Thought Leadership published by Anglia, under Components, PR, Start ups
Starting any business involves more than an element of risk, and for high-tech startups these risks are often amplified by extreme technical complexity. The original team is usually small, maybe even just a group of university friends, with combined competencies that cover just a subset of what’s needed to get their product idea to market. These are usually quite narrowly focused, so completing the product development using in-house resources alone is not feasible.
Adding the right skills in the right places is critical to minimise the risks and it can involve engaging with external technical contractors. At the beginning, however, trying to find the right specialist help can feel like taking a shot in the dark. And knowing how to manage the relationship going forward is often far from intuitive.
As the startup becomes more established and moves on to create subsequent generations and perhaps diversify the product range, understanding and maintaining the optimum blend of skills and personalities can become more familiar.
Some companies need to engage with several contractors. At Anglia, we have worked with startups such as a wind farm power systems developer that contracted not only external inverter hardware and software specialists but also an RF consultant to help integrate Bluetooth connectivity as part of the solution.
Any consultant worth hiring should have a portfolio of relevant successful projects to demonstrate their credentials. However, things can go wrong; we have sometimes had to remedy engineering mistakes that came about due to a poor choice of consultant.
Resist the Temptation to Change
One piece of sound advice is to be clear about the requirements from the beginning and avoid as much as possible the temptation to move the goalposts or change the design; save that great new feature idea for the product’s second generation, as adding it to the current workload will introduce delays and add to your consultant’s bill.
Even without the added complications of changing the design, sticking to the timeline is not always easy. When managing the relationship with a consultant, setting milestones for the project provides structure and a way to check that work is progressing on time. If the schedule begins to slip, this becomes apparent in time to take fast corrective action instead of remaining in the dark until the end of an important phase of the project when the effects of any delays can be more damaging.
Expertise with wireless standards is in particularly high demand for many of today’s projects. This can be far more complex many realise. Designing to connect to a cellular or LoRa network, for example, can appear relatively straightforward until it comes to the finer details of getting a connection up and running. Although 3GPP and LoRaWAN standards are intended to simplify design and marketing, the details can become complicated if an application is to be deployed in one or more international territories.
It’s important to acknowledge that the end product can take much longer to develop and prepare for production than you realise, including all the design work and development. Young companies often base their plans on the idea that they can finalise their first prototype and transition into production within just a few months. In reality, even simple projects can take 18-24 months, or longer. Even more reason not to move the goalposts during the project.
While keeping the project on time is clearly important to ensure the product reaches the market while it’s still relevant, keeping an eye on costs is also vital. In particular, pay attention to the bill of materials. When production begins, excessive pricing hits every unit made and losses can accumulate quickly.
Some popular EDA packages can build the BOM automatically from a given schematic but it’s important to know whether this facility is linked to high-end distributors, whose prices tend to be higher than others. Shopping around can get a better deal. We frequently work with clients to help them save cost and strengthen robust supply assurances, including identifying second or third sources for parts as well as identifying suitable alternatives that may offer better price availability than those specified in the original design. In addition, we can advise on technical issues without becoming directly involved in design work. Where needed or requested, we sometimes leverage contacts within the industry to help find technical specialists in fields like IoT, FPGA design, MCU design, high-end wireless, and digital power.
Although sticking to the plan is critical to keep the project on schedule, it’s also important to build in time for design fixes. There may be large errors that compromise functionality or small mistakes that mean performance is below expectations. It’s unreasonable to expect that all aspects of the project, from proof of concept through development, will go right first time.
Of course, many aspects of a design can be verified using software, if you have the tools, and simulations can help avoid much trial and error on the bench and in the field. However, some can be tough to anticipate. Tight constraints on size, weight and power (SWaP), for example, can be very difficult to assess until a complete unit is up and running comprising hardware and software that are representative of the end product.
While it’s important to resist the temptation to add extra functions or improve fundamental features, design changes are inevitable. There is always an extra that can be added or an adaptation that could be made, to give customers a better experience or greater value, or to trump the competition. Great new ideas are sure to occur as the project continues. Consign these to the stack of other good ideas to work on for the next generation.
Market requirements and expectations can shift, too; ideally due to the arrival of your first game-changer. It’s important to get to the market and then begin to build from there. Keep control of your product roadmap and continue to set the pace with future product generations. Also bear in mind that the rapid pace of development in the semiconductor industry can help ensure those new features become easier to implement with the next silicon.
Rely on Supply-Chain Partners
On the other hand, external factors can sometimes force a change of plans. The availability of key parts can change as the design is being prepared, particularly as some consumer ICs have very short lifecycles. Obsolescence may oblige your team to redesign some of the system and can be difficult to predict. It’s important to consider longevity when designing-in key ICs and to look out for any notifications from manufacturers.
Component engineering is a core competency for distributors, like Anglia. If you share the right information about your plans, we can assess the impact on your project if a part suddenly becomes not recommended for new designs, for example, or in the event of a last-time-buy or obsolescence notice. The earlier this is tackled, the more quickly, easily, and cost-effectively any issues can be solved and an alternative designed-in if needed. Make sure your supply partner is keeping an eye on this for you and will alert you to potential issues.
It can be important to be open minded and flexible, to react quickly to events in terms of availability. This is even more important given the supply-chain challenges we are all facing right now. Startups are often kickstarter funded and must demonstrate progress against critical milestones. It’s important to avoid getting held up by availability problems, and an experienced distribution partner can help deal with these challenges. There are often opportunities to engineer a solution if one part is not available and experience in this can be invaluable if it involves more than simply finding an equivalent component.
For new high-tech companies, bringing in suitable skills from outside the organisation and staying in control of the project are two of the most important and difficult aspects of handling the startup phase. Managing external experts calls for clarity, as well as self discipline to stick to the plan and avoid the temptation to extend the project and the design objectives.
Delivering a new product to market is never as easy or straightforward as the imagination suggests. Building in time to handle delays and rectify mistakes is essential, and particularly important for managing the expectations of investors. In the current climate, supply-chain difficulties can complicate project management, add delays, and demand creative solutions drawing on the skills of supply-chain partners.
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Managing Risk and Keeping Control on the Route to Market – By John Bowman, Marketing Director, Anglia Components and Andrew Pockson, Divisional Marketing Manager, Anglia Components – Cambridge Wireless
Thought Leadership published by Anglia, under Components, PR, Start ups