A customer approaches your firm and says, “I need to build something fast so I can get it to market asap.”
The business development team might think, here’s an opportunity that we can quickly move on. The discovery team might think, crud, we’re not going to have time to perform a proper discovery to seed a release-backlog. The delivery team might think, I smell a death-march. The product or user-testing team might think, there’s no time to validate whether or not this product is a good fit for the market so we’re thus going to make a terrible product. And the customer service team might think, just do what I say and all will be well.
Sure, it’s nice when we can take some time to perform a discovery, and then segue into a delivery but reality isn’t always what we need it to be. Believe it or not, there is actually a way to approach this problem where everyone can experience success, just like we did with BSX.
BSX is an awesome technology company based out of Houston, TX. Their team is comprised of super-smart folks who are both creative and practical. They reached out to us late in Q3 of 2014 and basically said; we have a problem, we’ve heard about you, we need to solve the problem quickly, would you please help us?
Like any new business development effort, nothing is better than meeting in person in order for everyone to ascertain each others’ skills, which is why we hopped into a car and drove to Houston for the day. At this point, my only BSX knowledge came from what I read on their blog and website, but it was enough to know they were developing a wearable sensor and they needed a mobile device to interface with it.
We call projects that leverage hardware machine-to-mobile (M2M) projects, and I love them. Since joining the MM family 4 years ago, I have been a team member of many M2M projects. Our portfolio in this product category includes several products such as Escort radar detectors, Philips sleep apnea and respironics, and Pristine Google Glass video streaming.
We arrived around 1pm and I immediately started to observe. Part of my job as a team member is to qualify leads. One can use the BANT method–Budget, Accountability, Need, Time–however, there are other things to consider. Most importantly, do we like the people? Do the proper APIs exist? Does a product owner exist with absolute decision making authority? Is the product testable? Will the product be accepted by the market? Does the product solve a clear problem? Does the technology exist to solve the problem? Whew! The job of a business development professional is both fun and scary. It’s fun because you often get to evaluate new products. It’s scary because bringing your agency a bad customer adversely affect the lives of many of your company family members. I take my job very seriously. People depend on me to do so.
The BSX office immediately felt like a startup, which made me happy. Why? Because I knew that if BSX chose to work with MM, we would be able to work directly with people in order to develop a product vs manage lots of relationships with stakeholders who aren’t working day-to-day with a development team. +1
Most of the conversation took place in the main conference room, where we sat in what I like to call “Star Trek chairs.” They were white swivel chairs with tall backs that you felt like you could immerse yourself in, just like on the early Excelsior class ships. Immediate +1.
For the next hour, my jaw dropped as far as it could. We learned that BSX had already developed a means to use LED lights to read the state of the inside of the human body in order to detect the lactate threshold of an athlete. WHOA. Typically, determining one’s lactate threshold requires blood samples from finger pricks. Consequently, one of BSX’s taglines is, “Stop the ricks.” +1 for cleverness.
BSX had been working on this technology for several years and already had a level 3 prototype that needed to be shipped – beginning with their Kickstarter backers – within a few months. At MM, many projects are pitched to us on a monthly basis. Often, the M2M projects are nothing more than an idea. BSX already had a working prototype. This was a huge +1
The name of the BSX product is Insight. It’s a great name as it implies that these LED lights will shine into your body in order to gain insight about about the state of your muscles. The Insight device is a little Star Trek-looking sensor that you wear on the back of your calf. It fits into a cloth sleeve that wraps around your leg. The sensor expects ANT+ enabled sensors to connect to it such as a pace meter for athletes who are runners or a power meter for athletes who are cyclists. The idea is that during a workout, Insight will attempt to read the state of your body and record this data while it records data from a pace or power meter. All of this information is then transferred to the mobile device (iOS or Android) via BLE.
The mobile phone offers the user experience to the athlete, since Insight has no accessible interface. After answering a few pre-workout questions, the workout typically involves the athlete adhering to what BSX refers to as a “protocol”. This protocol usually lasts about 45 minutes, where the athlete is told to run at a certain pace or cycle at a certain output of power for three minutes at a time until the point of exhaustion.
During the workout, the mobile device has to receive the information that is transferred via BLE. At the end of the workout, the mobile device sends the information to the server. The server calculates the lactate threshold and then the mobile device presents the results to the user.
Now, while this experience might sound easy, there are many nuances to consider. A user has to create an account, create a profile, answer questions before each workout, and view a history of their workouts. Still sound simple? How about this: the experience needs to work well for a user who is constantly in motion and who might not be able to look directly at the app (i.e. the off-center screen experience). Still not a problem? There are physical limitations of the BLE protocol that could prevent the mobile device from receiving enough information about the athlete’s workout, which could then prevent the server from calculating a lactate threshold. So, think bit-packing. To make this more interesting, we didn’t yet know how humans would react to the experience, nor did we know if the entire technical ecosystem would be accurate for all humans since not all humans are built alike.
The qualification process continues
Let’s get back to the BANT qualification criteria. BSX had a budget and had already received funding. +1
They had accountability personified by Dustin, the BSX president. He was driven, he knew how to be a product owner, he had decision-making authority, he was an expert in this particular field of sports science (with an MBA, MD, and familiarity with the science of software development), and he was genuine. +1
They had a need to ship a product to their Kickstarter backers and to the rest of the world very soon. +1
And lastly, they had a time-table (albeit, a super-aggressive one). +1
The BANT criteria was met, but they were compelled to continue meeting our other requirements.
They had a clear product owner who had a vision. +1
The product was certainly testable. +1 (For the record, I wondered if the MM QA team would need to run and cycle for mile after mile to test the product. I knew I would have to solve this problem later which I’ll explain in a bit.)
There was certainly a place for this product in the market and the product solves a clear problem, (ie giving blood every 6-8 weeks). +1
Let me also mention that BSX had a product spec. Big +1.
Does the technology exist? Well, this was a tricky topic. The sensor had been commissioned by Sparks engineering. They had embedded tech into the hardware that Mutual Mobile would have to use. There were many technical questions at this point. However, I luckily had a deep technical background since I used to be an engineer for about 20 years and my spidey-sense told me – we can do this. It will be hard but we can do this. A tentative +1 – with a little bit of fear since I could easily be placed into the ringer by the fabulous engineers at MM if I was wrong. Alas, I loosened my collar, wiggled my toes, and moved forward.
Over all, I felt like this was an amazing opportunity for Mutual Mobile. I decided to report to MM that we should move forward with this project.
We signed a contract with BSX and got started in less than a month. Had I worked with a procurement department in a big company, it could have taken months to sign a PSA and a SOW. Like I said, I love working with startups!