Entrepreneurship Lessons from Steve Jobs

I have been reading many eulogies of Steve Jobs over the past few days. Even though Apple is the highest-valued technology company in the world, Steve Jobs’ story and style re-emphasized for me many entrepreneurship lessons that I’ve learned…and perhaps forgotten…over the years. Here are my favorites:

1. Customers don’t usually know what they want

You can’t just ask customers what they want and give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new. – Steve Jobs

Early in my career, whenever I started a new project, I would make the mistake of asking the customer’s program manager to provide a specification. The program manager would, of course, dutifully do his job by dreaming up some impossible “reach goals” and a long list of features.

I would then have to push back and try to “manage” the customer’s expectations. It was a losing battle. Too often, we would sign off on the spec and, from then on, the customer’s random wish list became gospel with our engineers. We’d spend hundreds of man-hours designing, developing, testing, and debugging. We’d run late…we’d run over-budget…we’d finally cry “uncle!” and ask to either “de-scope” (simplify) the project or receive additional funding. It became a mess.

I’ve learned that customers don’t know what they want. They’re just as busy as everyone else, so they typically don’t take the necessary time to really study their options. They’re not the experts in the field…you are! Instead of analyzing the tradeoffs, it’s easier for them to request everything and the kitchen sink.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t engage in a dialogue with your customers, but definitely be the one to make the final decision on what goes into the product and what is ripped out. Your customers will thank you for taking the decision off their hands…and for delivering something simple, elegant, and functional on time.

Remember that critics in the technology press declared the iPad “DOA: Disappointing on Arrival”. Little did they know.

2. Simplicity and focus

I’m a big believer in boredom. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, and out of curiosity comes everything. – Steve Jobs

Technology tempts us with countless avenues for distraction. Finished responding to all your email? …then surf the web while video-chatting on Skype, check out photos on Facebook, discuss on LinkedIn while simultaneously tweeting your latest thoughts and texting your spouse. If, instead, you’re in the mood for some thoughtful writing, then you can publish a blog with the click of a button! ūüėČ

In observing my mentors and other successful people, I’ve noticed that they make room in their lives for “boredom”, or undisturbed time for thought. They make space in their schedules for quiet time alone in their office, with the computer off. They read a lot. They make an effort to have frequent lunches and dinners with their colleagues.

Most of them constantly try to simplify, simplify, simplify. They avoid unnecessary complexity, they have tricks that block out all the digital noise, and they focus intently on what’s important.

Not only did Steve Jobs products’ design epitomize this simplicity but he was also a “designer” of his daily life. He focused on his role as CEO without pontificating on politics. He decided to end his philanthropy efforts to focus instead on Pixar. He blocked out all intrusions into his personal life.

Keep things simple.

3. Price isn’t everything

In one of my previous companies, we had a couple sales people who would never hit their sales targets. It was always one excuse or another. “The product just needs one more feature,” or “I can only make this sale if we offer a 20% discount.”

My partners and I decided to not engage in a “race to the bottom” with our competitors who had established manufacturing operations in China. We continued to manufacture in New Jersey. Our products were more expensive, but we made up for it in application engineering services and advanced software.

Steve Jobs demonstrated that customers don’t always make their final decision based on price. Offer them something well above the average and they’ll pay the justifiable premium.

4. Don’t limit your thinking with dogma

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. – Steve Jobs

Entrepreneurs can take two lessons from this quote. First, don’t believe your competitors’ press releases. Your competitors look ugly when they stand naked by the mirror, too. Out of their very nature, product press releases emphasize a product’s benefits and ignore its flaws. Similarly, the technology press rarely has the inside scoop necessary to report on the challenges that companies are really facing — the employee defections, the spaghetti code, the internal politics. They usually report the good stuff that’s fed to them. Don’t believe the dogma you read in the press.

Second, don’t look to the press to show where your next breakthrough product will be. As Wayne Gretsky said, “skate where the puck is going, not where it is.” Press releases and most news stories cover products that have been under development for at least six months, usually longer. They’re “old news.” If your product development efforts imitate what you read in the press, by the time you’re done building it you’ll be two years behind everyone.

Instead, focus on “your own inner voice;” figure out what it’s saying about the future you want to build, and then work like mad to build it better than anyone else. I’m not saying that you should stick your head in the sand and ignore your industry’s press. Stay technically informed and expect occasional sparks of inspiration from others…but remember that conventional wisdom is outdated.

5. Execution is more important than being a first mover

In a similar vein, don’t believe that “It’s all been done before.” Just because one company is already working on a similar idea to yours doesn’t mean that they’ll succeed. It doesn’t mean that they’ll develop a good product or build the right team or raise the necessary funding or capture your market share. I’m not saying that you should build another Groupon copy-cat service — there are thousands of those already — but you definitely should not be scared into inaction if competitors are attempting to build similar products.

I hate the phrase “first-mover advantage”. I believe that first movers usually end up with nothing except arrows in their backs.

Apple didn’t build the first computer. They didn’t build the first digital music player. They definitely didn’t build the first smart phone. Apple was the second-mover, and it dominated all of these markets. Execution is what made the difference.

Steve Jobs’s ability to inspire, cajole, and scare excellent performance out of his team is what made the difference. Apple learned lessons from its predecessors’ mistakes, found novel solutions for its competitors’ problems and shortcomings, and then executed perfectly.

Apple’s slogan was “Think Different.” A more accurate version, I think, is “Think Better.” Over the next few weeks, whenever I use an iProduct created by Steve Jobs, I’ll try to remind myself to do just that.

——

Thanks to Nicole Quiterio for the idea that sparked this article.

Photo credit: www.gizmowebs.com “Life of Steve Jobs in Pictures”

Engineers Forget to “Stand on the Shoulders of Giants”

If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.     РSir Isaac Newton

All technical innovation has come from building on what came before, by using the building blocks provided by engineers who came before us. While its easy to recognize this is true for big innovations, engineers forget this principle way too often in their daily work.

[If you don’t have the time to read the rest of this post, then skip straight to this article about a disastrous example — Netscape v5.0 — of what happens when engineers and managers decide to build from scratch instead of building on what came before. I consider it required reading for all engineers working for me.]

A Shortcoming of Engineering Education?

Consider for a minute how engineering education teaches students to approach problems:

  • Professors always go back to first principles (and rightly so).
  • Problem sets force students to start their analysis from the ground up…and usually by themselves.
  • Copying others is considered cheating.
  • Students must finish all the coursework within one semester, which prevents them from building up a “toolkit” of solutions for solving more complex problems.
  • Project management and risk management are rarely taught.

Engineers are taught to reference the textbook when trying to solve a difficult problem; they are not taught where to look on the web for a pre-existing solution since that would be considered cheating. They’re definitely not taught the social skills necessary to cold-call a subject-matter expert to pick his brain. (To read more about this, see my post from last week on Emotional Intelligence.)

Fortunately, some professors are starting to change their teaching methods to account for the wealth of information on the web…and to teach students to solve problems as they would in the “real world.” This is easiest in computer science, where a solution can simply be copy-and-pasted, as opposed to disciplines that involve hardware.

For example, computer science Professor Adrien Treuille at Carnegie Mellon encourages his students to use code available for free online in solving their problem sets, as long as they cite the source. He explained to me, “This approach allows students to develop much more complex and interesting programs than they could if everything were coded from scratch, and they become familiar with the coding style…and the best sources for free code…that is typically used in industry.”

Information Asymmetry in Engineering

In addition to their academic training, “asymmetric information” also entices engineers to start from scratch, even when an existing solution is available. Let me explain what I mean by “asymmetric information” in this context…

There are usually several ways to solve a problem, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Frequently the choice is between modifying an existing implementation versus building a new one from scratch.

The Existing Solution (warts and all): If an engineer has an existing solution in front of him (or her), all the hacks, bugs, and shortcomings are totally apparent. Documentation is frequently lacking, so reverse-engineering is necessary. If multiple people have worked on the project, the solution is frequently a messy mix of various coding and design styles.

Building It from Scratch: In contrast, when the engineer considers a new, fresh approach, the advantages are much more apparent than the disadvantages. The engineer sees the final solution in his mind’s eye as a gleaming, flawless example of engineering perfection. Of course, as the saying goes, “The devil is in the details.” Without the opportunity to work through the details on a new solution, the devil, Murphy’s Law, and shortcuts necessitated by project deadlines have not yet impacted the work.

For these reasons — the apparent shortcomings of an existing solution and the undiscovered shortcomings of a brand new implementation — engineers are tempted to scrap an existing solution in favor of doing it their (presumably better) way.

As I mentioned earlier, the best and most disastrous¬† example I’ve seen of this is the re-coding of the v5.0 Netscape browser. I consider this article REQUIRED READING for all engineers, regardless of their specialty. Please…think twice before you start rebuilding something from scratch!

On the Shoulders of Giants

There is a great scene in the movie Flash of Genius. Greg Kinnear plays Dr. Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. The scene shows him in a courtroom, cross-examining an expert witness called by the defendant, Ford Motor Company, which stole his invention. The expert had just testified that since Dr. Kearns did not invent the capacitor, the transistor, or the variable resistor and just bought them out of a catalog, that he did not create anything new.

Dr. Kearns starts his cross-examination by reading from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

Kearns asks the expert witness,¬† “Did Charles Dickens create the word ‘it’?”

“No, he didn’t create that word,”replied the witness.

“Did he create the word ‘was’?”

“No.”

“The?”

“No.”

“Best?”

“No.”

“Times?”

“No.”

Kearns continues, “I’ve got a dictionary here. I haven’t checked, but I would guess that every word that’s in this book can be found in this dictionary. Do you agree that there’s not, probably, a single new word in this book? All Charles Dickens did was arrange them into a new pattern, isn’t that right?”

“Right.”

“But Dickens did create something new, didn’t he? By using words. The only tools that were available to him. Just as almost all inventors in history have had to use the tools that were available to them. Telephones, space satellites all of these were made from parts that already existed, correct, Professor? Parts that you might buy out of a catalog.”

“Technically that’s true, yes, but that does…”

“No further questions, your honor.”

Don’t invent a new language and write a new dictionary before starting your work. Even though the English language is an imperfect work-in-progress, it is still used successfully every day to communicate, and sometimes even to create beauty and inspiration. Use the tools, resources, and existing solutions you have available to you, even if they’re not perfect…and build on the shoulders of giants.

—–

Image credit: The original source and artist are unknown to me, otherwise I would provide credit. Link to Google search results for this image.

P.S. While people are listening, I want to publicly shame ūüėČ Mark Schultz for skipping out on the Hightstown Triathlon last weekend.¬† No excuses in 2012…start your swim training now so nobody has reason to worry about you drowning! ūüôā

Emotional Intelligence – What Makes Star Engineers

In a college final exam, you’re on your own. If you can solve the problems fast enough and without help, you’ll pass.¬† If you’re caught copying from the smartest kid in the class, you’ll flunk…or be expelled.

Originally, I applied the same mentality to my professional development: in order to be a successful engineer, I reasoned, I had to know everything well enough to develop engineering solutions by myself. Big brain = success, or so I thought.

Frustrated Engineer

Most of my real-world engineering projects were larger and more complex than I could handle by myself, of course. Fortunately, I read a passage in the book “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman that fundamentally changed the way I approach my work as an engineer:

Researchers Robert Kelley and Janet Caplan¬† studied star performers at Bell Labs, a renowned research lab near Princeton, New Jersey. The telecommunication systems the Bell Labs engineers developed were highly complex…more than any one person could understand…so everyone worked in teams, ranging from 5 to 150 people.

While everyone at the lab had a high IQ, only some stood out as stars. At the beginning of the study, managers and peers were asked to pick the top 10% of their colleagues.

The assumption was that those with the highest IQ or best academic performance would also excel in this highly technical environment. That assumption was wrong…by standard cognitive measures such as IQ, standardized tests, and academic performance, and even social measures such as personal inventories, there were no discernible differences between the stars and everyone else. The researchers had to dig deeper.

By performing detailed interviews, they discovered the critical difference was the stars’ interpersonal skills and how their professional relationships impacted their engineering work performance. The star performers put time into cultivating good relationships with people whose services might be needed in a crunch. When faced with a challenging problem, they were able to pick up the phone, call the right person, and get a quick answer that was usually correct. The average engineer, on the other hand, either struggled mightily to develop a solution on his own — and frequently an inferior one — or wasted his time with unreturned calls and unanswered emails.

The researchers summarized it this way: ‘The formal organization is set up to handle easily anticipated [and routine] problems. But when unexpected problems arise, the informal organization kicks in. Highly adaptive, informal networks move diagonally and eliptically, skipping entire functions to get things done.’

– Paraphrase of Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence, p. 161-162

Image credit: Amazon.com / Bantam Books

An engineer I worked closely with for several years, Keith, embodied the lessons I took of the Bell Labs study. Keith wouldn’t initially strike you as a straight-A braniac student. I never saw his transcript, but I would guess that he enjoyed socializing as much as he enjoyed studying. But, man, he is one of the best engineers I’ve met. Whenever he’s faced with a challenging problem, he’s able to research it quickly and thoroughly enough to be able to ask the right questions. He then tracks down the best subject matter experts he can find, calls him them up, picks their brains, and, if necessary, visits them in person that same week. That’s usually enough to rapidly solve most challenging problems, but if not, he’ll contract them to see a solution through to completion. He repeats this day after day. The result is an ability to solve engineering problems that have vexed his entire industry for decades.

Based on the lessons from Goleman’s book and Keith’s example, I make a concerted effort each day to stay in touch with other bright people in my industry and pick their brains on a regular basis. I still code and design hardware, but it’s the continuous, informal expert input that allows me to incorporate best practices and lessons learned, and minimize the risk of the schedule delays and budget over-runs that typically kill projects.

In my post next week, I’ll write about what I see as the “corollary” to the emotional intelligence problem with engineers: what happens when engineers — including myself at the start of my career — undervalue outside feedback and ignore lessons learned. It’s a problem of “asymmetric information” that leads to costly efforts to re-invent the wheel. Stay tuned.

Special thanks to Mark Kasrel for teaching me about Emotional Intelligence and its importance.

Photo credit: iStockPhoto

Clean Tech: Wishing We Were China for a Day

In his book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded,” Tom Friedman wishes that America could be “China for a day…but only one day.”

Friedman writes:

If only…If only America could be China for a day — just one day.

As far as I’m concerned, China’s system of government is inferior to ours in every respect — except one. That is the ability of China’s current generation of leaders — if they want — to cut through all their legacy industries, all the pleading special interests, all the bureaucratic obstacles, all the worries of a voter backlash, and simply order top-down the sweeping changes in prices, regulations, standards, education, and infrastructure that China’s long-term strategic national¬†interests¬†— changes that would normally take Western democracies years or decades to debate and implement. That is such an asset when it comes to trying to engineer a sweeping change, like the green revolution, where you are competing against deeply embedded, well-funded, entrenched interests, and where you have to motivate the public to accept certain short-term sacrifices, including higher energy prices, for long-term gains. For Washington to be able to order all the right changes and set up the ideal market conditions for innovation, and then get out of the way and let the natural energy of the American capitalist system work — that would be a dream.
– Tom Friedman, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Friedman goes on to cite examples of mandating unleaded gasoline: America started the process in 1973 and didn’t finish until 1994. China accomplished the same between 1998 to 2000. America stalled 32 years before implementing new vehicle efficiency standards, but China took only two years.

Friedman’s “China for a day” thought was sparked by an interview with GE’s CEO, Jeff Immelt, who commented,

“What doesn’t exist today in the energy business is the hand of God. I think if you asked the utilities and big manufacturers in this business what they would most like, it would be for the president to stand up and say: ‘By 2025 we are going to produce this much coal, this much natural gas, this much wind, this much solar, this much nuclear, and nothing is going to stand in the way.’ You’d have about thirty days of complaining, and then people…would just stand up and say, ‘Thank you, Mr. President, now let’s go do it.'”

…and we would. I’d be one of them.

America’s CleanTech Vision, Adapted for the Stage

Image credit: unknown

In America, we instead have the political theater that unfolded this past week in Congress (for example).¬† I heard Peter Sagal describe it best during this past weekend’s broadcast of the “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” news quiz on NPR.

PETER SAGAL: The House this week tried, but failed, to keep the government from taking away America’s what?
(Soundbite of bell)

SAGAL: Incandescent light bulbs! This is what happened; I will explain. Back in 2007, a bipartisan majority in Congress, and President Bush, passed a law [the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which was voted in at 314-100 that year,]¬†calling for a major increase in light bulb efficiency. It’s only now that Republicans, including the guy who actually sponsored that bill [Rep. Mary Bono Mack], realized that the whole thing was a plot by President Obama to rob us of our freedom, using his Kenyan socialist time-traveling technology.
(Laughter)

SAGAL: So they tried this week to repeal the law calling for light bulb standards. Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann weighed in. She said, quote, “The American people want less government intrusion into their lives, and that includes staying out of their personal light bulb choices,” unquote.
(Laughter)

SAGAL: Ms. Bachmann believes Americans should have perfect freedom to screw whatever they want, but only if we’re talking about light bulbs.
(Laughter)

The sad thing is that after the Republican’s repeal failed, they voted successfully to strip the Department of Energy of the funding necessary to enforce the lightbulb switch. Read more here.

Stimulus Funding — Thanks, but No Thanks

Take a look at this graph of the DOE’s solar energy technology research funding profile. Do you think this is the right way to fund an organization…let alone a nation-wide research effort?

Image credit: Department of Energy

It would have made infinitely more sense to spread that huge spike from the stimulus evenly over 4-5 years. Last year I saw the DOE struggle mightily to manage twice the amount of funding (and triple the money from 2006). Spreading out the funding was, of course, not politically feasible for Obama. He had to pass the stimulus and then move on to the next fight. Obama had to beat the clock before the Republicans took the House in 2010.

I recently spoke with a friend who works for a senior DOE official; he said that under the current political climate, staffers are expecting a 30% budget cut in the DOE’s EERE (Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy) office funding. He also said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Republicans killed ARPA-E — a new Obama initiative to pursue high-risk/high-reward energy technologies — within a year or so.

This on-again, off-again nature of clean tech research funding in the U.S. prevents innovators and engineers from gaining momentum through sustained funding, and it makes investors skittish about the unpredictability of government support.

The CEO of one clean tech company that I’m involved with — a company that was one of the largest recipients of DOE research stimulus funding, landing nearly $10MM in contracts — quipped “The DOE is driving this company out of business!”

No, he was not just being an ungrateful S.O.B. The company had received notices from the DOE that they were selected for awards. The CEO took the risk…assuming the money would come in on the usual timeframe…to start hiring the additional engineers necessary to execute the projects. This is exactly what the stimulus was intended for! Instead, the DOE, which was overwhelmed with administering double the number of projects, took nearly six months to get the funding in place. In the meantime, the company couldn’t bill for its work and bled cash in paying all the additional heads.

Just Leave it to the Free Market!

In Europe, the grass roots support of clean tech is strong, so governments are much more likely to mandate utility renewable portfolio standards and higher vehicle efficiency standards. On the other hand, Europe has triple the electricity and gasoline costs than in the U.S.

On the other side of the world, in China, the government issues 5-year plans and can mandate sweeping reforms in a matter of months. On the other hand, China suffers from lack of enforcement and grass roots initiative.

In the U.S., free-market conservatives say that anything the government can do, the market will do better. Want to bet? I’d wager they’ve never sat on a standards development committee, which is one way the free market decides on technologies, performance, and safety standards…these committees move painfully slow!

Can you imagine building our national highway system based on free market incentives? A commercial company trying to do that would go bankrupt just from fighting all the lawsuits from affected neighborhoods.

Can you imagine building the space shuttle and space station programs using the free market? Several companies are currently trying to build tourist spacecraft (30 years after the first space shuttle was built), and they’ll only have a fraction of the altitude and payload of the shuttle.

We Can be China for a Day…and Better than China Thereafter

There definitely is a role for government in providing leadership for big, important projects. The space program, the national highway system, the military, safety enforcement for drugs and food are among them…and so is clean tech. The government doesn’t necessarily need to bankroll clean tech the way that it paid for the entire highway system, because financing that’s the role of the free market.

What the government does need to do is:

  1. Provide bold, clear targets to give the industry’s technologists direction, and
  2. Its support needs to be unwavering, to give investors the peace of mind that the rules won’t dramatically change after the next election cycle.¬†

Voters need to demand that of their representatives at the polls and through advocacy, because if the government provides the marching orders, my colleagues and I in the clean tech industry will do the rest!

— August 20, 2011 UPDATE —

RenewableBizDaily recently posted this interesting, short article describing how China is out-pacing the United States in most aspects of renewable energy development. Much of this is simply due to the country’s explosive economic growth, which driven by the move of millions of people into cities and at a higher standard of living. However, the country’s support of clean technologies — as opposed to more traditional coal, oil, and gas energy sources — is driven by the Chinese government’s ability to make decisions more quickly, decisively, and definitively than those in the West. It’s a short article, so take a look, here.

R&D 100 Award Winner

On Wednesday, R&D Magazine announced the winners of the 2011 R&D 100 Awards. These awards are known as the “Oscars of Innovation.”

The annual R&D 100 Awards identify the 100 most significant, newly introduced research and development advances in multiple disciplines. Winning one of the R&D 100 Awards provides a mark of excellence known to industry, government, and academia as proof that the product is one of the most innovative ideas of the year, nationally and internationally.
– Wikipedia

Image credit: R&D Magazine website.

Not one but two new products I was involved with won the R&D 100 Awards this year!

Princeton Power Systems’ Demand Response Inverter (DRI)

The DRI was one of my projects at Princeton Power Systems (PPS), together with Mahesh Gandhi and Paul Heavener. I’d love to list all the talented engineers who worked on the project — they’re the ones who got the work done despite management’s best efforts to the contrary! — but I’m afraid they’d immediately get recruited by headhunters if I¬†publicly¬†listed their names. They know who they are and know how much I appreciate their hard work.

The DRI was funded under the Solar America Initiative and was one of the 4 winners of a Stage III Solar Energy Grid Integration Systems (SEGIS) commercialization contract from the DOE and Sandia Labs. PPS and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ward Bower and his team at Sandia for their support over the past several years.

Image credit: Princeton Power Systems website

The DRI significantly simplifies the integration of solar to the grid. As I described briefly in this post and I’ll describe in more detail in an upcoming post, utility companies would much prefer to see a constant flow of power coming from a solar array. The solar array’s random output due to weather, varying cloud cover, and changing temperature make it incredibly difficult for utility companies to predict the power that will be available on the grid.

The simple solution is to add energy storage. In order to truly solve the problem of intermittancy, however, the energy storage system must be able to respond fast enough to make the power flow “seamless”¬†when a cloud suddently casts shade on the solar array. By integrating both the solar and battery power converters into one box with an intelligent control system “blending” the power, the DRI can make the solar array “look” to the utility company like a steady power generation source.

Integrating a fourth terminal for motor/generator control provides additional benefits, such as the ability to decrease power consumption on demand. The DRI should be available as a product in the next few months, so stay tuned to the Princeton Power website for more details.

Successful Research Projects depend upon Luck and Networking

I first came across silicon carbide when I was doing some homework for a NJ Commission on Science and Technology funding grant. The Commission’s goal was to encourage collaboration between NJ universities and NJ companies, so I started looking at the research programs at various NJ schools to see if they were working on anything relevant to my work at PPS. Lo and behold, I came across Prof. Jian Zhao’s silicon carbide research at Rutgers. After a brief meeting in his office I realized that we could use his high-voltage silicon carbide thyristor research — which he had shelved several years earlier — in PPS’s AC-link power converter. AC-link and SiC thyristors by themselves were good, but combined in one product for Navy shipboard power distribution and wind and wave power conversion, they would cut energy losses by 2/3 and increase power density (reduce size) by 5-10x! Together, we would be the first to integrate silicon carbide thyristors in an actual end product, using devices developed by Prof. Zhao’s spinoff company, United Silicon Carbide.

Thus started a 3-year research program funded jointly by New Jersey, the U.S. Navy, and the Department of Energy. In particular, thanks to Steve Swindler at NAVSEA for his ongoing support of this effort.

Some time during year one, I met Jon Greene and his team at Widetronix at an SBIR conference in DC. They had an interesting technology to solve some of the reliability problems with silicon carbide, which I wrote about in this post. They introduced me to Ranbir Singh at GeneSiC Semiconductor, who was also developing a silicon carbide thyristor product.

GeneSiC Semiconductor’s 6kV Silicon Carbide (SiC) Thyristors

Ranbir and I have had a close working relationship ever since this initial introduction. I encourage anyone interested in silicon carbide to look into their products. For a small business, their technology, manufacturing, and test capabilities are quite impressive.

GeneSiC won the R&D 100 Award for its 6kV silicon carbide thyristor product, which I started integrating into a prototype AC-link power converter at PPS. There are still some hurdles to overcome, but the technology is incredibly promising.

This little device (the image below is its true size) can switch 20-50 times faster than existing silicon thyristors under voltage stresses that are 50x higher than the 120V power outlet in your home. They are sure to become the “valves” used in utility-scale power distribution equipment to control power flow on the future smart grid.

Image credit: GeneSiC Semiconductor website

Congratulations to Ranbir and his team.

Are you in-the-know with other successful technologies?

If any readers have exposure to the technology and products developed by other R&D 100 Award winners, please email me. I’d be interested to learn more about these other innovations.

The Coming Rise and Fall of LED Lighting Profits

People frequently complain about corporations making huge profits at our expense. Well…we finally have a story that’s the opposite case. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to replace those compact fluorescent (CFL) lightbulbs from Walmart, cut your lighting costs in half again (another excuse to leave the lights on despite reminders from your spouse), and use bulbs that will last 2500% longer than incandescent bulbs and 150% longer than CFLs. For a few years you’ll pay the big corporations a premium for these benefits, but pretty soon profits for those manufacturers will vanish and we’ll all enjoy bright, long-lasting lighting as well as reductions in both our home electricity bills and global carbon emissions.

According to a recent¬†IEEE Spectrum magazine article¬†about the LED lightbulb, a¬†40-watt-equivalent LED bulb starts at around US $20, and 60-W versions retail for far more. In addition, you’ll have to buy new ballasts, which contain power electronic switching components and provide another source of revenue.

$20 for a measly 40 W bulb is too rich for my blood. Fortunately, these costs will drop significantly over the next 2 to 3 years.

…and Then Costs Will Keep Dropping

LEDs are similar in constructions to the transistors that make up your computer’s microchips. The information age was fueled by the rapid miniaturization and falling costs for computer chips, known as¬†Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law ¬†states that the density of transistors doubles approximately every two years.

Image credit: Wgsimon. Used under Creative Commons license.

LEDs are also subject to Moore’s Law, which means that they will quickly become more efficient. Fewer LED chips and less power conditioning hardware will be needed to provide the same amount of lighting.

I’ve been told that the industry expects LED lighting to quickly become a commodity. That’s good for the rest of us, but not so good for a long-term growth business.¬†LED and power semiconductor manufacturers see only a narrow (maybe 5-year) window to make a profit off of this technology.

Expect a gold rush as companies try to capture all the profits possible before Moore’s Law zeros them out. Then score one for the consumer and planet earth.

Stop Losing Ideas: A Proposal for 21st Century Employee Communication

Steve Bland recently wrote this interesting post¬†on why he thinks traditional board meetings are a waste of time. He proposed an novel hypothesis of “The Boardroom as Bits,” whereby founders/CEOs spend 1 hour per week providing updated information to their board members and advisors via a blog. ¬†He argued that this communication method would:

  1. Provide a structure for entrepreneurs to regularly check their progress and re-visit their plans.
  2. Provide more regular, asynchronous updates to board members and advisors — as opposed to just once every 6 weeks.
  3. Facilitate real-time coaching.
  4. Enable coaching despite long-distance separation between the company and its advisors.

Steve backed up his hypothesis with promising results from an experimentation at Stanford.

Why Not the Entire Company?

I went for a run along the Delaware River after reading Steve’s post and I started thinking about whether this idea could be useful for an entire startup company, not just the executive team and board.

I recognize that one of the main issues with board meetings is that they’re only scheduled every 6 weeks; they’re not real-time. In a company this shouldn’t be the case: the employees show up to the office and interact with each other daily. But hear me out…

At my first company, we frequently struggled with three issues:

  1. We had more good ideas than we had time to pursue. We didn’t have a good system for capturing new ideas, vetting them, and then executing on the best ones. This created some frustration amongst our creative employees, since good ideas were frequently neglected.
  2. We subjected¬†ourselves¬†to time-wasting debates and endless pontification. People didn’t take (or have) the time to really think through their positions. As a result, old debates were frequently rehashed.
  3. We lacked materials for on-boarding new employees and orienting them on past projects. Megabytes of documentation were buried on the company server and weren’t written in a readily-accessible manner. “Training” typically consisted of throwing new employees into projects and expecting them to teach themselves to swim. This approach wasted countless manhours…but we had no good alternative.

At one point, we tried establishing a company wiki…but it lasted only a few months. It was yet another IT item to support, required “curation” to keep it organized, and didn’t integrate well with our other communication channels, like email.

So…here’s the idea: Establish an internal, private, employee-only blog. Everyone can make posts and add comments. A blogging engine like the one I use (WordPress) would automatically email new posts to all employees and simplify organization of the posts.

Upwards Communication

Whenever someone has a new idea for a project they can’t implement by themselves or within a small group, they’re expected to spend 1 hours writing it up as a short blog post. The blog engine makes it incredibly easy to add photos and other media to illustrate the problem. Once it’s posted, the idea is¬†automatically distributed to all employees.¬†This allows — for example — the CEO and engineers to be exposed to the issues the guys in production are struggling with and their solutions without every employee having to speak with every single other employee every day. Unlike emails, the posts don’t get buried in the daily deluge.

A blog would allow people to post comments to engage in discussion and flesh out the idea (contribute to cost estimates, explain how the idea would affect their work, etc.). The original author can update the original post based on this feedback. Negative “sniping” comments are easily deleted, but fact-based critical analyses are available for everyone to see.¬†It’s also clear who originally came up with an idea so that credit can be given where credit is due. The blog posts turn frustration¬†among¬†the “troops” into ideas…and reduces whining…as people record and distribute their ideas. Meetings are no longer derailed by tangential discussions, since people can park new ideas on the blog to develop and discuss later. Management can occasionally parse through the blogged ideas and pick the top ones to implement.

Downwards and Lateral Communication

The management team can also post occasional company-wide updates or use it to record policies and procedures. Engineering project teams can document their design ideas on the blog and brainstorm pros and cons. It becomes a record of what ideas were considered and becomes a training tool. New (and existing) employees can review the posts so that they can learn from past design efforts…regardless of whether the originator still works at the company.

Writing is Good for Your Health…If Done in Moderation

In this post I wrote about the tricky balance required in a startup between staying lean and implementing new processes to keep a growing company efficient. I always erred towards too much process and my co-founder always erred on the side of being too lean. The problem with this blog idea is that it could become a huge time sink, with people spending more time polishing their posts and debating via the comments section than actually getting work done.

That said, I’ve found writing as an excellent way to explore, organize, and develop my ideas, even though it does take time. The more I do it, however, the less time it takes. I’ve especially appreciated the ease of sharing and discussing ideas with others via a blog. I’m curious whether these benefits could be applied to an entire organization and whether they’d outweigh the negatives. I’m interested to hear your thoughts.¬†Is this the right 21st-century communication tool to apply to a startup?