Building a Team that Delivers Business Value

Today we have a guest post by Saket Vora about building a product development team aligned with your company's business value propositions.

Saket is a hardware product developer who has helped create iPods, iPhones, and Watch at Apple, and was a founding team member at Pearl Automation. You can contact him via email or on Twitter

Building a Team that Delivers Business Value

It’s hard to overstate the importance of team composition in a successful business. This is especially true for early stage companies that are trying to build their first product. The early team will define the company’s culture, create foundational processes & priorities around product development, and help attract additional talent & investment.

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.
~ Frank Herbert, Dune.

Early stage companies are laser focused on transforming their product from a concept to a shipping product as quickly as possible. Recruiting and hiring are focused directly on achieving that goal. However, it is essential to ensure that the team composition is aligned with the company’s business positioning. At the core of every company is the belief that it has a unique approach to a business problem, and so the company’s full-time core team should be a reflection of that particular approach.

Consider a young company in the IoT, robotics, or similar embedded systems-related space. Such startups commonly outsource functions like payroll, HR, and IT. While these roles are vital to running a business, they are not roles that directly contribute the company’s unique value proposition.

Leveraging external resources for such activities keeps the company’s headcount lean and reduces operating expenses. Most importantly, outsourcing enables increased agility with respect to changes in direction. When needs change, it is much easier for companies to scale up and down external resources than it is to hire and lay off employees.

If outsourcing works for payroll, HR, and IT, then we can apply the same mentality to product and engineering functions which do not directly contribute to our business’s value proposition.

What differentiates your product?

With limited resources in the form of team size, money, and brand awareness, trying to do many things at once results in doing nothing particularly well. It is critical to decide what your company should focus on, and thus tradeoffs must be evaluated. How do you intend for your product to be different than your competitors?

Is it through:

  • Hardware design or production quality?

  • Software features or user experience?

  • Marketing?

  • Distribution?

  • Pricing?

Of course, you may wish to differentiate in all these ways over the long term, but it is important to identify the main differentiating factor in the short term. Choosing your area of focus will constrain your options in other areas.

For example, Dropcam’s key advantage involved a superior user experience that was tied into a cloud-based service model. Their original hardware cameras were essentially commodity technology, which allowed them to get their hardware product to market faster and cheaper.    

The Pebble smart watch focused on their unique e-ink ‘always-on display’ that also enabled a long battery life. The tradeoffs for these features meant that they could not offer as rich a software feature set as other smartwatches with conventional LCD displays.

GoPro action cameras and Beats headphones emphasized high profile marketing & content to boost their brand identities & sales, rather than push the envelope in device performance.

Roku licensed their hardware reference designs to OEM TV manufacturers in addition to making their own streaming media sticks. While this enabled them to get their OS platform into wider distribution channels, their designs had to be very conscious of cost and compatibility.

The composition of your full-time employees, even in the early stages, should ideally reflect where your company’s strategic advantage aims to be.

NPI and On-Going Support are Different Disciplines

Creating a product for the first time, referred to as New Product Introduction (NPI), requires different skill-sets than sustaining or expanding an existing product line.  For example, contract manufacturers in Asia will often have completely different teams for the NPI phase and Production phase.

For engineers, the goal of the NPI phase is twofold:

  1. To get working prototypes functional as quickly as possible to unblock all other cross functional teams

  2. To build a platform that is production worthy.

To pursue this, you might quickly hire several engineers skilled at prototyping. They will likely hack together Arduinos, Raspberry PIs, or Particles, bring up an OS and write drivers, and fab out quick-turn circuit boards and 3D print enclosures. With the tools and services available today, teams can make incredibly quick progress towards delivering functional prototypes.

However, jump ahead in your mind to when the basic functional prototypes are ready.

The product team will be using them to get user feedback, refine the product experience, and inevitably start requesting new or changed features. If the product is tied to a smartphone app and/or cloud service, you’ll be defining how the different pieces of your product interface with each other -- not just to enable core features, but also around protocols, logging, analytics, device updates, and product health. Your team will need to support diagnostic and manufacturing needs, including first-time programming, provisioning, and preparing the devices for shipment. End-to-end security is required across all levels of the software stack. There will be regular new and urgent requests to support one-off product demos for investors, press, or partners.  And of course, supporting quality assurance testing & validation throughout the product development lifecycle.

The truth is that these tasks are of a different nature compared to early platform bringup. Technically, it involves higher level systems level architecture and understanding the needs of manufacturing, field testing, security, QA, etc. Culturally, it’s about grinding through long bug lists, dealing with constant change requests from all cross functional teams, chasing difficult to reproduce issues, and addressing edge cases. It’s during this phase of the development cycle that the overall product quality and customer experience comes to be defined.   

It’s extremely difficult to find embedded engineers who can easily run the gamut from early prototyping platforms to production-ready systems. It is common for even well connected, experienced technical recruiters to take six months or more to fill an embedded position.

If you want to keep a lean full-time team, do you hire the early stage prototypers to get going quickly and trust they’ll figure out the rest? Or do you spent months hunting for the unicorn engineers who you know will be able to deliver everything?

Aligning Your Core Team to Deliver Your Business Value

When building your company’s early core team, focus on what you believe is your company’s key strategic advantages -- then leverage outside services and resources for the rest.

Think carefully before pursuing that ‘full stack company’ org chart or insisting that the entire product needs to be done in house.

Engineering design firms can cover a range of industrial design, mechanical, electrical, firmware, and even manufacturing needs. Software consultants with expertise in platform bringup, sensors, wireless connectivity, and security can help fill in gaps in your team’s skillsets without burdening headcount with narrowly-focused experts. You could hire a full-time WiFi expert to enable your product’s wireless connectivity, but what will that person do when that task is complete? When done right, it can be faster & cheaper to bring your product to market if you leverage outside resources for tasks that are not central to your long-term business strategy.

Valuable core roles to fill are the connectors -- the systems-savvy engineers who know how to interface between the device, app, cloud, manufacturing, and business layers of the product. These are the people who drive the architecture, implement the top level features that differentiate your company, and execute the business logic. With their holistic understanding of how your product comes together, they also should be able to identify the most optimal way to leverage external resources. For these reasons, connectors are more valuable to early stage companies than the experts.

Investors, founders, and industry veterans all acknowledge how important the people are to a company, especially the company’s early core team. Building a team that is closely aligned to what makes your company unique -- and being smart about leveraging outside resources for the rest -- will give your company the best chance to succeed.


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Leadership Advice from the Tao Te Ching

As I mentioned in the lessons learned from the software architecture workshop, we can draw inspiration and lessons from all over.

Today I want to share some wonderful leadership advice courtesy of Lao-Tzu (~500BC), the founder of Taoism. This advice comes from verse 17 of the Tao Te Ching.

In this verse, Lao-Tzu is discussing the characteristics of a true leader. According to Taoism and Zen, words are a fundamentally problematic and limited form of communication. As such, I hesitate to explain what I think you should conclude. I will allow the text to directly impart its message to you.

I've provided three different English translations of this passage. Since translations are always an abstraction of the original text, I hope that comparing different translations provides you with a better sense of the meaning behind the text.

Tao Te Ching, 17

Stephen Mitchell's translation:

When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don't trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, "Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!"

Red Pine's translation:

During the High Ages people knew they were there
then people loved and praised them
then they feared them
finally they despised them
when honesty fails
dishonesty prevails
hesitate and weigh your words
when their work succeeds
let people think they did it

I'm not sure whose translation this is, but it seems to float around the internet from time to time:

True leaders
are hardly known to their followers.
Next after them are the leaders
the people know and admire;
after them, those they fear;
after them, those they despise.

To give no trust
is to get no trust.

When the work's done right,
with no fuss or boasting,
ordinary people say,
Oh, we did it.

Commentary on the Text

These notes on verse 17 are included in Red Pine's translation of the Tao Te Ching:

Ho-Shang Kung:

When those above treat those below with dishonesty, those below respond with deceit.

Sung Ch'ang-Hsing:

The mistake of loving and praising, fearing and despising does not rest with the people but with those above. The reason the people turn to love and praise or fear and hate is because those above cannot be trusted. And when trust disappears, chaos appears.

Huang Yuan-Chi:

What we do to cultivate ourselves is what we do to govern the world. And among the arts we cultivate, the most subtle of all is honesty, which is the beginning and end of cultivation. When we embrace the truth, the world enjoys peace. When we turn our backs on the truth, the world suffers. From the time of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, this has never varied.

Wu Ch-eng:

The reason sages don't speak or act is so they can bestow their blessings in secret and so people can live their lives in peace. And when their work succeeds and people's lives go well, people think that is just the way it is supposed to be. They don't realize it was made possible by those on high.


When the ruler views his ministers as his hands and feet, they regard him as their heart and soul. When he views them as dirt and weeds, they regard him as an enemy and a thief

Lu Hsi-Sheng:

The virtuous lords of ancient times initiated no actions and left no traces. Hence, the people knew they were there and that was all. When their virtue diminished, they ruled with kindness and justice, and the people loved and praised them. When their kindness and justice no longer controlled people's hearts, they governed with laws and punishments, and the people feared them. When their laws and punishments no longer controlled people's minds, they acted with force and deceit, and the people despised them.

Further Reading