The Age Of The Solo Engineer
You now have fewer teammates (or none at all), but you can still build a product. What has changed?
Is your engineering team getting bigger?
I’m willing to bet no. In fact, I’m guessing some of you reading this don’t even have a “team” anymore. Maybe you’re at a startup and you’re the only hardware engineer on staff. Or maybe you’re at a small company and you have other hardware folks, but none that cover the same areas as you do. You have no one to talk to, no one to collaborate with.
The lower limit
The shrinking number of employees has a lower quantum limit; you can’t have fewer than one engineer in a company. More specifically, you can’t have fewer than one employee. In that case…well, the engineer IS the company.
The lone engineer isn’t new
I can hear the skeptics in the audience:
- “I’ve never had any help! What is new about that?”
- “My friend Bill is a consultant and regularly creates full ‘products’ for his clients!”
- “What if you’re hiring people as 1099 employees? Are you still a solo?”
So what is different?
The big difference is I’m talking about products. This is no longer just building a prototype, which I agree has been possible for a long time. This is a fully formed company, with significant possible cashflow, all without any (full time) employees.
When the world was vertical
“Back in the day” a large in-house team was the way things got built. Truly vertically integrated companies like Bell Labs (and really their manufacturing operation Western Electric) wouldn’t go purchase desks from some 3rd party service. They would send word down to the woodshop and have a desk built custom for a new employee. They would have in house resources build…well everything. This lead to employee rolls that were in the 10s of thousands. These days, we purchase equipment from McMaster or Amazon and have it in our shops the same afternoon. The apparatus and convenience of industry has superseded the need to expand the payroll of a company.
Some might lament the reduction in innovation that comes from not having on-site integrated machine shops and production facilities. I have lamented such things in the past because of the pace of iteration. But that is hardly even true these days. Though Sal might be an expert craftsman in the woodshop creating your desk, he has a finite amount of time. If you favor fast turn around and parallel development, on-demand services enable a solo engineer to get a lot done by him or herself. If you need it fast? Simply pay a higher premium to the parts you need fastest. Let’s take a look at some of the offerings in the manufacturing world these days.
The services for prototyping and even low scale production have really ramped in the past years. The hands-off nature of it all has been impressive at how it enables creation of nearly fully formed products.
- Electrical Assembly — Macrofab (I also talked to them as part of a DfM Case Study series), CircuitHub, PCB.ng
- Machining — Plethora, Fictiv
- 3D printing — Shapeways, 3Dhubs
- Mold making — Proto Labs, Xcentric Molds
- Laser, waterjet cutting — Ponoko, Sculpteo, Big Blue Saw
- Box creation — Packlane, ZoxxBoxx, BuildABox
- Printing, Merchandise, Branded objects — …too many to list
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. And each day a new “startup” puts a web front end onto existing service businesses, which increases availability of these manufacturing services (though true automation relates more to the workflow rather than the UI).
As automation and outsourcing capabilities continues to increase, it’s not just that you can get others to create pieces of your product; you can set these services off on a task without talking to a human.
This seems like a change that impacts convenience more than company reach. But it really has implications for the required size of a team.
Collaboration and Sourcing Tools
More engineers can operate independently of a large overhead operation. Even within Supplyframe, we see many of our products supporting these engineers:
- Hackaday.io enables engineers to chat about and document projects that pique their interest.
- Tindie allows them to sell a few of these products as a test for their target market.
- FindChips and FindChips Pro helps price out the early BOM when they decide go to production.
- Supplyfx allows them to find potential vendors and Contract Manufacturers (CMs) when preparing to scale up to outside facilities.
- Quotefx and Polydyne create software for the CMs that serve many of these smaller creators.
And of course, the Supplyframe Hardware blog speaks to their daily plights and documents others struggle
Of course having the accessibility of the catalog distributors and a range of hands-off services doesn’t matter much if you can’t pay your bills.
Yes, this is the point in the article where I mention crowdfunding (you saw it coming). But I will stop short of calling it a solution, because it involves taking on tasks that you wouldn’t have otherwise. For instance, you might need to order more promotional merchandise than you would if you were not running a crowdfunding campaign. Even though this is an automate-able task…it’s another task.
Bootstrapping is using money from previous sales of items to fund the next build of items (which then generates more cash). This is an increasingly likely option as the automated services trends towards smaller and smaller builds. If you are able to order 10 finished parts or assemblies, that requires much less overall capital than ordering 100 or 1000, as is sometimes required when working with larger Contract Manufacturers. As long as the higher per-piece cost is factored into your COGS and subsequent MSRP, you will be able to cover your costs of funding your next round of building things.
Another interesting trend is the increasing availability of angel and venture funding for small projects. Alternative funding structures from outfits like Indie.vc focus on smaller companies with less growth potential, but also with interesting niches. This means that a solo engineer could get some money to build initial units and still keep outside investment low, maintaining control. The engineer could remain a “solo”, because the lower expectation of growth means hiring employees is not a foregone conclusion.
Solos are a part of the mix
The point I wanted to make here is not that every engineer will become a solo engineer. Instead, I think it’s interesting that it’s possible to be a solo engineer and push a product out into the world without a large staff of people. Yes, you will have help from outsiders and possibly even part-time contractors, but the overall structure of your “team” will remain quite low.
I would love to hear from people who are in this situation. Please leave a comment below or email me!