A note to hardware startup founders (& backers)

Long March

Earlier today, I received an email from the Good Night Lamp team. GNL, for those who aren’t aware of it, is a family of internet-connected lamps. You switch one on, and the others turn on as well, no matter where in the world they are: A social message, a low-level signal you send to your loved ones. Good Night Lamp currently is a fully functional prototype, waiting to start production at scale.

In said email, sent to those who backed GNL on Kickstarter or pre-ordered a set online, GNL founder (and good friend) Alexandra explains that she is expecting some delays, and why. (I won’t share the details here. As writer Neal Stephenson once so nicely phrased it, the delays are due to “business reasons that are fundamentally not all that interesting”.)

It’s obvious that writing such an email is painful – and so I hope, Alex, that you’ll forgive me for mentioning this here, and for using GNL and you as an example. But I think there’s so much to learn in this for other founders in a similar situation. And we know that there will be many, many more folks who’ll start hardware and Internet of Things (IoT) startups and who will, most certainly, encounter very similar challenges, and similarly challenging times.

Keep in mind, it’s most painful for the founders

First of all, let me clearly say this: A delay in production is always infinitely more painful in oh so many ways for the founders than for their early customers. So please, dear founders, don’t make it even harder on yourself! Do I want to get my fingers on a set of those lamps? Of course, I can’t wait! But if I’m honest, it doesn’t make a huge difference in my life if they get made a few months earlier or later.

So take your time – those backing you early on won’t run away.

Support what you’d like to see exist…

As someone who frequently backs hardware projects on Kickstarter, I know what I’m in for. And I’ll happily keep backing stuff despite some mixed results if that means that something I’d like to exist gets an inch closer to actually existing.

Will that mean the occasional disappointment? Probably. Certainly, even. For example, all of the projects I’ve backed shipped with significant delays. Does it matter? Of course not! If you want to avoid unexpected results, go get your gadgets on Amazon and go eat at McD. Early stage or even experimental hardware isn’t for the faint hearted, and that’s OK.

… and don’t listen to the naysayers

A footnote to all those who like to point out potential weaknesses or failure points on these ambitious projects: Feel free to do so in your spare time. But spare me, I don’t care, and don’t want to waste my time with your witticisms and pseudo analysis. Chances are these founders have long been working on solving the problems you’ve spotted before you’ve even had a look. Criticizing is easy and doing is hard: Nobody forces you to do a thing, so just STFU.

Tinkerers, do your thing and don’t let it drag you down. You know better where your thing is going, so trust your feeling. Whoever pledges a bit of cash on a Kickstarter project can expect you to do your best – no more. Should things despite everything go south, then that’s that. Let’s face it, we’ve all wasted money on much worse occasions, and should never pledge anything if we can’t afford to do so. So don’t let the fear of not delivering cripple you. As long as you try, you won’t lose any face, and you won’t disappoint anyone.

Backers, maybe there are other ways to support the projects you like than just financially? Spread the word, or pat the team on the back. You know they deserve it.

So after posting this — and my apologies for the slight rant — I might just play a game on the OUYA, or find another project to back. Because OUYA, like the Pebble and Nifty, delivered despite all the pessimistic commentary online. And I have no doubt that a Good Night Lamp will at some point illuminate my living room, too – after all, I’ve seen the prototype work smoothly many times before, and there’s a kick ass team working day and night to get the lamp shipped. If that day is next month or next year? Doesn’t matter. It’ll get there when it gets there.