Why I Started Surfaceink: Eric Bauswell on Building a Successful Product Design & Development Company
Silicon Valley product design and development pioneer Eric Bauswell has had quite a journey. From his early mechanical engineering and design days at Jacobsen Textron and Boeing to his groundbreaking design and development for Apple’s most innovative products (as well as work with Intel, Amazon and Green Toys) at his own firm Surfaceink, Bauswell has helped deliver to market more than $200 billion in products. Not bad for a kid born and raised in a small town in Iowa.
Of all his achievements, Bauswell is most proud of Surfaceink and he is often asked about the catalyst for its founding and what he sees for the future of his Silicon Valley product design and development company.
What was the reason for starting your own company?
Surfaceink began in 1999 as an engineering partner to Apple. During those early days, we helped to develop many of Apple’s most innovative products, including iMac, PowerBook, iPod, iPhone, iPad and MacBook.
I had a vision of being able to design cool stuff, but it transformed into being able to create a place where people could come from across the country and dive into projects, working with some of the best product companies in the world here in Silicon Valley. As the people we worked with moved onto other companies, our network grew through word-of-mouth referrals and repeat customers. Almost all of our clients are individuals that we have worked with in the past or we know because they have helped ship a product.
How has the company grown and why?
The early years allowed us to refine our approach to precision engineering and established a company standard for clean design execution. We have built a reputation for doing flagship projects. The success of those products, our focus on attracting great talent, and working well with others has led to more referrals and more opportunities. We also have a history of delivering product to market while mitigating our client’s risks.
Today Surfaceink is full-system product design and development company for Fortune 100 companies and startups in the Consumer Electronics market segment. We have holistic approach to product design and development that deliver great user experiences and solid business results.
Over the last 20 years, we’ve helped deliver more than $200 billion finished product to market working with global leaders such as Amazon, Apple, Broadcom, Cisco, Dell, Dolby, Fitbit, Google, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola, Pepsi, Plantronics, Qualcomm and Tesla.
You’ve compiled a great team, what makes it so successful?
It’s the people. Currently, we have 30 employees plus additional contract partnerships. There was a time when we had many more employees, but we learned and refined our approach. Instead of having a large head count and a number of junior team members, we changed our philosophy in 2011 to focus on really small teams that are extremely talented and composed of key players who have more than 20 years of experience, and some as much as 40 years of experience. Half of our customers are Fortune 100; 30% are mid-size companies and another 20% are startups. We do 10 to 20 different programs a year that are in various stages of development. This benefits our customers because our small team approach and relatively small number of projects allow us to stay engaged with all the technology in the ecosystem and keep on top of the rigorous processes.
What is Surfaceink best known for?
In the early days of Apple, we helped develop many of their most innovative products: Apple iMac, PowerBook Pismo, PowerBook G4, iMac Flat Panel, PowerMac G5, iPod mini, iPhone 1, MacBook Pro and iPad 1. Additionally, we have worked on Microsoft xBox 360, Palm Pre and Pixi, Netgear Nighthawk, just to name just a few. These are typically flagship products and we’re known for pushing the boundaries of form, design, engineering and materials.
We build a tightly knit team for specific projects and focus on pushing the boundaries early, but sprinting towards a production-ready design in a focused manner while staying true to a product vision. We want to stay grounded in reality and prudently hold ourselves accountable to the end goal of shipping a product. Throughout our development process we leverage our network and ecosystem to bring roadmap technologies and support to programs while also working across a spectrum of right-sized contract manufacturing solutions for mass production. We want to exist in the world of the uncomfortable truth and lean into reality rather than tell our clients what they want to hear because the conversations might go a little easier.
You’ve said that companies typically come to you when projects are difficult. Why?
Failure is not an option for us because it’s not an option for our clients. Products that are innovative and elegant can be difficult. We’re known for handling complex projects and delivering designed products from concept to production. It really comes down to where things are with the technology, materials or the “secret sauce” for that platform. When people want to push the boundaries in technology, communications or interactivity and move the brand or be first to market, we get involved. We have the experience to create what they are seeking. Sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know. We help them realize it. We have been doing this since 1999 and have been able to be engaged across a series of transformations or leaps in technologies, materials and approaches. This has allowed us to be adaptable to new visions that our clients bring to the table. We have always embraced and collaborated with clients more often as partners rather than simply customers.
What are you most proud of?
Building a really talented team and having people who know how to get things done and work together. Having the best of the best in the industry allows us to successfully execute projects, but also helps clients mitigate the risk for their projects. Our very experienced team members know how to predict the schedule, recognize pitfalls and where and when to take risks. As a company we’ve handled more than 400 products over 20 years. With this experience and our track record, it’s possible to appropriately apply judgment. When the unexpected happens—and it happens to almost every single project—we don’t panic. Navigating risk is second nature and we know how to move forward, pivot and adapt in order to execute.
Why is vision important?
You’ve got to know where you’re going to go. For Surfaceink and for all the clients we serve and have yet to serve, we navigate what’s going on in the marketplace and the ecosystem. We’ve established a very broad set of relationships in the industry from manufacturers to vendors to component suppliers. We get a lot of insight from a variety of tier-one technology providers for what the roadmap looks like. This allows us to preview the capabilities of new technology and apply that knowledge for all of our customers. I think that’s unique for a company our size. As we move forward, we are interested in having conversations with companies interested in product design who want to improve margins, create new revenue streams, grow their brand and be innovative. We can personalize their products for their customers and enhance the user experience exponentially. We’re excited to learn about their goals and be the expert that executes their concepts to make them reality.
What is the future hold for Surfaceink?
We have put a stake in the ground around audio and voice as a new trend in the marketplace. We have always been involved with audio, but a handful of years ago we began investing and recruiting in this space. It is a new interactive technology that has really been enabled by core hardware and software pieces materializing and coming to fruition. It is yet another example of Surfaceink identifying a new trend and positioning to be prepared to support our clients and their visions.
We have had the opportunity to support the players who want to enter into the hardware space who may already have an existing presence elsewhere. It’s these types of clients we find are most enjoyable for us. We always look forward to engaging this type of client because they want to push the envelope and are willing to work with us to make an impact and build a sustainable presence in the marketplace. It can be fun and challenging at the same time to work with them on the technical and strategic pieces in parallel. Helping them build not just a product but a roadmap and even teams and partnerships that can sustain it over time.