One of the unique challenges that hardware startups face is hiring. It is one of the reasons hardware is so hard.
When considering what the average hardware startup sets out to accomplish (a complex software stack including user facing experiences on mobile and the web, a complete back-end infrastructure including business strategy all housed in a smooth-running, reliable and cool-looking hardware device), it becomes clear that the skills of a diverse group of professionals are required.
So, while your startup’s focus is on product development, you should never lose sight of the fact that your future is in the hand of people, not a product, no matter how brilliant it may be. Building a startup is more than building a product; it’s building a team.
Right from the beginning, your startup will need expertise across a range of disciplines including electronic, electrical and mechanical engineering, industrial design, marketing, sales, logistics, and production management. Finding the right people in the right combination is a real challenge.
For instance, you will probably want your product to be something cool that people will be pleased to own and show off, but to achieve that goal that you’ll need the keen eye of an industrial design expert. Design houses are notoriously expensive, though, and therefore not an option for most startups.
Poor handling of production and distribution, a crucial aspect of hardware, can sink a product that garnered a lot of positive attention and support on Kickstarter. This happens because production and distribution at large scale is complicated and cannot be learned from a textbook. It’s the kind of thing you only learn by doing it. Young professionals applying for this kind of position might not have the experience to avoid landing your startup in the heart of logistic bedlam.
Once you know what you want to build, what your product is intended to achieve, and for which market, it’s not so hard to figure out what expertise you’ll need. What’s hard is where to find people with the necessary experience to build something from scratch to a commercial scale. To build something at scale is learned from actually doing it, not from reading text books and at this point there’s a lack of people in hardware with this kind of experience.
Ben Einstein, a founder and general partner at Bolt suggests that eight is a good number of employees to get a basic consumer electronic product made and delivered to customers. Four of them would be working on the hardware team, two on the software team, and two on operations, marketing and business development.
The general advice from hardware founders is to keep all functions and capabilities in-house. Some companies do outsource large parts of product development, but this is usually not an option for startups starting out. If you have searched for the right people but couldn’t find any, a good idea is let the people you were able to find work on trial projects and afterwards recruit the ones that showed potential.
It’s true that it’s not necessarily cheaper to hire people and keep expertise in-house, but in the long run it can save you a lot of frustration and time. Working with consultants on the other end of a phone or an email is not the same as looking a person in the eye day after day. Working together and going through the pain together is also how great teams are formed.
On the topic of great teams, your team will make or break your startup endeavour. A great team can produce ice and sell it to Eskimos; a mediocre team is bound to mess up the brightest idea. Everything you do at your startup, from drawing circuit boards to packing the final product, is done by the people on your team. Without them you have nothing.
So what is your challenge? Not only to find the best people you can afford, but leading them to be a cohesive team that share the same vision. Whatever you do, don’t let individuals work on different parts of the product in isolation. Communication is the glue that will keep everyone on the same page. Otherwise you might end up with a device that has a circuit to nowhere or switch that switches nothing on!