How to Build an Great In-House Consumer Electronics Product Design & Development Team

I’ve spent the last 20+ years in Silicon Valley helping Fortune 500 and start-up companies design and develop some amazing products. In fact, my team at Surfaceink helped Apple with the development of the first five iPhones, the first MacBook, and first iPad, among other products. Our great team allowed us to help Microsoft roll out the first Xbox. Additionally, it was truly a team effort to design and develop innovative consumer electronic products for the likes of GoPro, Intel, Netgear and others. My point is this: it takes a talented team to help design, develop, and deliver over $200B in successful products to market. Such a task wasn’t accomplished overnight and I learned several lessons along the way. I’m hoping other companies looking to develop their own products can glean insight from my experiences for building great internal PD&D team.


First, Why Should Companies Consider Building Their Own Smart Products?


There are a wide variety of industries that can benefit from having an in-house PD&D team, including Quick Serve Restaurants (QSRs), hospitality, big box retailers, auto rental companies, Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) companies, and commercial and residential developers.


If you’re wondering why businesses that aren’t even in the business of PD&D would want to take such a step, let me state the biggest benefit: more control. One need not look further than Amazon as the ultimate success story. Amazon was not into PD&D. Amazon was a retailer that sold books, music and movies. Then, one day, they dipped their toe into PD&D by creating Kindle and that was a game changer for them and the market overall.


Who knows your brand better than you? When you are passionate about your brand, the PD&D shouldn’t be left to chance by buying something off the shelf and committing to a third party to customize it.


When you have your own PD&D team, you get to design and create your own product in the way you want it. Exactly the way you want it. Additionally, you don’t have to wait on the timeline of a third party. Your PD&D team can hit the ground running with experience and skillsets to move forward at your pace. You get to control the schedule and quality, and accelerate the scale on your own terms. Further, because you aren’t dependent on a third-party team, you minimize the risk and gain the ability to control reliability and are able to achieve control over the integrated experience.


Once companies understand the benefit of such an investment, the next step is moving forward to create a team from the ground up or acquiring an established team that will come on board and be dedicated to your brand and your vision.


Key Factors in Creating Your Own PD&D Team


When assembling a product design and development team for a project, it’s important to keep in mind how much risk is involved in the product development process. It’s necessary to pull together a team that understands the importance of delivering a product from concept to market and executing the process successfully. These are the factors I always consider:


Talent and Skills: It is not only about pulling together people who know how to get things done; they must do things as a team. Finding individuals who understand how to effectively work together is essential. A small team with a broad span of control must know how to execute.


Experience: I’ve been fortunate enough to have the best of the best at Surfaceink. Assembling the best in the industry means finding team members who have a track record of success. While this might take some time to achieve, when you do, the experience each individual brings to the table allows the team as a whole to take more risks and be more confident in predicting the schedule while anticipating possible pitfalls. Overall, having a team with a great depth of knowledge and whose members have seen a variety of issues arise in the past provides great insight on how to address such issues appropriately in the future.


Good Judgment and Discipline: There is a lot of risk involved with product development. It is vital for team members to make prudent decisions to mitigate risk and follow a successful model. When they have the experience, they know how to take necessary risks on the front end. This prevents issues on the back end. Perhaps most importantly, when you have seasoned professionals on the team, these individuals don’t panic when the unexpected happens. Experience shows the unexpected does happen to almost every single project. It’s about having the expertise to handle each unique issue as it occurs, even when it occurs unexpectedly. Additionally, individuals who possess a healthy dose of humility know when to pull in others from the network to deliver a special skill or capability. It’s just not productive to continually reinvent the wheel or spin your wheels at critical junctures in development. Push aside pride and admit to not knowing what you don’t know and bring in experts who better the project on the whole.


Vision: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. That’s wasted energy and time. You must understand where you want to go and how to get there. A great team understands it’s necessary to start with first things first as well as where the end should be. This may sound clichéd because certainly everyone knows this on some level. To be most effective, however, it takes a great team to look wide and then narrow everything down to a single path that everyone follows. The best team members are able to see down that road and stay ahead of the curve as they navigate the marketplace. They always keep in mind that the project is made up of a million little choices, but when guided by that singular vision, it’s possible to successfully ship that product.


Adaptability: The only thing permanent is change. Thus, it’s important to always be open to it. A great team has the ability to pivot and adapt while having the discipline and judgment to hold the customer to the intended vision. Every project gets requests outside of the project scope. It’s possible to acknowledge them, but if the team continues to be ever-changing, execution will never happen. There comes a point in every program where feature creep or additional changes will need to meet a very high bar to be accepted or otherwise move them on to the next generation of the product. Get to market, get some cash flow, earn some revenue and learn so you may improve the next iteration of the product.


Exceptional Communication: If you are not careful, different departments and disciplines can slip into a bad habit of working in their own silos. It’s vital to work together holistically for insight during the beginning stages of a project. When you have great communication between each team member, you quickly discover how various disciplines interrelate and learn about possible objections early on. This is important and provides a healthy give and take for each discipline. Each individual is passionate about his or her role, but it’s important to stay grounded for a successful outcome of the overall program. The ultimate goal is to ship a product. You must communicate well, push each other as necessary and stay based in reality to reach optimized results. Certainly, you can argue and debate passionately, but it is essential to respect the other team members’ disciplines and experience. This will allow for compromise toward the best product outcome possible whether that be form, function, features, performance or aesthetic.


If all this has got you thinking that the benefits are clearly there for your company to have a PD&D team, be sure to check out my next blog. I’ll address ways for you to get started, how to identify the top criteria and how to move forward in the most successful way to go about acquiring an existing PD&D shop.


Let me know your thoughts.

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Eric Bauswell

Founder and CEO

Eric began his career designing tractor mowers for Textron before landing in Silicon Valley where he was motivated by the challenge of fast-paced and industry leading design at Apple. As surfaceink grew, Eric expanded surfaceink to develop products for Palm, Flextronics, and Dell to name a few. He continues to be motivated by the creative challenges from Fortune 100 companies and emerging high-tech startups.


Chris Whittall

Director of Industrial Design

Chris works to ensure that client goals are realized through attractive and innovative design solutions. With over 20 years of experience as an industrial designer, Chris enjoys transforming complex technical challenges into beautiful and intuitive product solutions that deliver solid business results. Before joining surfaceink, Chris worked at Speck Design, Whipsaw, HP, Montgomery Pfeifer and GVO. Chris holds 45 U.S. design patents, and his work has been recognized by IDEA, Red Dot, Spark, IF, Chicago Athenaeum and Popular Mechanics.


Geoff Chatterton

Vice President of Software Engineering

Geoff is surfaceink’s VP of Software, and he loves seeing his award-winning products, including an Emmy and three times Best of CES, in the hands of millions of people around the world. With a focus on creating cutting-edge consumer experiences, his career has spanned 20 years across a mix of successful startups and top tier established companies including Apple, Dell, and PayPal. A recognized industry innovator, Geoff earned his undergraduate degree from MIT and has over 80 patents issued or pending.