Hardware · Traction

How to get traction for a hardware product when you do not have a working prototype?

Clayton White Founder @Bio Wearables, Contract Manufacturing Purchasing Agent @Lyons Magnus

March 6th, 2015

The internet is flooded with information on how to start a "tech" company and gain traction, but there is hardly any information about how to start a hardware company. I am currently seeking startup capital and everything I read says I need to show some kind of traction…  Okay, but I have one problem… How do I get traction when I do not have the funds to build a few dozen prototypes to hand out to people for testing?!

So to all you hardware founders out there, how do you make it happen?

Jeff Chang Startup Guy, ER Radiologist & Hunting for AI

March 6th, 2015

Bit of advice: http://blog.ycombinator.com/advice-for-early-stage-hardware-startups

You don't need a few dozen prototypes to start, you just need one.  A single prototype is enough for any sort of demo.  You can build it from an Arduino & a few Cooking-Hacks kits if needed -- main thing is that it should be bare-minimum functional, at least as an MVP.  If you're trying to collect data, it should collect that data.  If you're designing your own board, build a giant cheap prototype version, use a breadboard, buy some easy-to-solder components, use a toaster oven.

If you need to collect a bunch of data from many different users but don't have the money for a bunch of prototypes (i.e., for machine learning purposes), collect it one user at a time.  Until you can afford to build more prototypes at once, there's no reason to build extra copies of MVP hardware that you'll just end up throwing away at the end of the day.

Depending on your budget, 3D print the looks-like prototype at a place like TechShop, or by reaching out to one of the 3D printing shops in your area.  If you need an app in association, build the bare minimum app (and you might be able to gloss over some details of the actual communications -- backend interface, etc. -- and simulate data when displaying graphs, for demo purposes -- your prospective investors will know that those parts are pretty well understood already).

If you don't have either hardware or software skills, co-found with someone who does -- you'd hopefully have both on your team, so that you don't need to outsource everything to start.  Even if you don't have any EE or ME skills, it doesn't take long to experiment and start building a simple prototype using an Arduino (though depends a bit on what you're looking to build), and you'll pick the understanding up as you go.

There are definitely consultancies around the US that'll help you design something from scratch, on the wearable tech front -- but not too many will work entirely for equity, and it depends on how much funding you've managed to raise.  Unless you have a significant chunk of resources to invest personally, or from friends & family, you're probably better off building your first prototype from a bunch of components found online -- Cooking Hacks, Adafruit, SparkFun, etc.  (Aren, any thoughts?)

Anthony Dobaj

March 11th, 2015

A poll is better than nothing, but you need more honest feedback before throwing $$ and time into the project. That means getting out of the office and in front of the ideal customer to see if they are willing to spend money on the device /service. For this purpose the "prototype" is whatever it takes to get the concept across. The more closely it simulates the real thing the more valuable the feedback. 

Karl Schulmeisters Founder ExStreamVR

March 6th, 2015

it really depends on what the hardware is. Most startups build one or two working Proofs of Concept (often one but ideally two in case one fails). they often are ugly breadboarded arduino or similar devices.

Don't bother with the 3D printed stuff.  Go down to Home Depot and buy a sheet of pink foam insulation, a rasp, some fiberglass, some polyester resin   and make it by hand.  The cost of a 3D CAD model isn't worth it

But at the end of the day, investors invest in the team. without a technical degree from a top school, or a track record of previous devices- you will be highly unlikely to get startup capital except from "Friends and Family"...

And frankly that's the expectation - you go all in and you take some friends and family money with you.

and if you are not comfortable doing that - then you probably shouldn't be doing it anyway


Justin Gedge Component Design Engineer at Intel Corporation

March 6th, 2015

It depends on what you're building to some degree... but you're right- it is difficult. You could spend 2-300k on lab equipment etc just to test some of these projects... and that's a figure that was thrown around 10-15 years ago. It may pay to find a university professor who can share your vision and give you access to their equipment, software etc...

Jeff Chang Startup Guy, ER Radiologist & Hunting for AI

March 6th, 2015

If you're trying to impress potential investors with a looks-like (i.e., non-functional) outer housing for your device, it'd make sense to have it at least be 3D printed, and preferably polished (and perhaps painted -- soft touch is awesome for that sleek effect).  Whether you use Shapeways, Ponoko or more startup-centric sites like Fictiv and Studio Fathom, it's not that complicated, though pricing can vary significantly.

You just need to put together some STL files, which isn't too tough with a bit of design experience.  Even without design experience, basic CAD skills can be learned relatively quickly via Google Search & YouTube videos.  At each TechShop, with membership, it includes 10-20 free (and mostly unused) seats covering most of the packages you'd ever need -- Autodesk Inventor, SolidWorks, etc. -- if you spend the time to learn.

Your smaller FDM 3D printers are available for "free" at TechShop too (bring your own materials), so you can prototype out iterations of the looks-like model before finally getting one polished or painted.  Or if you've got some funding, there are some amazing model companies (in Taiwan and Shenzhen, but also in the US) that'll build great looks-like prototypes for investor meetings.

Hope that helps! : )

Clayton White Founder @Bio Wearables, Contract Manufacturing Purchasing Agent @Lyons Magnus

March 6th, 2015

Here's some background.

I do not have a computer science background, I have a strong design and marketing background. (Mainly why I am on here - looking for a tech cofounder). 

I have done most of the product design work already. I am completing the 3D rendering this weekend and will then have it 3D printed.

The technology that will be in the device is half medical, half biometric sensors, and 100% wearable. All technology is readily available and I have already been in contact with the medical technology manufacture. I have also contacted a biometric sensor firm and have discussed licencing their technology for use in my product.

My hurtle now is the migration of the medical and sensor technology, as well as programming and app development.  -  and this is why I do not have a working prototype yet.

I guess my next question is, what firms out there could help me with my technical needs?

Karl Schulmeisters Founder ExStreamVR

March 6th, 2015

OK unless you are familiar with FDA regulations the hardware is NOT your next hurdle. go to our website Clearroadmap.com register for a basic account and download our free mHealth checklist.
.
then send me some email and I'll walk you through a demo of the kind of guidance you will need to get through the other regulations.
.
then figure out what will really be involved in getting to market . if you are doing anything medical it will be more expensive and time consuming than you expect. and if you don't start planning for per State privacy and reimbursement issues from the outset, your chance of success will be quite low

Steve Owens

March 7th, 2015

You build a MVP, not a product.  Here is a great White Paper on Lean Startups:  http://www.finishlinepds.com/#!helpful-information/c2t8

Anthony Dobaj

March 7th, 2015

Hey Clayton, we are developing something that sounds very similar to what you describe. Our team is strong on the technical and regulatory side, but weak in design and marketing. We are well versed in the business model canvas and the lean startup methodology (Steve's right on). Let's discuss putting our talents together, my linked in profile is tonydobaj, you can connect to me there.

Neil Gordon Board Member, Corporate Finance Advisor and Strategy Consultant

March 10th, 2015

"Traction" comes in many flavors, and the notion that you need prototypes in order to raise enough capital to fund prototypes is, obviously, logically flawed. 

What you need is sufficient resources to get to your next milestone, whatever that might be. Define the milestone and the need, and refine your pitch. More than one start up gained initial traction with little more than a picture on a napkin.