Hardware startups

For a long time, entrepreneurs and investors shied away from hardware. This seems to be changing. As Paul Graham says, there are many reasons for this:

Hardware does well on crowdfunding sites. The spread of tablets makes it possible to build new things controlled by and even incorporating them. Electric motors have improved. Wireless connectivity of various types can now be taken for granted. It’s getting more straightforward to get things manufactured. Arduinos, 3D printing, laser cutters, and more accessible CNC milling are making hardware easier to prototype. Retailers are less of a bottleneck as customers increasingly buy online.

Another important factor is what Chris Anderson calls “the peace dividend of the smartphone war”:

All the components in a smartphone — the sensors, the GPS, the camera, the ARM core processors, the wireless, the memory, the battery — all that stuff, which is being driven by the incredible economies of scale and innovation machines at Apple, Google, and others, is available for a few dollars. They were essentially “unobtainium” 10 years ago. This is stuff that used to be military industrial technology; you can buy it at RadioShack now.

It also doesn’t hurt that the most valuable company in the world (Apple) and some of the most exciting startups (e.g., Nest, Jawbone, Leap Motion) make hardware.

If you are thinking of doing a hardware startup, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Manufacturing. Many hardware startups stumble when they try to go from prototype to large-scale manufacturing. There is no AWS-equivalent for hardware. To get manufacturing right, entrepreneurs often end up living in China for months and even years. The difficulty of manufacturing is one reason that hardware entrepreneurs tend to have more work experience than software entrepreneurs.

Defensibility. Hardware companies generally have economies of scale but hardware products generally don’t have network effects. This means that as soon as you prove the market, you’ll face competition from lower cost manufacturers. The best startups complement hardware with software and services that have network or platform effects. Think of hardware as bringing the revenue and software/services as bringing the margin.

Planning. The build-test-iterate model that is popular in software startups doesn’t translate well to hardware startups. Proper planning is essential because mistakes can be unrecoverable. For example, you might create a design that fails environmental tests but only discover this years later when you are about to go to market. (See all those symbols on the back of your phone? Those are regulatory certifications).

B2C vs B2B. Consumer hardware tends to get more attention, but B2B hardware has a number of advantages. You’ll have fewer startup competitors, because entrepreneurs who have both hardware and business domain expertise are rare. You’ll also have fewer incumbent competitors, because B2B hardware usually requires local sales and service teams, making it harder for foreign competitors to copy you. Finally, manufacturing can be done locally because higher price points mean you can be less sensitive to labor costs.

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