Make your hardware idea a reality

Jessica MacNeil

April 09, 2014

Jessica MacNeilApril 09, 2014

(Hardware start-ups have typically been risky and expensive projects, and even as new resources make the process easier, they require a lot of work and careful planning.)

Zach Supalla Zach Supalla, the founder and CEO of Spark, has a few years of experience under his belt in this area, as the hardware idea he had in January 2012 has become a Kickstarter success and a product shipped to 61 countries in the last year.

Supalla got into the electronics industry just a few years ago when he made an Internet- connected LED blink with a remote switch using Arduino. From there, he developed a product to bring lights online, the Smart Socket. But when he was beaten to market by the Philips hue and LIFX, the  Kickstarter campaign for the project failed.

“When I came up with the idea for the Arduino light, people generally thought that I was nuts,” said Supalla at his EE Live! 2014 session on bringing your product to market. “We went from being crazy to old news. From the moment that you decide to do something to the moment that you actually get to market, that's a really important period of time.”

His current project involves the Spark Core, a development tool kit that connects to the Internet over Wi-Fi and brings with it whatever it's connected to, and the Spark Cloud, a cloud service that powers the connected devices the Spark Core connects.

With the Spark Core, Supalla crafted a well- thought-out process to take the product from idea to reality. His steps, in this order, are to make it work, make it pretty, sell it, make friends, make it manufacturable, make it, and ship it. The Spark Core is currently on the next step of making it grow.

“The reason for this order is that things get more expensive as you go and you're learning the whole time,” said Supalla. “You have to go into it with the expectation of learning and try to push off the expensive things until after you learn.”

Making it work is the first hurdle for your idea, but once you’ve put together a working prototype, you need to make it presentable as a product. For a circuit board product like the Spark Core, it’s all about presentation.

“Invest in good lighting and a good camera to make your product look great,” said Supalla.

When the Spark Core was ready for a Kickstarter campaign, the Spark team made a fun, short video and set its aim lower than the Spark Socket campaign’s $250,000 goal, with a goal of $10,000. In 30 days the campaign raised nearly $600,000 from more than 5000 backers.

"That's a great advantage of crowdfunding, if you push selling up before the things that really cost you a lot of money, then if things don't go well, you have the opportunity to start over, like us," said Supalla.

You can use crowdfunded money for the next step in the process, which is making friends. It’s important to find people with expertise to help you get your product manufactured and shipped. Another option is joining an incubator program, which will invest in your project for a percentage of the company. For the Spark Core project, the team went to Shenzhen, China, through the HAXLR8R incubator program.

Another friend Spark made was Seeed Studio, an open-hardware facilitation company, also based in Shenzhen. Seeed was able to provide support and allowed Spark to make more business connections.

When it comes to manufacturing in China, the assumption is that the advantage is cheap labor, but for Spark it had more to do with the supply chain than labor costs, especially because much of its manufacturing is automated.

“The supply chain these days is designed for overseas manufacturing when you want to do things at low cost,” said Supalla, who has worked as a management consultant, advising companies on strategy, operations, and product development. “What's more expensive is the components. They're all way more expensive if you buy them in the US than China. That is totally the semiconductor companies and the supply chain distinguishing between American companies where they feel like they're probably less price sensitive and Chinese companies where they're extremely price sensitive. It's hard to do things overseas but it's worthwhile because of the enormous savings there.”

To read more of this edternal content on EDN, go to "Estimating a 'should-cost model."

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