In this interview, you will learn fresh approaches to new product development. Outsourcing, agile methodology and waterfall, risk assessment – all brought to you by Bill Birgen.
In an enlightening conversation, we delve into the fascinating trajectory of Bill, an ardent new product development enthusiast. With a remarkable background as a corporate engineer in aerospace and defense, Bill's journey has led him from the intricate realms of mathematics and physics to the dynamic landscape of entrepreneurship. He offers invaluable insights into his methodology, challenges, and inspirations, showcasing the intricate dance between innovation and execution.
Starting at the Foundations
Bill, could you provide us with a glimpse of your professional journey? How did you embark on this path, and what areas have you honed your expertise in over time?
Like most people, I went to college and picked studies that intrigued me. My affinity for mathematics and physics led me to pursue a degree in these fields. After completing my education, entrepreneurship wasn't even a fleeting thought. It wasn't a path I aspired to follow. Instead, I found solace in the structure of a corporate environment. The challenges inherent in larger organizations and complex product development held greater appeal for me than the prospect of being a solitary entrepreneur. My career naturally unfolded in the aerospace and defense industry due to its prevalence in my hometown of Los Angeles. The jobs I pursued were aligned with the available opportunities, which happened to be in this industry. The path I followed was more circumstantial than a meticulously planned journey.
Transitioning to Product Development
How did you come to be involved in the development of new hardware products? Your journey started in college, and then something prominent happened.
My entry into hardware product development was gradual. I used to work as an engineer for a major company, dealing with satellites, jet engines, and the like. Beyond work, I had friends who were more on the entrepreneurial side. They'd often approach me with problems, saying, 'Hey Bill, take a look at this, can you fix it?' I never turned them down because my educational background covered physics, mathematics, engineering, and practical applications. I've always enjoyed the mental workout these challenges provide. So, I'd sketch out plans, map out steps, guiding them towards potential solutions.
This dynamic has persisted for 15 years, though I didn't fully dive in until several years had passed. Even then, I preferred staying in the background. I never aspired to be the face of a company or be consumed entirely by startup life. I held a satisfying day job, one that I comprehended well. It was demanding, but the compensation, steady paycheck, and benefits were rewarding. Slowly but surely, this laid the groundwork for my transition into entrepreneurship. Despite embracing this new journey, I do find myself missing the corporate structures. Interestingly, I'm frequently tempted to return to the aerospace and defense sector, which is currently bustling with activity.
I’m no longer in California, I’m in Arizona, which means that I’m surrounded by a wave of silicon chip manufacturers setting up massive facilities for chip production. This trend exerts pressure on the available engineering talent, particularly within the aerospace domain. Thus, I'm constantly presented with job offers that seem appealing, I often turn them down. The reason? As an employee, there are limitations on how much you can earn. True independence, I believe, lies in some form of entrepreneurship.
It’s important to note though, when I held positions at renowned corporations, like B/E Systems or Boeing, I've always considered myself self-employed to some extent. Such roles often entail hiring and subsequent layoffs in line with program cycles. I've never taken it personally. Regardless of the corporate context, I've held onto the belief that, in many ways, everyone operates as self-employed. Nevertheless, the risk factor amplifies significantly for entrepreneurs.
Navigating Idea Generation
When it comes to idea generation, what methods do you employ? Is it design thinking, or a more visual approach?
It's a very natural process. Especially in the early days, it involved a lot of mental engagement—very much cerebral. I'd mull over the issue at hand and eventually arrive at a conclusion. This approach was deeply mental and had an organic quality about it. Meanwhile, inspiration is an important aspect. It can emerge from countless sources. I can just stroll down the street, immediately spot a problem and instantly come to potential solutions. That's just how my mind operates; I'm always attuned to identifying problems and finding ways to solve them. Sometimes, it's even issues I thought nobody would care about that end up sparking my interest.
This journey eventually led to the establishment of a significant company I founded. It started with comprehending problems on a personal level and realizing that others might face similar challenges. However, the crux lies in selecting the right projects to pursue—this is where inspiration flourishes. That's the real challenge. As I mentioned, it's a very organic process, with much of it rooted in cerebral exploration.
When it comes to execution, I prefer a blend of Agile and Waterfall methodologies. I'm not a fan of going from start to finish directly. Instead, there are initial steps, establishing a minimum viable product. The approach varies based on the nature of the product. For mechanical tasks, I tend to handle them myself since I'm well-versed in those areas. The process is highly iterative, and I often prefer working in parallel rather than tackling an entire project end-to-end.
If we were to put a label on it, I'd say it's primarily organic, albeit a hybrid given the inclusion of project management elements. Thanks to my background, I can handle all the mechanical and engineering aspects quite proficiently. Even electronics isn't a major challenge. However, if I need to develop a printed circuit board (PCB), I'd seek out an expert for that particular task. Whether it's paying someone, hiring, or bringing in a partner, I'm open to options. But being capable of managing the mechanical aspects myself provides a significant advantage, and the only cost is my time.
I believe that if someone were a project manager lacking the engineering skills required for project execution, it could be a sporadic journey. Personally, I took charge of most mechanical aspects, which gave me invaluable insight into identifying my knowledge gaps.
Risk Assessment and Evaluation
How do you evaluate risks before investing in a project?
Well, to be honest (laughs), it's not a rigid checklist for me. It's a rather organic process driven by my passion and interests. Take, for example, the recent project that your team worked on for me. It ignited a fresh perspective on a particular technology. I've actually used this technology in a traditional manner, leveraging it for attaching fires to jet engines. This had been a conventional solution for a long time. But I explored a way to flip that concept around. Instead of using the environment to influence electrical output, I thought, 'Why not manipulate the electrical input to impact the environment?' To me, this represented an intriguing, albeit unconventional, application of an underutilized technology. It was more like a scientific experiment than a strictly business-driven venture. I had a hunch that a solution existed, and I was determined to delve deep into it.
In other instances, I've collaborated with partners who shared a clear objective. We've engaged in brainstorming sessions to generate ideas. For instance, there was a project involving a medical mask that eventually found its use during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our goal was to create a mask that was both secure and comfortable to wear. We held weekly brainstorming sessions for about five months. We explored numerous out-of-the-box solutions before narrowing down what we should prototype and develop. And even the subsequent development process took another five months to complete.
Lessons from Failures
Have you experienced failures during your product development journey?
Failures I've faced were primarily tied to team dynamics. I have a network of professionals I place my trust in. In the initial stages, I teamed up with individuals who, much like myself, had limited experience. Nowadays, I'm fortunate to be surrounded by highly skilled individuals. I've had some successful ventures that paved the way for more achievements. But in the early days, it's not that the people I collaborated with lacked intelligence, it's just that they were relatively inexperienced. This lack of experience led to setbacks in financial management and risk mitigation for production, not the product itself, but rather in dealing with the supply chain.
For instance, there was a project involving an IoT locking device with a company. We developed the first wireless prototype around the same time Nest introduced their Gen 1 thermostat. We were well ahead of the market curve, but unfortunately, we couldn't follow through due to supply chain challenges.
While we did experience some degree of success, more often than not, the ultimate outcome hinged on the team's effectiveness. When you bring in individuals with limited experience, ego can sometimes hinder progress. This ego-driven obstacle has played a significant role in some of our failures.
Selecting the Right Partners
How do you identify suitable partners for your projects?
To be honest, finding high-quality outsourcing services has never been an easy task. I usually start by looking for individuals who have achieved some level of success in the relevant field. For instance, with my recent project that I handed over to EnCata, the field it falls into doesn't have many experts. But I decided to work with you guys because it's a technical project, involving a bit of electronics and mechanics, and there's a shortage of specialists in this area. It was a bit of a calculated guess that your team has experience in mechanics, electronics, and software. You guys, you're not just hearing about it, you know what technology readiness level really is.
In general, I tend to collaborate with people who have a proven track record in their respective areas. There's always a level of risk involved when working with new people, so I prefer to connect with individuals from my network. This risk can be related to personalities, ego, and financial motivations. What I've noticed is that those who have already achieved some success and have a solid background tend to approach collaborations with a sense of openness. They're not solely focused on immediate gains; they're genuinely interested in engaging with interesting projects. This is particularly true for experts in their field. Luckily, I now have a network of such individuals I can rely on.
Trends and Future Outlook
What industries interest you, and how do you view the future of product development in the years to come?
Rather than being tied to specific industries, I'm driven by technological innovations. The ability to apply diverse technologies across unrelated fields fuels my curiosity. Whether it's utilizing jet engine technology for smart clothing or adapting mechanical solutions for new medical devices, my focus is on the potential of these technologies. The future of product development hinges on sustainability and consumer demand. Technologies that offer sustainable solutions and address emerging needs will likely thrive. Wearable tech and niche innovations hold promise, but the product's potential impact ultimately determines its success.
As we conclude the interview,
let's highlight the key takeaways underscored by Bill Birgen:
Organic Evolution: Bill's trajectory was driven by curiosity and an organic alignment with the problems he encountered. His passion for innovation often sparked unexpectedly, leading to diverse project pursuits.
Strategic Collaboration: Bill emphasized the importance of team collaboration, particularly with experienced individuals who bring valuable insights. He highlighted the role of successful experts in fostering generosity and interest in intriguing projects.
Navigating Risk: Bill acknowledged that risk is inherent, especially when venturing into new territories. He shared instances of both success and failure and emphasized the significance of calculated risk-taking in entrepreneurial endeavors.
Versatile Approach: Bill's approach to project execution combines a cerebral, iterative process with a mix of Agile and Waterfall methodologies. His experience in various technical domains allows him to manage different aspects of the development process.
Passion-Driven Innovation: Bill's journey exemplifies the integration of passion and technical skills. He demonstrated how innovation can stem from everyday observations and translate into meaningful solutions.
Dynamic Product Landscape: Bill's story underscores the dynamic nature of product development. It's a world where industries and technologies intersect, creating opportunities for groundbreaking solutions.
Future Prospects: Bill's optimism for future product development lies in sustainable technologies and areas with high demand. He anticipates growth in fields like wearable tech, emphasizing that the product's potential impact is a critical factor.
In closing, Bill's experiences serve as a testament to the synergy between creativity, technical expertise, and calculated risk-taking that drive the innovation process. His journey unveils the multifaceted nature of product development and the exciting possibilities that lie ahead.