November 14, 2016
A year ago they said we couldn’t build it and implied we were crazy.
Last October, the small but fearless team of optical engineers, software developers, and eager entrepreneurs formed the EyeQue product team. Twelve months later, emerging from stealth mode, this team of 10 developed, manufactured and began to market a smartphone-based wellness application that measures your eyesight. When I said we would do it in a year, some in the industry said it would take 5 years. When I talked about an R & D budget of a million dollars, they laughed and said at least 5 million. When I said we plan to sell this in retail for far less than $50 a unit, the word was “improbable”. When I said it would be developed to run, at launch, on many different types of Android and iOS phones, I received polite invitations to seek the help of a mental health professional. The pinnacle of dissonance was when I was interviewing a highly qualified and experienced mechanical engineer and describing the work that needed to be done over a three-month span- who laughed all the way out of my office.
A year has passed and here comes the EyeQue Personal Vision Tracker, designed under a strict minimal viable product concept, that exceeded our performance expectations and cost less to develop and manufacture than we had estimated. If I had listened to the ample advice I was offered, the EyeQue team would have been mired in design minutiae, conducting various trade-off analyses, parsing out work to different expert firms, and ultimately debating on how to arrange the product equivalent of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
So, while they said we must be crazy, here’s my advice on how to prove them wrong.
Again, the team achieved the goals set before them because each person was so good at what he/she does, they all knew exactly what to do and how to work with one another. I continue to be amazed at the level of productivity. I often recant that EyeQue is lucky to have had such incredible talent present themselves to the company. The reality is that great talent gravitates to great talent.
Innovation is rarely achieved by merely accepting the advice of the “experts”, especially in the early stages of technology development. All input is valuable, but be willing and eager to step outside of the proverbial box when it comes to, well, everything – from design and manufacturing to inspiring the company culture– be creative.
Feature creep is a real danger to any early stage product, EyeQue had ample opportunities to delve into the slippery slope of feature creep. The desire to make things perfect or more ‘feature-ful’ is surprisingly costly. Adding features linearly causes an exponential increase in complexity and when you take a step back, you realize it is really hard to know how features will be perceived and used. As Albert Einstein was attributed to have once said, “Make things as simple as possible but not simpler” – today, that means don’t add extra features, certainly not until your primary vision for the product is physically realized.
During our product development, we pursued two distinct lines of design for the optical device. Both worked, but ultimately one was better than the other for a first minimum viable product. Going down this dual path while in some sense may appear wasteful, is actually quite optimal when you have a lot of unknowns to deal with. If you recall the Manhattan Project, the massive US program that developed the atomic bomb, the scientific team took multiple parallel design approaches to tackle various design challenges and then down-selected to the best approach. A key example was the method for the extraction of U235 from U238. If the Manhattan Project Scientists did not follow this path, the course of history could have been altered and possibly none of us would be here today.
While the trend today is to create a “demographically diverse” workforce, leveraging telecommuting and many satellite offices in low-cost, talent-rich areas, in the earliest stages of a technology startup, there’s nothing more important than ad-hoc, frequent, face-to-face communication. There’s also no need for many fancy specifications if everyone is working together in the same room. While building try EVERYTHING thing out and test, test, test each tiny step along the way – take nothing for granted. In even the most well thought out effort, there will still be surprises, for no matter how smart we are, we cannot anticipate all possible problems. The difference between success and failure is solving the anticipated problems ahead of time so you have a fighting chance to deal with the unanticipated ones.
Whether your ultimate goal is to address a global need with a disruptive product or to make billions of dollars, the common denominator is an awesome product. Stay focused on developing a product twice as good as you planned, rather than rushing to market with premature press releases, tech talks, or trying to create demand before you’re ready to deliver. If you have the luxury, stay focused on perfecting the product and user experience before focusing on raising more money. Build a great product, and the rest will come organically.
They said we couldn’t do it – not in the time anticipated, with the money budgeted, with the resources planned. But we have. And we were also awarded the Best of Innovation Award for the world famous 2017 Consumer Electronics Show to be held in Las Vegas this January. Come visit if you’re in town.