10 Must-Know Lessons for Hardware Startup Founders: What You Can Learn from the 2018 ASU Innovation Open Competition

Did you grow up taking apart your bedroom furniture and deconstructing your toy walkie talkies to see how they all worked? If so, you may just have ‘hardware’ in your blood, much like the five student ventures finalists competing in the 2018 ASU Innovation Open.

Not to worry, it’s a completely curable condition that only requires you to embrace the hardware ‘DNA’ coursing through your veins and whole-heartedly pursue your dreams of starting your own hardware venture.

So, ignore the haters, the ‘nay-sayers’ and the ‘negative Neds’ who say it’s impossible. After all, in the brilliant words of Nelson Mandela, “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” If that doesn’t convince you, take some sound – albeit, at times – harshly blunt advice from entrepreneurial guru, Gary “Vee” Vaynerchuk… quit allowing haters in your life to stop you from being yourself.

Of course, starting your venture isn’t all wine and roses, as you may have guessed. To bring a physical hardware product to market, you’ll also have to master prototyping, manufacturing, logistics, marketing, fundraising and sales.

Sure, it may sound overwhelming, but with a little bit of research, the right people around you for support and a lot of guts, nothing is impossible. A little bit of advice helps too, especially from experts who have been there, done that.

So, here are some of the most important tips that all the ASU Innovation Open competitors exemplify in their businesses and throughout the competition that can help smooth your journey on the hardware startup seas.

1. Keep it simple silly (AKA “K.I.S.S.”).
David Pogue, Yahoo Tech founder and editor, is right: “Simplicity beats options every time. No complicated device has ever beaten a simple one – and history is full of examples where the machine with fewer options (iPod, iPhone, Google, Gmail, Sonos, Wii) wiped the floor with their more complex rivals.”

A common mistake of startup founders is to over-feature and overcomplicate their product, including their first working prototype. Don’t try to develop a hardware product that solves world hunger. Stay laser focused on the problem you’re solving, for whom you’re solving it, and how you’re solving it better and differently than anyone else.

Keep features as simple and light as possible, and design for a remarkable user experience, not the Guinness Book of World Records longest list of features.

Then, go build a ‘minimally viable product’ (MVP) and get it into the hands of real, potential customers as fast as possible. Gather market feedback to enhance the product until it’s ready for a real launch.

2. Don’t be afraid of hardware. Investors aren’t.
Y-Combinator co-founder and venture capitalist, Paul Graham, suggests “if you want to work on hardware, don’t be deterred from doing it because you worry investors will discriminate against you. Physical things are great. Hackers love to build hardware, and customers love to buy it.”

The world runs on hardware (and the software running it), so the more you stick to your passion and don’t let fear of the future drive your decisions, the better off you’ll be. There will always be venture capital firms ready and willing to invest in hardware startups, just be sure to perform your due diligence on which ones to pursue when you’re looking for money early in your journey.

3. No, it’s never too early to market.
Just because your personal gene pool is flooded with engineering alleles doesn’t mean you should ignore marketing until you launch your product. A successful hardware business needs to be driving both product development and marketing forward simultaneously.

The good news is there are fast, affordable, relatively easy ways to do that by building an audience on social media, growing an email list of prospective customers, and making relationships with industry influencers before you need them. Yes, you’ll have to do the work (or find someone who can), because the days of ‘build it and they will come’ are long gone.

The finalists of the 2018 ASU Innovation Open all started marketing early and gained test customers who provided invaluable input into their design and usability details.

4. Minimize Your Risk with Strategic Partners
No doubt, starting a hardware company can consume a lot of resources early on, so finding smart ways to limit your development costs is a great way to minimize risk. Look for engineering partners who offer fixed pricing rather than open-ended hourly billing, and get a second opinion at each key design review milestone, especially before you begin prototyping.

Don’t think large organizations are too big to be partners at your early stages. Companies like Avnet have cultures that foster entrepreneurs and unimaginable resources for you to tap into at each critical stage of your journey, from designing your product and finding the best suppliers to manufacturing and distribution.

Seek out partners that can foster education, growth and support at every step, while giving you the ability to scale quickly when you’re ready.

5. Speaking of scalability, don’t worry about that… yet.
In the immortal words of marketing genius and former Apple chief evangelist, Guy Kawasaki, “… in the early days of starting up, the ability to scale is overrated. Your first objective above all else is to prove that people will use your product. It’s that simple. If they won’t, then scale won’t matter one bit.”

Guy also confirms that he has never seen a startup die because it couldn’t scale fast enough, but that he has seen hundreds of startups die because people refused to embrace their product.

6. Develop a product for a market, not based on your biased opinion.
Many hardware startup founders get their initial inspiration from their own personal pain point and decide to build a consumer product to solve their own pain. While that’s a great place to start, be wary of assuming there are ‘auto-magically’ millions of other people out there who share your exact pain.

Overestimating the market size and demand, while underestimating the amount of competitive saturation and what it will take to enter the market, can be recipes for disaster. Be honest with yourself and do your research around demand, market sizing and the competition.

7. Design for manufacturing and usability.
Experts at Avnet profess that designing a hardware product is not the same thing as designing a manufacturable hardware product. DFM (design for manufacturability) must be an integral part of your design thinking from the start.

However, don’t let that deter you. If you simply don’t have the needed experience with hardware manufacturing, leverage a partner or find a mentor through business networking to guide you through the process. Being open minded enough to ask questions, listen more than you talk, and take advice from more experienced people could save you months if not years.

After getting your MVP complete, find users that best represent your ideal customer (in the real world) to test your product and provide feedback. Then, never stop getting market feedback from real customers at every stage of your journey, even when you’re well down the line. Customer feedback is the secret to maintaining viability and iterating to meet evolving market demand.

8. Select a co-founder very carefully.
Sure, co-founders help drive collaboration and pick up the slack in areas you’re lacking or in sheer workload volume, but rushing to find a warm body isn’t the goal. Find someone (or a team) who have complementary skill sets and who balance out all the necessary functions you’ll need. Ideally, you want people you may already know and have worked with before (and respected). Don’t sugar coat the conversations early on to convince them to join, be real about the vision and possibilities, but also about the risks. If you find someone you have not met before, start with a small test project that has a beginning, middle and end so if things don’t go well, you have a clear-cut exit plan.

9. Be social online and offline.
Fully leverage social media and networking before, during and after your launch. You can build tremendous momentum and excitement before your launch, and even test messaging and feature concepts online. Social media followers, as well as relevant networking events, will help you gain early feedback, gather new ideas and sometimes find remarkable new angles you never dreamed of. If you’re anti-social, it’s time to get over it quickly.

10. Prototype early to validate the problem and design usability.
Co-founder of Make in LA, Noramay Cadena, says early stage hardware companies should focus on five things: validate and clearly articulate the pain you eliminate or problem you solve; focus on benefits not features; stay laser focused on tech product development; cultivate a community of believers and early adopters; and leverage experts and community hubs like makerspaces.

Avnet’s MakerSource hub offers a place for hardware startups to get support, collaboration and resources at every stage of their journey, from ideation, strategy and design to prototyping, manufacturing, marketing and logistics.

Wrapping it up…
In the end, follow your gut, take risks and be humble enough to admit what you don’t know so you can seek expert help. This will go a million miles towards being success with your hardware startup.

If you don’t succeed the first time, take the lessons you’ve learned and don’t give up: there’s never failure, only feedback! If you internalize that mantra, then you’ll rest easier knowing that you are following your passion to change the world.

The 3 W’s of the ASU Innovation Open & Why Student Entrepreneurs Should Care


Are you ready to see your peers compete for a chance to win $100,000?

You may be wondering what all the talk of the 2018 ASU Innovation Open is about and why you should care. Here are the 3 W’s and the most exciting part is there are 100,000 reasons why you should care, read on…

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