that I’ve worked within the past that I can call on because I know they have the skill sets and tools and shop to make stuff just as one offs and prototypes. But they also have low volume, high mixed kind of places where I can potentially make a run of a couple of thousand parts or assemblies if I need to.
Adar: Right, so they can scale with you. They’re not just for the prototyping stages. They can really become your manufacturers for larger quantities. And probably it’s best to communicate that to the suppliers so they know that they’re not just there for a small number of units, but therefore, as partners basically advise you how to do things and they can help you be prepared for larger quantities where maybe cost can be more crucial factor and there would not be problems in the assembly and so on and so forth.
Bill: Yeah, absolutely. And I think specialty manufacturers can do that pretty well, from CNC machine shops all the way to injection molding houses that really specialize in that. I think if you present the project, more likely than not, they’ll be willing to work with you on those initial stages and help you prototype, but also help you scale and with the idea that they can gain your business and you can form a relationship with them.