Danny Wilson
Danny Wilson
March 2022

Conquer Fear to Escape Hardware Startup Mediocrity

Five ways Hardware startups let their fear scuttle their business.

Startup Team Brainstorming in Meeting on Couch in Loft Office

Hardware companies fail. Often. In fact, my first company was an hardware startup, and it failed. That experience taught me a lot. My Geocene colleagues and I have used those lessons to help other hardware startups succeed– whether they are building their prototype or hitting investor milestones to raise their C round.

Through our consulting work over the years, we’ve noticed a single failure pattern that keeps repeating: founders have 1 or all of the 5 fears below that lead to mediocre organizations. As a result, their company gets mired in mediocrity, key employees leave, and their business flounders.

The path to fear-based mediocrity starts with decisions that seem brave. I’ve heard impressionable salespeople, squeaky wheel customers, and excited engineers ask eagerly to add more features. I’ve sat in meetings with stakeholders afraid a product looks frumpy next to other more famous and popular hardware products they envied. And I’ve seen clients whose product should undergo rigorous qualification and testing succumb to time crunches and “just ship.”

It might seem like a confident and bold decision to say, “yes,” we can add more features, design a beautiful enclosure, and ship it now. We can do it all.

Bravery means saying “no.” We cannot do it all, so “no” can be the confident decision your company needs. Without the right “no,” companies begin to acquire tech debt. Late-night kludges and junky design become the tape and glue holding the core product together. Engineering talent gets spread thin, the help desk phone keeps ringing, and the list of bugs in the backlog keeps growing. The organization’s time is spent putting out fires and babysitting buggy products in the hands of brave (and increasingly annoyed) early adopters. Time flies by, and “now” becomes the mythical “later” of the “we will fix it later” mantra.

Sound familiar? A version of this same story happened to me at my startup. And, honestly, it happens to most hardware startups. When it does, decisions get more complex, change gets harder, and everything feels high stakes. Then, teams calcify around process and protectionism. After that, nothing really gets better. A startup in this situation can only produce mediocrity.

But there is a way out. Here are 5 fears that can lead to mediocrity and 5 ways you can conquer that fear and grow your hardware startup.

  1. Fear the product doesn’t do enough. Many startups overestimate the sophistication of their customers and the complexity of their problems. This imagined customer complexity is reflected in far-too-complex solutions. Startups add too many additional features and overlook what they have that is already sellable. A startup’s leadership has thought about its product for nearly every waking hour of every day since the founding. This navel gazing can lead to increasingly complex products built on internal narratives of imagined customer needs. On the other hand, if you listen to them, real customers tend to have forehead-slapping simple challenges. Focus on what’s most important, clarify your solution’s value, and say “no” to extraneous feature requests.

  2. Fear the product doesn’t look good enough. Many founders are spoiled by the fit and finish of consumer tech offerings that benefit from high volume. This can cloud their approach to the quality/price paradigm. At the end of the day, most B2B customers prefer accuracy over aesthetics. Your product doesn’t need to be pretty to work, so you should say “no” to stakeholders craving shiny things.

  3. Fear testing will result in failure. Successful devices require quality. Quality in hardware, firmware, interfaces, backend systems, and analytics. In other words, everywhere. Since most startups are only given one chance not to fail, they must resist the pressure to “just ship.” Of course, there is always a perceived tension between schedule and quality. But, even a week of time spent testing today can pay back months of firefighting in the future. “Moving fast and breaking things” might work for a pure software B2C social networking app, but when your global fleet of devices gets bricked by a bad update, there’s no “undo” button. Rather than sending something out without adequate testing, or, worse, letting your users serve as your quality control testbed, ensure that a representative sample of the installed base is tested under actual conditions, and say “no” to demands to just ship it now.

  4. Fear of asking for help. Startups don’t have to do everything themselves. Most problems have open-source or proven off-the-shelf solutions. Tech startups are typically full of engineers, and engineers believe that they can just “build it themselves.” But what startups don’t have in abundance is time, especially the time to rebuild something that has been built a dozen times before. If you can buy it instead of build it, you should probably just buy it. And when off-the-shelf solutions are not readily available, find an expert who can help you do it right. Say “no” to that voice saying you must do it all yourself.

  5. Fear of admitting mistakes. This is perhaps the hardest advice to take, but often all of the mistakes made in the beginning are killing you now. You might need to start over with the very foundation of your code. An architect wouldn’t keep building a house on an unstable foundation and you shouldn’t build your product on one either. If hardware or firmware is unstable, your startup will reach a point where growth becomes unsustainable. And while you should be proud of what you’ve done to get this far, beware of the danger of the sunk cost fallacy. It is faster and less expensive to take a step back and start over with the lessons you’ve learned. Say “no” to the ego that won’t admit it made key mistakes the first time.

The path to success for nearly every IoT startup is wrought with challenges. But if you can be bold and conquer these 5 fears, you will have an organization agile enough to face them all.

At Geocene, we have the expertise, talent, and passion for hardware startups. We only work with engineers that have experience, not egos. They’re prepared to be an extension of your team, get to work asking the right questions, listen to your answers, identify the right steps, and provide the right effort to help you reach your goals. So, if you’re looking for scale and flexibility or a partner that can deploy the right resources to reach your next growth milestone, let’s talk.