35 under 35 – One to Watch

(This is also posted on the company blog here)

I was delighted to find out that have been declared “one to watch” by BusinessCloud as part of their 35 under 35 piece. Please see here and here for more information.

I will try and make sure that I am an interesting and entertaining person throughout the rest of the year and not waste your valuable attention.

I’ve wanted to do a post about the journey for sometime, and this seems like a great opportunity to actually write something. It’s been a rollercoaster the last few years and hopefully I can capture the highlights with some sharp quotes and headings.

I’m an ex-academic (but do you really leave?) who worked as a Data Scientist before starting a company. I’m very mechanically minded and can say with a straight face that at the start I honestly believed such platitudes as “build it and they will come”, “the product will sell itself”, and “meritocracies exist!”. If your brow is furrowing now, hopefully this post will be useful to you.

A lot of what I’m going to say you’ll probably have read from other people doing “what I learned posts”, but I think it is really valuable to repeat some of the same insights. Repetition of results is sometimes the only way to highlight their importance to the more mechanically minded.

We commercialised some real research

Our biggest success story for HE Inventions has been getting a project that started as a projector tied to a bit of 2×4 as part of John Hardy’s PhD and turning it into a real piece of factory machinery: the Digital Inspection Table.

It look a lot longer than we thought (about 3 years) and has been an incredible learning experience. If I could extract 3 things out of it which may be of use to another trying this route, they would be:

  1. Change management is the single biggest hurdle to distributing and disseminating disruptive products. You could have the most productive and efficient technology in the world, but if your users are not your customers (think larger corperate customers vs. their employees) you are going to have to communicate the benefits of the product in two very different ways: financial vs. how much easier this is going to make your job while not putting your job at risk.
  2. There is a sweet spot between a modest and ostentatius communication plan. Coming from an academic and engineering background, its very easy to purposely downplay your products and achievements. The product should speak for itself right? However, if you don’t show that little flash of excitement to your prospective customers then they also won’t be excited to hear what you have to say. Additionally shouting from the rooftops and having a street parade about how wonderful
    your products are will just lead to very defensive customers.
  3. The market decides what is “product-market fit”. It’s really tempting as an inventor and engineer to ignore feature requests that seem boring or tangential. Use every ounce of self control you have to squash those feeling and listen! Especially if you are entering a market you are unfamiliar with, if prospective customers are telling you what they’d like to see, they’re really saying “If it had this, I’d buy it”. Of course, it’s your judgement whether to implement those changes, but if you’ve yet to sell anything it’s probably wise to.

You’ve probably noticed that all the above wasn’t technical, and that’s because…

The tech bit was actually the easiest bit

As a company, we are really really good at building useful technology that will, and does, save our customers money and gives them an edge in the market. Our prototype product was first built in 3 months, and the final interaction of that prototype was finished by the first year and is still being used by our first customer.

So why did it take 3 years to launch with our partner, Bobst? To be able to make the product in a repeatable way? To be able to integrate with the IT of our customers?

Operations.

Legal, supply chain, and process documentation were, by several orders of magnitude, the lionshare of the work in getting this product to market. To break that down:

  1. We have partnered with another company to sell the product world wide that requires a lot of legal formalisation of process in terms of payment, customs, and internationalisation.
  2. We have a hardware product with different suppliers and subcontractors which all need to know what they are making and what our expectations are.
  3. We need to actually write down everything that happens from when we receive an order to maintenance 5 years down the line. We could get hit by a bus, but life continues on.

Sure, we still do technical work on the product – parts enter end of life so replacements much be added, bugs get found, features and improvements are added – but that is really just maintainance.

Self-funding is hard

While the last insights have been in the business, the next few are really *on* the business. You hear that a lot from director networking events. If you’re running the business but spend all of your time doing product work, there will definitely be large important areas of your venture you need to look at.

We have been self-funding since 2015. What do I mean by self funding? We raise our money by selling products and services to our customers, instead of using other financial instruments like cash-for-equity or loans.

I can honestly say it has been a terrifying and wild ride, and given the choice I would not do repeat the decision. As a consequence of it we have an agency wing in the business, and when we need to build up the war chest the company moves completely into it.

A product mindset and a project mindset are very different things and I believe when switching we pay the price in terms of productivity, scope creep, and burnout.

At the time when we made the decision, we had a technology without a real product, which is why we assumed we could never raise. If I was to do it again I would spend a month actually thinking about how much time we needed to get to where we are now, and approach investors. My mistake was assuming that unless we had a product ready to go, no one would talk to us.

Remote working with hardware is also hard

I love working from home – good coffee, great commute, food readily available. I can schedule when I’m going to engage in meetings, emails, slack and I’m incredibly productive because of it. The only reason I’ve gotten around to writing this is because I’m in my kitchen writing it. I try and encourage the rest of the team to work from home when they can.

However, we have a hardware product, and there’s only so much you can do with taking key sub components home to work with. Additionally, having an augmented reality product means that even if you can remote into a system in the office, unless you have a series of elaborate cameras set up, its nearly impossible to test your work.

We have a reference hardware build set up in the office. It’s small compared to our actual product, but its still some IKEA shelves and Rexroth beams – not exactly portable. As a consequence, the ability to work from home gets completely curtailed when we are doing a big engineering cycle – which realistically is where we would see the largest benefit of remote working.

I’m hoping as we grow and the product gets more mature as a team we can work from home more – but this won’t be the case for a young hardware startup. I think for hardware startups, which are hard anyway, they lose one of the great advantages of a pure software startup.

Starcraft classic is free

Finally, I’d like to point out that Blizzard have made the original Starcraft (and the expansion) completely free]. This has been an incredibly effective tool for relieving stress, burnout, and discovering that the quiet designer is actually a cold, calculating strategist and it would be incredibly useful to bring them into more planning meetings.

The PhD and Industry

Back in April I was invited to give a talk at the  Lancaster University Postgraduate Research Conference held at the university. The room would be full of PhD candidates and other postgraduates, so I wanted to give a talk that would have been helpful to me when I was at this stage.

I know the main thing worrying me at the time was about my options and if academia was right for me. I didn’t really consider that industry would be interested in my skills or if they even applied.

I was wrong about that, so I wanted to make sure the students in the room knew it was an option for them.

Here’s the video of the talk

Top 3 things to take away:

  1. Time and project management skills learned during the PhD are incredibly transferable to any other role you choose to pursue.
  2. A PhD is all about communicating complex concepts into understandable language. This puts you at an advantage within industry as you can quickly and efficiently spread your message.
  3. The skills you’ve picked up by finishing a PhD are valuable, rare, and sought after outside of academia.

If you’re interested in transitioning from your PhD into industry, I’m happy to advise. Please email me at carl at heinventions dot com or DM on twitter @carlc75