Startups: Stop! Don’t hire a design firm!

The worst thing you can do as a young hardware startup is outsource your product development

I have all the respect in the world for product design consulting companies (I even used to run one). For those of you that aren’t product designers, companies like IDEO and Frog and Continuum charge clients on an hourly or project basis for assistance with developing a concept into a physical product. It is an extremely common practice for major, brand-name product companies to hire these kinds of consultancies to shape their products and business models. They help deliver better products through a world-class user experience that’s been carefully thought out. For a price.

When it comes to first-time hardware entrepreneurs building their first product, design consultancies should be avoided like the plague. Here’s why:

Reason 1: Know Your Users

Startups building hardware should think of themselves less as builders of hardware and more as curators of users. This a very common methodology in the web startup space and it holds true (maybe even more so) for hardware teams. Your company survives infancy only if your users love your product. Know your users. By hiring an outside firm to design your user experience, you’re missing out on those key early user conversations.

Reason 2: Know Your Product

Every tiny decision you make to a product in the early design stages will usually have drastic effects down the road. This so-called “long shadow” effect can cause significant problems with things like manufacturing and technical support if it’s not intimately understood. As founders, you should be responsible for understanding as much as possible about your product so you can predict side effects and learn from your experience. Offloading this process to experts means you won’t be able to learn from it with your next product, even though it may save you one or two headaches early on. Know your product better than anyone else on the planet.

Reason 3: Cold Hard Cash

Hiring a design firm is plain old expensive. Hourly rates are typically between $150 and $500 depending on what kind of work is being done. It’s not uncommon for functional prototypes to cost $500K for a full development cycle. Even if you’re fresh off an oversubscribed Series A this is a lot of cash for the service being provided. Would cutting-edge web startups would be successful if they hired a multi-million dollar software engineering consulting company to build their first product?

Reason 4: Be Nimble

Without question, the primary reason two people in a garage can eventually overtake billion dollar behemoths is agility. Startups are able to maneuver around just about anything if they focus on the things that really matter. Timing is critical and anything that gets in the way of warp speed will likely hurt you in the long run. Involving another group of people, politics, profit margins and delays can easily destroy your ability to be nimble.

The allure of having experts design your product is strong. Resist! Own your product and your business will grow more reliability with you in control

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Bolt is a venture capital firm investing at the intersection of software and physical goods. Often writing founders their first check, Bolt focuses on concept-stage companies: pre-seed, pre-product. Portfolio companies build a foundation for success by leveraging Bolt’s engineering team, prototyping environment, and experience building multi-billion dollar companies. Bolt has offices in San Francisco and Boston.

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