Hardware as a Lean Start-Up

Eric Ries has people both tripping over themselves to get on the bandwagon and rolling their eyes in snobbery at all the lemmings jumping on the bandwagon (or is that the Pivotwagon?). The truth of the matter is that the concept has struck a chord in a world where it is possible to develop a business in a weekend. Software development is, by no means, easy. Like design, engineering, or playing the guitar, software development is a skill that one has to learn. So, I’m not looking at it from that perspective, but the concept of The Lean Startup was born out of the idea that software is very easy to iterate upon. You can quite literally tweak code for +/-15  minutes and see results.

Hardware? Not so much. Especially high tech.

So, what is the hardware version of Lean Startup when iteration times are typically measured in days, if not weeks, and the costs involved won’t start much less than $250K to get to a pre-production functional prototype.

My startup (kijanitechnology.com) is about as close to a Lean Startup as you can get in meatspace, I think. We’re developing solar thermal technology for the developing world. The technology is immensely flexible and we can iterate on the prototypes using off-the-shelf parts that I can grab by running up to my local automotive or hardware store. If you’re talking about hardware that requires circuit boards and custom designed enclosures you’re simply adding to the length of iteration and time to market….at least in North America. In China there are whole markets dedicated to supplying all the bits and bobs that can help you iterate very quickly. Solar thermal is also ridiculously flexible in its application. We’re starting with refrigeration, and that market alone has tremendous variations in opportunity that is keeping us on our toes.

Prototype of a solar thermal collector that is made from easily found parts.
Prototype of a solar thermal collector that is made from easily found parts.

I’ve been thinking about this whole hardware as a lean startup thing for a long, long time. I am a strong believer that the current state of business incubation doesn’t even remotely apply to hardware. It is great for the bits and bytes world, but once you cross into something tangible, the rules are completely different. I’d love to talk with you if this is a topic of interest as I have a lot of ideas as to how we can make a successful hardware incubator.


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