Putting the “hard” in hardware

I woke up in a cold sweat. Our camera supplier filed for bankruptcy – we were single sourced and GA was only a few months away. Our Director of Hardware calmly shrugged, “hardware has the word ‘hard’ in it for a reason.” Thoughts of managing supply chains, quality issues and CoGS models still give me the chills from my experience at Brontes and Sample6. At Brontes, we built a custom 3D scanner out of 27 custom lenses,  300 LEDs, and it took 18 months.

“Guts” of a Brontes scanner

Having seen a dramatic increase in the number of new hardware start-ups, I’ve been thinking about whether its easier today to do hardware?

Here’s why it’s gotten easier …

Today’s hardware companies focus less on the hardware itself and more on wrapping a software layer on top of often off-the-shelf hardware. Arduino (open source hardware prototyping) and things like Atom’s Express (a portfolio co) allow for rapid hardware experimentation.

Additionally, incubators aren’t just for web-heads anymore. Lemnos Labs in the Bay Area, New Lab in Brooklyn and Bolt in Boston, serve as great resources. In the past, I spent months searching for lab space and buying used equipment on Overstock.com. Today’s hardware start-ups begin product development on day one. Couple this with the rise of 3D printers like MakerBot and services like Shapeways, and it has become easier than ever to create prototypes and bring them to prospective customers, partners and investors. Crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter provide a forum to take pre-orders and gauge demand, while generating cash flow even before the first article is made.

But it’s still hard …

You can’t start a hardware business in a Starbucks! Hardware requires more capital and takes longer to get to market. Hardware is often evaluated as much on look and feel as functionality or value. Thus, costly services like industrial design are  needed which  forces the trade-off between design and speed-to-market. Perhaps most importantly, many consumer hardware start-ups compete against the behemoth electronics brands and thus struggle to get distribution (or give up 30-40 points of margin for it).

Go for it …

We fund a fair number of hardware start-ups at Founder Collective. I love meeting hardware companies. My view is that hardware is a field where experience matters, so I encourage hardware entrepreneurs to get someone on board in some capactity with experience sourcing and managing vendors. Also, business model creativity is really important given the risk of commoditization. Consider models like renting or pay-per-use to create recurring revenue. Finally, bake as much functionality as possible in the software and enable over-the-air updates. Tesla is a great example of this (for ex. they’re changing the software to increase the height of the car to reduce the risk of the battery catching fire on highways).

Hardware start-ups are hard. But when you get it right, there’s nothing quite like bringing a new physical product to the world.

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