Everyone now knows how easy it’s become to launch a software startup. You can do it for virtually no capital, by just learning the skills of coding and using widely available infrastructure services. (Oh, and having superhuman determination.)
But what some are beginning to realize is that the same is becoming true of hardware. It’s getting easier to do a hardware startup. With Jawbone, Sifteo, Pebble, Nest, Makerbot, Dropcam, and many others (I invested in OUYA, the new Android game console — in part to learn more about this), it’s clear a movement is on.
Some of the fundamentals that are pushing this are about helping startups make hardware with lower fixed costs. Less expensive, more flexible manufacturing tools (so you can prototype and do small batches, go to places like TechShop to try stuff out, like a hardware PDP-1). Availability of funds (with Kickstarter, of course, and VCs becoming more hardware-familiar). Ability to prove demand early (Kickstarter again!). Communities of support and knowledge sharing, like Lemnos Labs, which I visited a couple of weeks ago — an incubator in San Francisco focused exclusively on hardware startups.
So is it as easy to do a gadget startup as a software startup? It’s certainly easier than it was when startups like Peek and MusicGremlin launched, or even Boxee.
But we have a little ways to go: in software, we have the “no phone call required” startup. You can incorporate, code up your service, register for all the needed hosting and technology services, and launch to customers. All by dealing 100% with automated, public, open services — in many cases, free services. In hardware, this isn’t the case — yet. While there are services like Circuithub that will let you design and make a single circuitboard, and Ponoko that will let you create and sell a single unit of a physical item, and of course many 3D printers… I still don’t think there is a way to put all the pieces together and create a gadget in a unit of one without picking up the phone —a “Heroku for hardware.” If I’m mistaken, someone let me know? Otherwise, someone make one?
P.S. The rewards to creating a hardware startup are enormous. They create real demand right away, since people are more accustomed to paying for atoms than bits. They have the joy of a tangible product in your hands. They may be harder to replicate (though that advantage may erode over time). And, of course, since many of them also depend on a tight integration with software, those who love working with bits get to play, too.