Talking Product Development with Jon Carver and Rafi Ajl
What takes a startup from a rough prototype to the Demo Day stage four months later?
In sixteen weeks, a Highway1 startup will go from a breadboard-and-wires prototype to a carefully architected vision of a manufactured product ready to wow potential investors. How do they do it? It turns out the product development process isn’t something you can fake your way through: it’s a process that benefits from specific milestones and deliverables, and the Highway1 staff is here to help you hit them. Senior mechanical engineer Jon Carver and senior designer Rafi Ajl gave a brief talk to our Fall 2016 cohort to introduce them to the process and outline how best they can work together. We sat down with both of them to talk about what they do.
HWY1: Out of all the different ways you two help the various Highway1 startups, where do you think you make the biggest impact?
Rafi: I think it’s in aligning them to the Highway1 development schedule, and ultimately strategizing and project planning with the stated goal of Demo Day in mind. Startups can come into the program with an understanding of product development, but they don’t understand what it takes to get to Demo Day — they’ve never had to go through one before. We have.
Jon: I agree; I think there are specific contexts of the program that are important, and we help them navigate those. I do think there’s a lot of lessons we attempt to teach around product development regardless of the context which include a thorough approach to risk mitigation early in the process so as to avoid costly surprises later; that’s a big part of what product development strategy means to me here at Highway1.
What’s the most important gate or milestone?
Jon: The Demo Day prototype is critical. If there’s any one piece of output they can’t do without, it’s having a representation of the product to pitch on Demo Day. Developing an understanding of the product development process which allows these teams to repeat the process without us is another equally important goal, although not a formal gate.
Rafi: All the gates are important, but the project plan itself is an absolute requirement; you can’t make a product in any process-oriented, rigorous way without a project plan. We’ve had teams who haven’t made a project plan and who subsequently didn’t make a product until the last few weeks of the program. We try to avoid this as much as possible.
What’s the most dire consequence of not making one of these gates?
Jon: It could result in the failure of your business, really; this is especially true of the Demo Day prototype. The guests of Demo Day have come to expect a certain degree of quality from our graduates, and if any one team falls short of meeting those expectations, not only does it limit funding possibilities for that team, but it reflects poorly on Highway1; this is one of the few reasons we would ever pull someone from Demo Day. The Demo Day prototype is very much about the product vision, the thing, that supports the pitch.
A lot of what we do here is about teaching the process of product development, and I think the important gate in that regard is the first prototype in week five. The idea there is that we want to see the teams using prototyping to mitigate a significant risk: this prototype can take a variety of different forms; it doesn’t need to represent the entire product — it could be a subsystem. The thing we expect is that it’s about risk; we coalesce around the risky parts of the product development and use prototyping as a vehicle through which we address those risks.
How do you identify what the risky parts are for a startup?
Rafi: They’re always different for each startup. The Highway1 engineering team looks at things like the state of their prototype, their market, and how they evaluated the product requirements based on talking to users. Then we put together a set of risks we think apply to the product generated from the inputs they’ve given us, as well as our analysis during the application process and subsequent interviews along the way.
Is there a category of risk you consider the most dire? Or is that different for every startup?
Jon: There’s some variety from team to team there, but one of the fundamental challenges is illustrating that customers exist who are going to want to buy your product. It sounds so elementary, but it’s critical to us that product-market fit is not only illustrated, but that the startup illustrates an intimate understanding of their customers’ needs, because that’s a big part of successful, marketable products.
Rafi: Your customers will generate your product requirements. You can decide on the space you’re operating in, but your customers will decide what the requirements really are.
Jon: And that’s not necessarily the biggest risk, but I think it’s one of the first that we see in the product development cycle. Once you address that through a rigorous process, you move on to technical risks. There are risks on the business side, too, with specific markets, sales channels, that sort of thing. So we work together with those who manage the business track to share insights and agree upon what’s most important.
What’s the most common pitfall along the gates and milestones track?
Rafi: Poor requirements and scope creep are very common.
Jon: Lack of a thorough project plan can get you in so many ways, and that plan needs to be robust and informed by a reliable process to begin with. If that’s not maintained, then you can be surprised by failure, in many cases catastrophic failure: the wheels fall off entirely and you don’t see it coming. That’s probably the biggest risk. But if you have a project plan together that anticipates some manageable failures or insights happening along the way, you can project into the future reliably and manage your cash flow and resources, and that dovetails into the business perfectly. Maybe 20% of teams have a project plan of that type initially.