Situation: A CEO has had to shift half of the company’s employees to part-time due to reduced business. This has hampered new product development. The situation has been exacerbated by slow payments from customers. Where should you focus for the next year?
Advice from the CEOs:
The company has a lot going on. Validate the company’s market potential for products in development, and start gearing up the marketing program so that it will impact this and next year’s sales.
Get a feel for how many customers want the new products in development. Invest in some market research to validate this.
The bottom line is that product development only pays if the company can sell a lot more product! The team needs to know whether customers for the new products exist, in what numbers, where and who they are, and their most critical needs. Without this market intelligence, the company is in no position to tell whether there is a market, nor is the company prepared to address it.
Assume that there is a market, that it can be quantified. Once the company knows who and where the customers are and knows their most critical needs, the next step is to prepare to attack this market. This is not something that is done in 1-2 months, after the product is ready to sell. The company needs to be starting now if marketing is to be initiated in 6-8 months.
Past practice has been to split R&D costs with the customer. The company has the expertise, the customer the money – this is close enough to 50/50. There is no need to show them the numbers. R&D should not be funded through future sales but should be making money now.
One project has been taking so much attention that it is hobbling the company. The company is so focused on getting this “just right” for the customer that sales and market development have been neglected.
For the next 3 months, focus on completing this project, getting it out the door, and getting the company’s focus back on growth. A sense of urgency is needed!
Situation: An early stage company needs to move from an engineering/R&D focus to a production focus. Cash availability and business plans dictate that this must happen very rapidly – within 4 months. How do you coordinate a rapid cultural shift from R&D to production?
Advice from the CEOs:
You will need an experienced VP of Operations.
Operations and production engineers are a different personality type than R&D engineers. The latter are creative and seek new and more effective ways to solve problems, while production engineers thrive on perfecting a process and getting it right every time. You will likely have to adjust the team to assure that you have both types.
Reorganize the current engineering team into R&D and Production engineering teams.
A core R&D team reports to the CTO.
Another team reports to VP Ops and will cover product manufacturing, process improvement and logistics and QA.
What are the most important steps to take first?
Have a heart-to-heart conversation with the individuals who you have assigned to production responsibilities.
Get back together in small groups or one-on-one with your production group and explain that to meet the company’s objectives – and everyone’s long-term financial objectives – there must be a change. Explain the cost in stark dollars of what the failure to make this change means to the company and to the team. Challenge them to assist you in developing solutions that will allow you to meet your corporate objectives.
Allow some learning opportunities to arise. Let team members make the occasional mistake and use these as coaching opportunities for the group to show what happened, why it happened, and why it can’t be repeated.
Separate standard and special order production into two groups. Each group will have to meet their own performance objectives and metrics – but all objectives and metrics must support the company’s objectives.
Early on you may want to require CEO sign-off on production sheet changes, but within a system that allows you to easily determine material from non-material changes.
Interview with Henry Chen, PhD, Founder & CEO, Cynovo
Situation: A company in a maturing market needs to gain customer feedback to guide product development. They want to optimize Alpha testing prior to investing in tooling. How do you assess product viability on a limited budget?
Advice from Henry Chen:
As the market for tablet devices matures, it is increasingly important to test mass market response to new product design prior to freezing product specs and investing in tooling. Our approach to vertically designed enterprise solutions focuses on four areas: going to the experts for guidance; monitoring the competition and market direction, investing heavily in prototypes, and leveraging speed to market.
Go to the experts; leverage their knowledge and understanding of the market to speed your own development efforts.
Get to know the market gurus who stay on top of the market and are knowledgeable about market direction. These are the influencers who blog, write and publicize new market innovations.
As a smaller company, the route to market in often through alliances. Senior staff at large companies are a valuable resource. One option is to work through large companies’ sales teams to identify senior product people and connect with them.
A good place to monitor market developments is at major trade shows. Events like the Consumer Electronics Show allow you to interact with a large number of experts and to monitor both what the large companies are introducing and their product direction.
Trade shows are unique situations because many experts attend. Some are speakers, and others simply attend to keep up to date with latest developments.
Use trade shows as an opportunity to gather a panel of experts to give you feedback on your design concepts. Experts like to be on top of the market and new developments and appreciate the opportunity to provide input on new products.
Leverage the opinion of younger leaders and experts. In the US and in China, the average entrepreneurial founder is young – often in their low 20s. They are not as cautious as older people who worry about failure. Successful young entrepreneurs are also potential investors.
Give experts time to think about your product. It may take a few hours or even days for them to “get” your new concept.
Invest in prototypes which have a similar look and feel as actual products, though they may lack full functionality. People like to hold a product, gauge the weight, look and feel of the controls, and to contrast different model options.
Large companies are often hindered by internal confidentiality rules. Smaller, more nimble companies may rely on speed to market to allay confidentiality concerns. This gives them the ability to gather more feedback prior to finalizing product design.