The Golden Master and The Long Shadow
What separates today’s hardware development and production from software? About 25 years. Anyone who developed software for PCs remembers the Golden Master, a production step that was originally pioneered by the music world.
Long before the Internet was widely available, physical devices were required to distribute software to end-users. To achieve economies of scale and low cost, a single version of software was copied or pressed over and over into thousands and thousands of floppy disks or CD-ROMs.
In today’s world of Internet-based software distibution, it’s easy to forget a world in which companies strove to ship completely bug-free products. Why? Because 25 years ago - with shrink-wrapped physical distribution and no Internet-connectivity - field software updates were a pipe dream.
That’s the world of hardware design and manufacturing today. Using 3-D printers, it’s possible to iterate and rapidly improve the product - up until production. Then, it needs to be perfect. Yes, PERFECT.
So what does that mean for an entrepreneur building a hardware startup?
Hardware entrepreneurs must recognize and accept the Long Shadow. Today’s hardware is Internet-connected and has a huge software component. Yes, that software can be readily upgraded in the field - BUT - the hardware can’t. You have to strive for perfection in the hardware. Utter perfection. Get the hardware wrong, send it to production, and you’re screwed. When you send the final version of your hardware to a contract manufacturer, it’s too late to make any changes without incurring huge costs.
What is the Long Shadow? This is a term I first heard from Ben Einstein, co-founder of Bolt, a hardware startup incubator based in Boston. The Long Shadow represents what you have to live with if you make mistakes in hardware development:
- Build hardware that’s overpowered with a high bill of materials? Suffer from low margins and a price point that slows consumer adoption.
- Build underpowered hardware? Suffer the consequences of a terrible end-user experience at the software/UI level - whether through slow speeds, short battery life, or poor wireless connectivity.
- Build hardware that fails prematurely? Suffer the consequences of high return rates and crappy end-user reviews.
Any of these are likely fatal for a startup.
The lesson for hardware entrepreneurs? Get the hardware Golden Master right, NO MATTER WHAT. Build perfect hardware and avoid the Long Shadow. Today’s conventional wisdom of “fail fast” with consumers simply doesn’t translate to hardware - only to the software which rides on that hardware.