Below is an edited transcript.
Jessica Ching, CMO at Product Realization Group: Welcome everybody and thank you for being here.
Introducing our panelists:
- Martin Lynch, COO at FreeWire Technologies
- Jeff Rosen, Principal at JSR Consulting
- Jay Feldis, Principal Technical Program Manager at Product Realization Group
All companies survive and thrive on the success of their products. Why was NPI important for FreeWire? Maybe we could even take a step back and ask, what exactly is NPI?
Martin Lynch, COO at FreeWire:
NPI is the process of taking a product that we think is done and actually getting it done. And that’s the big delta. So if you get it, and it’s working, and you’re having fun with that design, and you’re really happy with yourselves, you’re about 10% of the way done. The rest is NPI or product lifecycle process.
And if I would get you that product that, well I won’t guarantee that you’ll be under budget on your product costs or on schedule, which is really tough, and I get it.
[NPI] will get your product so that it’s repeatable; it meets the specs that you can count on; it has reliability that your customers can count on. It’ll give the company a good name because the last thing you want to do in a startup is put out a bad product that you think meets requirements and have to go on the apology tour.
So that’s NPI from my perspective.
Jeff Rosen, Principal at JSROSEN Consulting:
I think the other question you asked was why was it important here. It think the reason and rationale was, and Martin mentioned this is, it’s the difference between thinking you’re done and actually being done. I was first boots on the ground, and there was definitely a thought that this product was ready to ramp. We just needed to develop a supply chain. When I came in the focus was we’re ready to develop a supply chain and start building a lot of these things.
I quickly realized there had not been a thought process of any NPI or NPI development– any NPI work. If you actually take it all the way back, and Martin uses this term a lot, it was a variety of science projects that were still undergoing constant change.
So why was it important here? It’s a complicated product. It’s got to go through a lot of hard environmental type of impact. I just wasn’t even close to being ready. So from a FreeWire perspective, it was nowhere close.
And it had two very big name early investors who had expected a higher level of “experience” through that process. So it was absolutely critical. They were nowhere near where they needed to be. And there was expectations that they would be out the door and shipping this product regularly, quite quickly.
Jay Feldis, Sr. TPM at Product Realization Group:
I think a way to look at NPI also is as a technical program manager– what is your plan to get to production? NPI is the process of putting that plan together. NPI starts in the design phases, and then are you designing for manufacturability– are you designing to meet your regulatory requirements, or are you designing it and you’ll figure out the regulatory later and then find out you have to redesign it?
I think a big part of NPI first coming in is let’s figure out what we’re trying to do and how we’re gonna get there– a roadmap. Find out what our risks are and plan accordingly, and then try to keep these things from becoming a problem later on in the process.
If I could just add to why was it important to FreeWire. FreeWire had a really unique opportunity in that we had very, very strong investors, what we’ll call strategic investors, as opposed to venture capital. Normally when you get are a startup, you get an angel, you get a venture, and then you’ll find a strategic.
With FreeWire, it was really the opposite. We started out with a strategic [investor], and now we’re starting to pivot towards venture capital. So in some ways we’re lucky, but the expectations are quite high because strategics aren’t interested in your valuation. They’re interested in some secondary property of the company like in particular, the product that you might deliver for their requirement or their future market needs.
And so when I came to FreeWire, I called it a science experiment because functionally it was a cool product. Basically, at this stage in the company, we are a system integrator. We’re going to start moving up the food chain, but when you’re a system integrator, you can buy some good components, and the software is the glue. But that product has to go through a huge amount of work to get to be functional and repeatable at a high level of quality and reliability. And it just wasn’t there.
I remember my first day of work, I asked to see the BOM (“Bill of Materials”), and they asked me, “Which BOM?” I immediately knew I was in trouble. So I gave them two weeks to freeze the BOM and put it under revision control. That was the beginning of the NPI process. Just getting a BOM and getting everybody to agree to what that BOM was [critical] because everybody was operating in a different area that they believed was the product. Because there were so many changes, there was no consensus to what the product was.
So that’s really what began NPI for FreeWire– freezing the BOM. And then it still took another month after that, because once we froze it, and everybody figured out the products with the BOM, we still kept changing it for a month. It’s fundamental. You can’t get a product into production if you haven’t dealt with some of the basic areas of reliability, specmanship, supply chain, and ability to assemble it, test, it, ship it– just all the fun stuff.
I’ll borrow a saying from my old master is, it’s real engineer-ship. So if you haven’t shipped it you’re not an engineer yet.
I’d like to actually take a step back. Martin, can you give us just a quick top line of who FreeWire is, what you do, and you have mentioned some of the challenges that you had when you came in as COO, but just a story of the background. It struck me that not everyone here is not maybe all that familiar as we are.
FreeWire, it’s a five year old startup. It was founded by three individuals, all of which are still with the company. Our CEO, Arcady Sosinov, started the company when he was going to Berkeley getting his MBA. One of his advisors was on the board of a VC and got funding early on. So they were quite lucky to get that.
I came on with the company only about seven months ago. Originally the company was called FreeWire because they were going to make inductive charging– wireless charging, in effect. And they abandoned that and pivoted toward electrical generators, and then again, pivoted toward electrical vehicle charging.
So FreeWire is a typical startup where you think what you started with is your product, and then two years later you’re on to something completely different. This is not unusual at all to find yourself pivoting several times as you develop a product.
So they had strong investors with British Petroleum and Stanley Black and Decker that were both strategic, each looking for a different type of product. Stanley wanted a general electric generator, only because they were staring to get into that market and saw some opportunities to differentiate themselves.
British Petroleum was obviously looking for electrical vehicle charging because they weren’t sure where things were going, and they were unsure about infrastructure requirements for permanent install EV charging. That’s how FreeWire got started.
So when I came on board, we had electrical generator and EV style products called level two chargers which is about seven kilowatts of charge out of two outputs. And that’s when the fun began.