Do Something Hard

Hard work ahead road sign pic

We have recently had several prospective customers approach us who are self-funded startups. Each of these customers was hoping we could help them develop an embedded product to the point where it could be sold on Kickstarter. And each of them wanted us to get them through some hard technical challenge that stands between them and their product vision in about one week of engineering time.

Then this morning’s Engadget feed brought this: A Chinese firm has cloned the Kickstarter product of a startup named Pressy. Pressy’s product is a button — literally, a momentarycontact button — that goes in your smartphone’s headphone jack and allows you to customize some actions. Maybe a cool idea, but way too easy. The Chinese firm Xiaomi is offering a knock-off for $0.79, and it launches next Tuesday.

Now, Perk and I are entrepreneurs ourselves, and I love working with startups and entrepreneurs. I think the world would be a better place if more people started companies and thought like business owners. I have personally “funded” a number of Kickstarter campaigns (though “contributed to” might be the better verb), and some of them have come up with really cool, unique products. So, if you’re an entrepreneur, please understand that I’m very much on your side as I share this bad news:

You need to do something hard, or you don’t have a company.

The reason is obvious if you think about it for two minutes: If you come up with a great product that nobody else has thought of, and if there’s money to be made, and if it’s easy to do, then you’re going to have much bigger competitors enter the space quickly. Maybe Belkin will decide to eat your lunch. Or perhaps Google or Xiaomi. Who knows.

And don’t tell me that those guys are dinosaurs who move slowly and don’t have a clue. Yes, some large companies are like that. There are also many large companies, including those I mentioned, who actually do have smart people in management positions.

Now, the hard thing that you do doesn’t have to be engineering. Some companies are great because they have invested tons of time to build a brand identity and a channel. If that’s the case, great! (Although I don’t have any advice to offer; I’m an engineer.)

However, let’s say the uniqueness of your idea is more in the product. You want to build a small, inexpensive Internet-of-Things device that is battery powered but constantly connected to a cloud server. Or you are trying to build a video streaming device that you can sell for a fraction of the cost of a GoPro camera.

In that case, if your product is so simple that you think a smart guy can cobble together a prototype around a Raspberry Pi in a day: Why do you think this is a good business to start? Your competitors can hire smart guys too.

So do something hard.