Bring Them

For the last 15 years I have always been scrutinized for bringing the engineering teams that built the product to tradeshows.   Most of this criticism stemmed around the fear that due to the introverted nature of the engineering culture, that engineers are terrible in front of the customer.  I can attest that the exact opposite is true.  Customers love and appreciate the authenticity of an engineer speaking about the product they love building.  Customers can feel their passion but more importantly tradeshows are drowned by the "pitch". Customers see right through the fake, canned, feelings behind a pitch that has been rehearsed.

However, this has never been my core motivation for bringing engineers to a tradeshow.  At the core, I want engineers to get away from their desks and look into their customers' eyes, show them the product they built and watch how it works.  There is nothing more motivating to an engineer than to see their product work well or break in front of an actual customer.  When you need your team to dig extra deep they become more driven because they know who they're building for.  We always talk about the customer when we're building products but now they get to meet, pitch and discover how customers think in real life.  So the next time you get the opportunity bring the engineers, take them with you on as many customer visits as possible.  They are the best people to help you solve problems.

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The Empathetic Phase of Developing Product

Yesterday I had a designer come in and say "Nate I don't feel like this is my best work. We have made so many decisions to punt on great designs"

This got me to thinking about the empathic side of design and development.  Don't get this confused with the empathetic design process. This approach is being emotionally aware to your design and development team while they are in a sprint. 

I have created a harsh form in Balsamiq of the development cycle from my perspective. The first column is directed discovery.  The second column is the building process. The third column is something called "on-boarding or soft presenting". The fourth is full ship and release to customers. 

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Another example I really like is to envision a home being built.  The first stage is architectural drawings (directed discovery), the second is stick framing, sheet rock, paint etc... (the build), third is an agent walking around the home describing important areas to me and my family (on-boarding). 

What I want to focus on is the second column.  There are many trade-off decisions that happen during the building process.  This is where most of  "are we making the right decisions" conversations start to manifest themselves.  Having an open mind and heart to these types of emotions is critical.   Our designer is correct to have these thoughts. In fact it inspired the team to have a design review early to gut check many of the decisions we have made.   It questions the development team, the product team and pushes the designers to gain perspective over the entire project. 

What it did for me was remind me that I need to increase the communication and understanding about where the project is today, tomorrow, and why we as a team have made these decisions.  Its actually nice when moments like this arise.  I get to reflect on the personalities I have on the team and the way others like to be communicated to. Some may need a little more focus time to help understand what this process is all about.  

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Finally, I mentioned daily stand up.  Stand up is gathering of sorts around a Kanban board every morning. The entire team is expected to be there to report and the previous days progress.   If you have not given this a shot you should.  It creates a fun lively environment.  What seems to be the biggest benefit of this gathering is not only the Kanban board but it connects the remote or working from home employee's to the development process.  If there is a daily scheduled overlap of the team it has strengthened our ability to more effect during work hours.    

 

 

My First Company

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A young emergency medical technician saw a problem in the field in which he worked. He carried enormously large patients up and down stairs. If you consistently do this time and time again, shift after shift, this results in a fatiguing injury to one’s back. The next thing you know…SNAP. Herniated Disk—most likely a career ending injury.

So as this young medical technician watched his partners go to light duty or end their fire-fighting and emergency medical careers, he came up with a solution. This solution consisted of a track device that mounted to the bottom of an ambulance cot. This, in effect, assisted medics so that they would no longer need to carry patients down flights of stairs.

He did all of the prototyping in an out-of-company atmosphere. Once he had a working prototype that he felt was worthy to show to his co-workers, he felt confident enough to ask for help getting this back-saving tool to market.

He had a business plan that was very well executed (This was 1998. Business Model Generation did not exist. He was young, but old school) and was ready for discussions.

His intellectual property (IP) attorney gave him five names of potential angel investors. Three of these names he could not use the IP attorneys name with, two he could. First call, he got shut down completely, second call there was no answer, third call he was verbally vomiting at 100 mph. This third angel investor asked a couple of roundabout questions, and then got straight to the point. “Do you have IP?”

“Yes” the young EMT answered.

“Who is your IP attorney?”

“John Talley.”

Angel investor says, “I know who gave you my name.”

…Dang.

Then the angel stated, “If he believes in you, so do I. Let’s schedule a meeting.”

Little did this EMT know what was coming. The angel investor wasn’t really interested in the investment so much as getting to know the young inventor. After an hour’s discussion, the angel said: “Here is my offer. I am proposing a percentage portion of your company in exchange; I will give you a mentoring board of directors. It will consist of four people. An operational excellence leader, financial leader, executive officer leader, and someone that is well versed in raising capital if we should need it.”

“We, huh?!”

“Yes, we.” stated the angel investor. “I would like to be your partner”

“What about the cash investment?” said the young medic.

The angels first line of advice: “I think that you are far enough down the path that you can get a purchase order if what you say is true.”

At the end of the day he was correct. PO in hand two months later, 50% of this order was pre-paid in cash. This was the start this company needed.

There are five years of moments much like this. A very young leader learned from a very experienced team. This team took this medic through:

Five fundraising events that involved close to 30 investors.

Type of fundraising that took place: convertible debentures, common stock, series B, and series A preferred rounds.

Full-scale prototyping and production management. Down to the nitty gritty. Supply chain management, cost reductions, pricing strategy, negotiating with suppliers on terms etc…

Superior financial knowledge. This is a keen understanding of how to leverage an income statement, balance sheet and cash-flow statement.

Monthly financial metrics and goals, quarterly board meetings, and annual shareholders meetings.

Product marketing and marketing communications mentoring

An acquisition to a Fortune 100 company (SYK)

Post-merger activities. (Every acquisition is different, but these bottom two were close to starting the company over again from the ground up.)

The point to showing this high-level bulleted list is to share with you that a young entrepreneur needs a team IF your plan is to raise capital and set it up for an exit strategy. Having amazing mentors pulls your mind out of the daily grind. What really hits home is the majority of these endeavors are happening outside of the day-to-day activities.

The pressures on a young startup entrepreneur both inside and outside of the company are enormous, especially if you include the company’s performance evolution. If the company is under-performing and you have a supportive board, this can make all the difference. Carrying this on your own and preserving the company culture is hard to do with a supportive board—doing it alone would be very difficult if not impossible in my opinion.

If the company is over-performing, this can cause the same challenges. Growing a team, preserving culture, watching costs, and staying in the high margin zone are essential. Having a mentoring group that applies accountability pressure during these times is also vital.

I’m sure you may have guessed this by now, but this was a little snippet of my personal story. People can talk about master’s degrees all they want, but nothing replaces real world learning. Without this mentoring team, the company could not be a success.

Without the internal team at our place of business, we could have not been a success. It takes an entrepreneur to balance this equation well and make sure that both teams are working together.

This takes time to learn. It is an acquired taste. Sometimes it’s bitter and you want to spit it out. The other times it is soooo sweet!

The biggest challenge sometimes is not the success of your product but getting your team to take steps at the same time and be on the same page. I felt my team was unbelievable (both internally and externally) at understanding how this goes together.

Good luck to you, and I hope that you can create the perfect balance!

 

The Want to Write

Product development is a deep rooted passion in my life. I am passionate about the creation of anything. Not just physical products, but this is a compulsion around innovative thinking.  When I sit back and watch what humans have created it is sweet, but the details of how that happened is what I really get out of it.  

I think that’s it for me.  It’s the hunt. The adventure of creating new.  Because along this adventure of creating new, you create more new, or you solve old. Solving old is so good. Sometimes solving old problems is the core reason why we attempt something new.   

This brings me to the overarching point of wanting to write.  I feel like I have solved some big problems with some pretty awesome people.  I am proud of the products that have come to market and the difference it has made and lives they have saved. Just as important, well probably more important to me, is what went on behind he scenes.  

There is this revolution of “Lean Thinking”, “Business Model Generation”, “Four Steps to Product Development”  in our culture today. It is fantastic.  It has created a huge behavioral change in young and old.  The young are really thankful they aren’t writing 50 page static business plans.  The old are thankful as well, but more importantly it has been a hall pass on the way you approach new problems in a big organization.  

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Product development is relatively simple in a small start-up. In comparison there are more complicated issues in a larger corporation.  Ironically most of those stem from political power struggles within the organization in my experience. 

When I developed my first product in a small start-up.  These concepts and books did not exist.  I wrote a static 50 page business plan (I will post this for you all to enjoy) The product was trying to solve a fundamental problem in my field of expertise.  So I choose to solve it in my own way, through my own lens. In its simplest for it worked.  I built a product that solved the problem.  The story is crazy and meant for another post. 

What I’m trying to really get at is the product was cool but the conversations I had with users while developing was so engaging and exciting to me.  Its that anxious feeling your get. Adrenaline running through me. It was addicting to watch people use or talk about this product that we had developed.  It was awesome to make changes and show the product after the modifications.  People’s eyes and facial expressions.  People became elated! But more importantly they became ambassadors of my mission.  This is where and interstate started to connect.  You develop a product that could be half baked and then you make customer driven product changes and they then market for you.  Could this be it. The secret sauce to success.  Maybe...just maybe we have cracked the code to customer development.