Let’s Build a Hardware Company – Part 1

Posted by Shivani Jain on

Very often, we hear the phrase “Hardware is Hard”. Is it really true? We had always been intrigued by billion dollar software companies, but when it was time to start our own company, we chose the hardware + software route. Software isn’t easy to begin with, but adding a layer of hardware makes it all the more difficult. With a founding team of Economists and Biologists, why did we make this decision? Because the problem we were trying to address demanded this and we made sure we were laser-focused on the problem. We were so focused on the problem that we didn’t think about the skills that were needed to bring the idea to reality – until we were neck-deep into the business and liable to deliver 1500 products that we pre-sold.

Our company, FitnessCubed, builds smart fitness products that integrate light exercise into a person’s life. Our first idea, Cubii, is a smart under-desk elliptical trainer that helps office workers stay active in the workplace. When we first started, there was no compact, affordable fitness device for the office environment, so it was imperative we make one. We also wanted to ensure the device was plugged into the connected fitness ecosystem, so people could keep track of their exercise via our mobile app and sync with other fitness trackers such as Fitbit and Jawbone. We launched Cubii through a crowd funding campaign that ended up being one of the most successful from Chicago in 2014. Through this 2-part blog post, we want to share lessons that we learnt starting a hardware + software business so that those of you who are considering starting their own business, don’t make the same mistakes. In the first part of the post, we’ll discuss our story prior to the Kickstarter campaign and the next one will be focused on the story post the campaign as well as going from a prototype to a manufactured product.

Bringing any product to life is a long process, and patience is key. It took us almost 9 months to take our idea and make it ready for Kickstarter. These were some of our biggest learnings as well as pitfalls that other founders can avoid:

Industrial Design is key but Functionality is king

While creating Cubii, our first focus was on the visual appeal and aesthetics of the product. As such, we did not consider some of the most important features of Cubii, and how they would be implemented from an engineering perspective. Consequently, this led to numerous design revisions during manufacturing. Since we had promised a certain aesthetic to our Kickstarter backers, we had an additional constraint of staying as close to the original aesthetic as possible. If we were to do this again, we would think of a basic form factor or shape, spend most of our time on implementing features and deciding where they would be located, following which we would begin thinking about industrial design. We would make sure that a professional engineer has reviewed the design before proceeding to industrial design.

Less can be more

Often times, inventors are guilty of trying to achieve too much with their first product. We were no different. Cubii was supposed to include a generator so that users could power the device with their own exercise and use the additional energy to charge their cell phones. We wasted at least 3 months trying to source a generator that was small, quiet, and powerful to meet our needs. Although this sounds like a cool feature to have, it was neither the make nor break of the product, nor the reason why backers were interested in Cubii. The reason why people were interested in Cubii was the exercise and being connected – that’s it! The generator was nice to have but not essential. I would highly encourage founders to think about the most important features that are needed to launch the product. It is MUCH better to launch the product sooner than later and get feedback rather than trying to capture everything in v1 of the product.

Cash, cash, and some more cash

One of the most common reasons why products fail is because founders underestimate the cost of bringing a product to market. The second reason why products fail (even before they launch) is because of incorrect pricing. I cannot stress enough on the importance of both these things. Crowd funding is a great way to launch a product, seek early adopters, as well as validate an idea for a product, but more often than not, the funding by itself is not sufficient to cover the fixed costs associated with hardware manufacturing. I would highly encourage founders to think about angel investors and other sources of funding even if they are planning to launch a crowd funding campaign. Building a product always costs more than anticipated and it is important to have some buffer. Pricing the product is also critical. Competitors are a great way to start thinking about pricing, but it is also important to be realistic and analyze your own supply chain costs before pricing a product. Larger companies have a lot of leverage on their suppliers, which helps them drive their cost down. As a startup, most often, we don’t have that leverage, making it important to take a realistic approach and assess your supply chain.

After making many mistakes (some of them described above), we finally made a functional, but not perfect prototype, and launched it on Kickstarter. For folks who have already reached the prototype stage, that’s awesome and it’s a big win! You must celebrate! However, keep in mind that it is still only the beginning of a long journey before your product can reach the hands of thousands.

Look out for Part 2 of this post, wherein we’ll our story and learnings post our Kickstarter campaign.

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