Offshore Manufacturing on a Budget

Setting up offshore manufacturing can seem intimidating and can sound expensive if you have never done it before. But if you do it right, it won’t be expensive and can provide significant savings in your manufacturing costs.

Setting up offshore manufacturing can seem intimidating and can sound expensive if you have never done it before. There are travel expenses, language and cultural differences, and a lot of unknowns. How do you go about finding a manufacturer? How do you know if you’ve found the right one? Can they build your product with the level of quality that you want? Will they make copies of your product and sell them out the back door?

These concerns can be particularly daunting for small companies with tight budgets. But setting up offshore manufacturing does not have to be expensive, and a lot of the unknowns and uncertainties can be eliminated if you work with somebody who has been there before and knows the lay of the land.

Clint has helped some very small businesses set up offshore manufacturing, including businesses that were started and self-funded by individuals. Clint’s familiarity with offshore manufacturing, particularly in China, helps pave the way for a fast, efficient production ramp. Clint can find and qualify the right manufacturer; set up a manufacturing agreement; and help you get tooled up very quickly.

The inevitable question is, “How small a budget are you talking about?”

The inevitable answer is, “It depends on the complexity of the product.” The product photos shown in this case study are examples of very low-cost production ramp-ups in China. Each of these required only one or two trips to China by Clint, and the NREs to start up production (tooling, fixtures, jigs, sample runs) were only a few thousand dollars. For each of the product photos shown in this case study, the total expense to get production started was less than $10,000.

This is not typical – these products represent the low end of the cost curve for ramping up offshore production. As products grow in complexity, the cost of setting up production grows accordingly.

It’s worthwhile to keep the following in mind:

When you set up offshore production there will be travel expenses and engineering expenses, but the payback can be very quick. The lower cost of tooling usually offsets more than 50% of those expenses, and the cost savings on your first couple of production orders generally offsets the remainder of the expenses. For many products, by the time you place your second or third mass-production order, you have offset all of the up-front expenses for going abroad, and you begin to reap a net savings from offshore manufacturing.

If you would like to get an estimate of how much it would cost to set up offshore manufacturing, please contact Clint.

Preparing for Mass Production

Ramping up mass production should be exciting. This is when you start building and selling a product that has completed design and development.

Ramping up mass production should be exciting. This is when you start building and selling a product that has completed design and development. You’re going to start making money on the product that you have invested in. Quite often, however, production ramp-ups become sources of schedule delays, cost overruns and missed delivery commitments.

When you start ramping up mass production, you are no longer building small quantities of engineering prototypes. You need to purchase components and materials to build your product in larger quantities and you need to pay for production tooling to make your product. Snags that occur during a production ramp can be really expensive.


Early in the product development process you need to ask the following questions:

    • Where will we make this product?
      • In the US? Or offshore?
      • Will I use my own manufacturing facilities or set up a new manufacturing facility or use a contract manufacturer?
    • What production and manufacturing capabilities are required to make the product?
      • You need to be 100% sure your chosen production facility has all of the capabilities and skills that are necessary.
      • What are your production volumes? Can your production facility meet your volumes?
    • What tooling is needed?
      • You’ll need to specify your production tooling, cost it out, and allow adequate lead-time to build and test the tooling

You should find and engage a well qualified manufacturer (assuming you aren’t using in-house manufacturing) at least three months before completion of product development and preferably four or five months before.

After you have engaged the manufacturer, do the following:

  • Let the manufacturer review the design of your new product
    • Quite often the manufacturer will suggest changes to improve the manufacturability of the product.
  • Prepare written production procedures and quality documentation
    • Every production step and every quality requirement needs to be documented and then reviewed with the manufacturing team.
  • Allocate resources to work with the manufacturer during production ramp up.
    • It’s imperative to have somebody present at the manufacturing facility throughout production ramp up to make sure the manufacturer understands how to build the product correctly and to test and inspect the product for acceptable quality. If somebody isn’t overseeing the early stages of manufacturing, you might take delivery of 10,000 products that were assembled incorrectly. Good oversight during the first couple of production runs can assure that doesn’t happen.

If you can use help setting up production of a new product, please contact Clint.

Your Competitors Can Help You

Analyze your competition. Most businesses think they do this, but most (especially small businesses) do don’t do this well.

Analyze your competition. Most businesses think they do this, but most (especially small businesses) do don’t do this well.

If you are a product company, buy your competitors’ products. Use the products; read the manuals; disassemble the products and look at the quality of materials and construction.
Call up your competitors and pretend to be a prospective customer. Did you have a good experience when you contacted your competitors?

When you go to online review sites to see what people are saying about your business, take a few extra minutes to see what people are saying about your competitors. You may see something that represents opportunity for you.

These are old and well-known tactics, but I’m always surprised at how infrequently small businesses use these easy and low-cost approaches to get ideas for how they can be better than their competition.

A few years ago, a friend used some of these techniques for analyzing competition to help him launch a business that became very successful.

He lived in a small town in southern New Mexico. His long-term employer was on the verge of bankruptcy and he needed to find a new source of income. He thought that there was a market opportunity in installation of residential solar panels.

He had never installed solar panels before. He wasn’t a licensed electrician. There was well-established competition – several companies in town had been offering solar panel installation for many years. But only about 10% of the houses in town had solar panels installed, so there was a significant available market.

He called every solar panel installer in the area and asked each of them to prepare a quote for installing panels on his home. He asked a lot of questions. He looked at their websites. He got literature on the panels and inverters that they used and did research on the panels and inverters.

He wrote extensive notes about his experience with each company, and then identified areas where he could improve on the experiences. He found a line of panels and inverters that had features that were better than his competitors.

He developed a website where his customers could track on an hourly basis how much energy their solar panels were generating and how much money they were saving on their electric bill. (This is common now, but it was novel at that time.)

A complete list of all the areas he identified to differentiate himself from the existing competition would make this article too long. The gist of the story is: Eighteen months after he launched his business he was the largest solar panel installer in town and he maintained that position until he sold the business and retired.

A careful analysis of his competition allowed him to identify ways to differentiate his business and be very successful.

Every business tries to analyze their competition. How well do you do that? Do you analyze your competition to help you generate new ideas for your business? If you would like to implement some of these techniques in your organization, please contact Clint to help you get started.

Mining Your Own Business

Your employees might be a goldmine. If you’re taking your first steps in setting up an innovation program in your company, consider using this technique for generating new ideas.

That’s right! Mining (not “minding”) your own business…

Your employees might be a goldmine. If you’re taking your first steps in setting up an innovation program in your company, consider using this technique for generating new ideas. This can be a low-cost and fast way to generate innovative concepts for your business. Here’s a situation where this technique worked well.

Innovate or Die

Newpoint was a small consumer electronics company that made surge protectors and uninterruptible power supplies.

The customers of Newpoint were the largest consumer electronics retailers in the US. The retailers liked Newpoint’s products and appreciated the company’s service (timely delivery of good quality products at prices that allowed the retailers to make their target profit margins). But the buyers repeatedly told Newpoint that they needed to add SKUs to their line or they would be dropped as a vendor. Buyers at big box retailers prefer to have a few suppliers who offer a broad range of merchandise rather than many suppliers who offer only a few SKUs each.

Newpoint had been attempting to innovate for more than a year – without success. They had an innovation logjam that seemed intractable. And if they didn’t innovate, they were almost certainly going to lose every one of their major accounts.

When Newpoint contacted Clint, they had a very short fuse burning. It really was a case of “innovate or die”.

Clint interviewed key personnel in the company to find out how they had been trying to innovate and why they hadn’t succeeded to date. He had to come up with an innovation strategy that would generate some viable ideas very quickly and that would break the logjam that was plaguing Newpoint.

The interviews identified two problems in the innovation process that were the root of the logjam:

  1. Newpoint lacked a good process for generating new product ideas. This is critical; you can’t develop new products if you don’t have new ideas. And the more product ideas you have to choose from, the better your chances of finding a winning concept in the pool of ideas.
  2. The process for vetting and approving new product proposals made it almost impossible for a new product idea to be approved. Vetoes were easy; approvals were difficult.

Clint developed a two-point strategy to solve these problems.

  1. There are a lot of ways to generate new product ideas; Newpoint needed a method that was simple, straightforward and fast – active solicitation of ideas from every employee of the company. The dearth of new ideas was overcome swiftly. Within two weeks, the company had a pool of almost three hundred ideas for new products. The idea pool had gone from empty to overflowing.
  2. To break the approval logjam, Clint introduced a modified Delphi technique that utilizes group input to reach a consensus on the best ideas. This technique prevented any one individual from having veto power. The Delphi technique was applied in a series of meetings with 6 to 8 employees at each meeting. Representatives of every department in the company were present at each meeting to assure broad input when evaluating the new product ideas.

Eight weeks after the start of the project the company had a list of five “hot product” families to start developing and about twenty runner-up ideas waiting in queue. The 250+ other ideas were not forgotten – there was a procedure to make sure that product ideas with potential did not get swept under the rug. And new product ideas continued to flow in at a steady pace.

The final phase of implementation was to actually develop the products. Clint worked with the CEO to hire a VP of Product Development. The VP was brought on board, was mentored in Newpoint’s innovation processes, and was then given the reins and told to run. At the next Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (less than eight months later) the company had two new product categories to show to buyers, and two more product categories under development that they could start pre-selling.

This is an example of how a stagnant product development program can be revitalized quickly and inexpensively. There are many approaches to innovating. This is just one example. If your product development program feels like it’s stagnating, please call or email Clint to see if he can help you.

Listen to Your Customers

Every business knows that customer input can be valuable. Customer input can be a very fast and low-cost way to generate ideas for new products. How effective is your company at extracting this valuable information?

How Many Ways Are You Getting Input From Your Customers?

Every business knows that customer input can be valuable for improving your products (or services), and for identifying opportunities for new products and services.  Customer input can be a very fast and low-cost way to generate ideas for new products.

How effective is your company at extracting this valuable information?

Here are five different ways to get input from your customers.  How many of them are you using?

1) Have your salespeople get direct customer input

This is the most commonly used method to get customer input, but most companies don’t utilize this approach effectively.  Every one of your salespeople should have a written list of questions that they ask at the end of every sales call.  A well-scripted set of questions can elicit a treasure trove of valuable input.

To get you started, here are suggestions for questions to ask. You should tailor this list to your unique circumstances.

  • What products or services can you see us offering that we don’t offer now?
  • What products or services do you get from other suppliers that you think could be better?
  • What new features could we add to our existing products or services that would make them more helpful for you?
  • What can we do to make our business serve you better?
  • Is there a product or service you wish you could get that nobody is offering?
  • Does your company have plans for expansion into new areas?  Is there something we could offer to help with your expansion?

Most customers appreciate the opportunity to provide this kind of input.  They will feel like you value their opinion.  And if you modify a product or develop a new product as a result of their comments they will be positively predisposed to the new product.


2)Talk to ex-customers

Losing a customer is painful – but it can also be a source of valuable information that can help you innovate. Always interview ex-customers to find out why they left. Quite often, the first reason they give will not be the real or the only reason. When interviewing an ex-customer, employ “polite persistence” to get the real reason(s) for their departure. Be sure to ask questions that explore the following.

  • Competition
    • Did you find a similar product or service for a better price?
    • Did you find a different product or service that is better for you?
  • Internal factors
    • Are there shortcomings in the quality or features of our product or service?
    • Do we need to do better in after-sales service and support?
    • Do we need to change how we interface with you?
  • Customer issues
    • Are there changes at your company that make our product/service no longer viable for you?
  • Market issues
    • Are there changes in the market that make our product less attractive? Is there something we can do to address those market changes?

Keep asking questions – politely but persistently – until you feel you really understand all of the reasons the customer left.  You will almost always learn something that opens a door to innovation.  And you might even earn the customer back.


3) Observe customers using your products

This can be very illuminating if done properly.  There are a few keys to getting good results from this kind of exercise

  • For this exercise, “customer” means the end user of your product(s).  In many cases, this will be a different person from the buyer.
  • Observe customers who are experienced users of your product, using the product in its normal use environment.
    • Are they using the product the way you intended or envisioned it being used? If not, what are they doing differently and why?
    • Are they making use of all the features of the product? If not, why are some features not being used? Because the users aren’t aware of the features? Or because the features are awkward to use? Or because the features aren’t useful?
  • Find some people who would be typical end users of your product, but who have never seen or used the product before. Give them your product in a typical use environment, and let them use it.
    • Make the same kinds of observations as above. More often than not, you will see confusion or frustration. When you see this, view it as an opportunity to innovate and improve.

An inviolable rule for these exercises:  You must be silent while observing.  Ideally, film the subjects while they are using your product(s) so that you aren’t even in the same room with them.  If you’re in the room with them, they’ll be tempted to ask you questions.  And if you give even a hint of an answer the exercise is tainted.

Careful observation of customers using your product(s) can yield significant insights and can provide ideas for changes and improvements to your product line.


4) Observe customers using your competitors’ products

This is directly analogous to the previous technique, but with the obvious difference that you will observe end users’ interaction with products that you compete with.  You may observe shortcomings or weaknesses in your competitors’ products that you can exploit.  This technique can be an opportunity to beat your competitors at their own game.


5) What are people saying about you?

Forget about your business for a moment….

How often do you read online reviews of a product or company?  And how often do you see a representative of the company actively respond to online reviews – good and bad?

What impression do you get about a company that responds to reviews — showing appreciation for good reviews and genuine concern for bad reviews?  How does that compare to your impression of a company that doesn’t respond to reviews at all?

A survey of online review sites indicates that only about 10% of companies actively monitor and respond to online reviews.

Assign one or two people in your organization to actively monitor online reviews of your company and your products or services.  This shouldn’t take much time – maybe 20 minutes per week.  They should respond to almost every review – expressing thanks for good reviews and reaching out to address the concerns in negative reviews.  But this is just the skin on the apple.

They should also analyze the reviews, looking for patterns that can help you improve your products or services.  What features are cited most frequently as positive?  What are the most common complaints?  Do they express frustration with the user interface?  Does the user manual confuse them?  If customers didn’t like the product, do they mention alternate products that they prefer?

If this is done well (and if you get a reasonable number of online reviews), very quickly you will have a database of valuable information that you can mine for ideas for innovation.

Every business tries to pay attention to their customers, but not all businesses do this well.  You can use these five techniques to extract valuable information from your customers that can provide new avenues for innovating.  If you would like to implement some of these techniques in your organization, please contact Clint to help you get started.

Getting Started On Innovation

Coming up with innovative new ideas is often the biggest hurdle in innovation.

One of the reasons that many businesses do not innovate actively is because the first step – coming up with new ideas – can be daunting.

Coming up with innovative new ideas is often the biggest hurdle in innovation.

One of the reasons that many businesses do not innovate actively is because the first step – coming up with new ideas – can be daunting. You might have a mental image of bringing a handful of your staff into a meeting room with a blank white board, and you say “OK, somebody start innovating.” And everybody stares at that white board like deer looking at the headlights of an oncoming car.

Over the course of my career I have encountered companies in situations like this. They know they need to innovate; they want to innovate; but the bucket of ideas is empty. I have also encountered companies that are prolific at generating innovative ideas for new products and services with regularity, and companies somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes.

I have compiled a list of techniques that small businesses can use to generate ideas for new products and services. I have analyzed and sorted the techniques based on how much time and money it takes to implement them (in general, less time and money is better) and how effective they are at spawning innovative new ideas (in general, more is better).

Papers that describe a number of these techniques are available on the Articles page of the website, in the section on Innovation. I will add new articles at a rate of about one every other month.

If you read the papers on innovation, you can assess which ones would be most applicable to your business and can create a list of techniques you want to use to start innovating. Having a list like this is a great tool for breaking the first big logjam in innovation – coming up with new ideas.

There is a rough order in which I add articles about innovation to the website. I start with techniques that are easiest and cheapest to implement, that are most broadly applicable, and/or are the most reliable at producing results – i.e. at generating new innovative ideas. As I continue to add articles, we get to techniques for innovation that are a bit more costly, or are not as broadly applicable, or are effective in a narrower range of situations or circumstances.

But I have found all of these techniques can be very powerful when they are used in the right situation. And all of these techniques are suitable for small business with limited budgets.

An Economist’s Perspective

Clint started his career as an economist before transitioning to product development. This background can bring a new perspective to product development – a perspective that sometimes adds a lot of value.

Product development projects typically start with a team of engineers picking apart the product concept; thinking about the engineering challenges; and figuring out how they will tackle development of this new product. Usually there is a project manager who prepares a project plan in Gantt chart form to track progress and manage the team. Often an industrial designer will be part of the team, with a focus on human factors engineering.

All of these skills can contribute to development of the new product, but sometimes one more perspective can be helpful.

Clint started his career as an economist before transitioning to product development. This background can bring a new perspective to product development – a perspective that sometimes adds a lot of value.


At the start of each project, Clint typically asks the following:

  • What is the market for this new product or service?
  • Who will buy this product? Who will use it?
  • What unmet needs does this product solve?
  • What are direct and indirect competitors to this product?
  • Are there features we can include in the product that makes it different from and meaningfully better than the competition?
  • What will it cost in time and money to develop the product?
  • What selling prices do we need to make sure the product can meet sales goals?
  • What cost of goods do we need to hit to make sure the profit margin will yield a healthy return on investment?

Asking these questions at the beginning of a project will help you define products that meet market needs and targets for profitability, and can help you avoid the all too common blunder of engineers developing a solution in search of a problem.

If you would like an economist’s perspective on a new project, please contact Clint.

Do patents pay off?

This case study is an example of a patent that became very valuable for the inventor. It’s an illustration of what constitutes a truly valuable invention.

Do patents pay off?

Is it worthwhile to incur the effort and expense to get patents?

The answer (squishy but true) is: It depends on how good the underlying idea is. This case study is an example of a very good underlying idea and how it made money for the inventor. It is an example of what to look for when trying to decide whether to pursue a patent.

A former work colleague of Clint was an inveterate inventor. He would spend hours on end thinking about products and technology, trying to come up with new ideas and inventions. The guy was prolific – he generated a lot of ideas in a lot of different fields. He formed a small business, Positive Technologies, as a vehicle for commercializing some of his new ideas.

One day he started talking to Clint about how images are rendered (or drawn) on LCDs. This was back when CRTs were everywhere and LCD display panels were relatively rare. The inventor used words like “inefficient” and “dumb” and “stone age” to describe the state-of-the-art display rendering algorithms. Then he started talking about a better way to render images on LCDs. It entailed a completely new approach that was intelligent and efficient and would improve display quality; would allow displays to be updated at a higher rate; and would prolong the life of the LCD.

They continued to discuss this new idea over the coming days. The discussion eventually became fairly technical, getting into details of cumulating DC bias voltages and liquid crystal relaxation rates and differential image mapping. It took awhile to absorb the concept, but eventually it became clear that every display in the world (at that time) really did use a “stone age” algorithm to render images, and that this new method was indeed superior. Clint pointed out that no microprocessor in the world had sufficient processing power to deploy this new algorithm. The inventor’s response was, “So what! Remember Moore’s Law! In three years, chips will be fast enough.”

This better algorithm was groundbreaking new technology that had the ability to change the way displays work — an idea that definitely merited a patent application. The inventor asked Clint to write the disclosure. (The disclosure is the main body of the patent, in which the invention is disclosed, or described in detail.) He asked Clint to do this because (paraphrasing his words), “You understand the technology. You write better than the average lawyer. And you cost less than a patent attorney.”

Clint wrote the first draft of the patent disclosure for this invention. The patent next passed through the hands of patent attorneys and patent examiners and then through the patent approval process and was finally issued. It has become a landmark patent in the display world.

As technology gradually caught up with this new idea, display manufacturers around the world began adopting the new algorithm, and the inventor pursued licensing arrangements with all of the major display manufacturers. This algorithm is now used in virtually every video display made today and the inventor has reaped handsome rewards from the better technology that he invented.

The lessons in this case study: Patents can be valuable – very valuable – but to become valuable, there are a couple of requirements. The underlying idea must be very strong and must enable new technology that improves significantly on existing technology. And you must pursue the patent diligently. It’s not enough to just get a patent. You must develop and sell the technology, or you must sign up licensees (or both).

A patent doesn’t make money; enforcing the patent makes money.

This is an example of a role Clint can fill in product development. He can help identify and define patentable new ideas, and can assist with the patent preparation process.

If you would like an unbiased assessment of a new idea, if you would like help refining the idea and identifying patentable inventions, if you would like help with patent preparation, please contact Clint.

Four Tips for Better Project Management

Four things you need to know to be a great project manager.

Business school libraries are filled with books about how to manage product development. There are many approaches to managing projects, and much discussion (sometimes heated) about which approach is best.

Clint feels that good project management can be distilled down to these four key principles:

  • Planning and preparation
    • Many companies rush into product development without proper planning up front. Often there is a feeling that the sooner you start engineering, the sooner development will be completed. Usually this is a fallacy. Take time at the outset to carefully and thoughtfully map out the course of the project. A rule of thumb is that each hour of planning at the start of the project saves 10 to 20 hours of engineering at the end.
  • Aggressive and active risk management
    • A good project manager constantly looks for risks that could derail the product development process. These could be cost risks, technical risks, schedule risks or market risks. If you identify risks early, you can address them before they derail the project.
  • Assiduous and meticulous project management
    • It’s impossible to overstate the importance of keeping a close and constant eye on every task and detail of product development. All of your up front planning and risk management will be of no avail if product development heads down the wrong path. If deviations from the project plan are not detected and addressed quickly, they can grow into engineering black holes that will cost a lot of time and money to correct.
  • Have the right people on your product development team
    • If development of your new product requires skills or expertise that you don’t have in-house, you need to find outside talent that fills the void. Finding and retaining key talent – as new employees or on an as-needed basis – can often be the difference between success and failure in developing a new product. Identify the outside talent that you need, find the best person/people you can to fill that need, and pay them fairly. A few hours of input from a domain expert can save dozens of hours of work by engineers who are well intentioned but lack expertise in a key area.

If you follow these four key principles of project management, you’ll be 95% of the way to a well-managed project. If you would like help with management of your product development projects or if you would like mentoring to improve your project managers, please contact Clint.

Building Rockets at General Dynamics

This case study illustrates one of the most valuable lessons that Clint has learned in more than 30 years of product development. This is about how small companies can compete against – and beat – much larger companies.

Two guys in a condo in La Jolla build some rockets

In the mid-80s Clint teamed up with another technology lover (Bob Hotto) to form a two-man tech company working from a condo in La Jolla. They were developing products – some on contract for other companies and some speculative product development on their own.

The General Dynamics (GD) facility that made Atlas and Titan-Centaur rockets was just a few exits down the freeway. A friend of a friend heard that GD was going to award a big engineering project – a project that entailed complete overhauls of the motors and motor control systems that are used to weld the rocket bodies. This sounded like an interesting project.

With some finagling and bit of luck, they managed to get their name added to the bid list for the project. About a month later General Dynamics invited Bob and Clint to a project preview meeting to go over the requirements of the project and the criteria for submitting proposals. The other companies who were bidding on the project were also at that meeting. This consisted of teams from every major aerospace engineering firm in America (along with Bob and Clint).

Each company had sent a team of between 6 and 10 people to the meeting. Each company had a total staff of between 5000 and 25,000 employees. All of the companies had long histories of doing contract work for GD, and it seemed like everybody in the group knew each other from past projects. This was a meeting of the professional rocket builders club. In their eyes, the rockets being assembled out on the factory floor were about as exciting as oversized tin cans. The closest Clint had been to a rocket prior to that meeting was watching launches from Cape Canaveral on TV. Comparing Clint and Bob to the other project bidders made David v. Goliath seem like a close match.

Everybody at the meeting treated Clint and Bob politely, not unlike the way in which a kindergarten teacher is polite to her not-so-bright pupils.

At the conclusion of the pre-proposal meeting everybody was given the RFP package – a stack of notebooks about three feet high. Each notebook was filled with pages of project requirements, quality standards, safety criteria, government regulations, and other insomnia-curing minutiae. Everybody had ten days to review all the documents, prepare a proposal, and then return to GD to present their proposals.

“We didn’t have a snowball’s chance in…”

Clint and Bob didn’t have a snowball’s chance in a pizza oven to win that contract. They could have offered to do the job for free and wouldn’t have been awarded the contract because the perceived risk was too high. It was impossible for them to read and digest the entire RFP package in ten days, much less write a proposal that addressed every point in the package. They had three options:

1. Go through the motions; write and submit a proposal; and get promptly dismissed.
2. Tell GD that they didn’t want to waste anybody’s time, and request to be removed from the bid list.
3. Ignore the rules, do what they do best, and try to win the project.

I’m sure you already know which option we chose. We found the five key pages buried in the RFP – the pages that listed the technical requirements for the project. We made copies of those pages then set the whole pile of notebooks in the back of a closet. Then we got to work designing and assembling a fully functional prototype of the system that we proposed to deliver to GD. We ordered components for rush delivery; we had some custom parts fabricated at a local machine shop; and we pulled a few all-nighters designing, assembling and testing.

Ten days passed very quickly and it was time to present proposals. Clint and Bob were the last of the bidders scheduled to present to GD. When we entered the meeting room, all of the GD engineers looked at their watches, wondering if they could usher us out of the room in time for lunch.

The kabuki dance

The other engineering firms had followed the rules perfectly – they knew the kabuki dance of aerospace contracts. They brought in teams of five or six senior managers. The 3-foot tall stacks of notebooks had morphed into stacks of proposals that were equally tall and that regurgitated every point in the RFP and added a few more points of their own. They presented slide shows (in the glorious days before PowerPoint) full of org charts and flow charts and man-hour allocations and project phases and schedules for the coming year. Clint and Bob didn’t have any of that.

Clint and Bob started their presentation by laying their proposal on the table – a paper binder containing five pages typed double-spaced (because if it were single-spaced, it would have only been two and a half pages). Everybody looked at their watches again and squirmed in their chairs and scowled. Then Clint and Bob said that they didn’t want to go over the proposal because that wouldn’t be a good use of everybody’s time. The scowls around the table deepened. Clint and Bob said that they would prefer to show GD what they intended to deliver. The scowls were now mixed with looks of confusion. Clint and Bob weren’t doing the kabuki dance properly!

We set a box on the table. We pulled our prototype system out of the box, plugged it into the wall, and told the GD engineers, “If we are awarded the project, this is what we will deliver, and this first unit can be installed and up and running within a week.” The prototype had a complete operator control panel and functional motors with enough torque to rotate the rocket bodies. It met or exceeded all requirements for accuracy, repeatability and reliability.

The scowls around the table turned to smiles, and then to grins that they couldn’t suppress. Every GD employee in the room took turns pushing buttons and rotating knobs on the control panel and watching the motors turn. After about 10 minutes of testing the prototype, they said, “Officially, we have to go through a series of internal approval procedures, but unofficially, you’re getting this project. Your bid has the lowest price and there is almost zero risk associated with it because a complete functional system is sitting on the table at our facility.”

That prototype was the first of six controllers to be installed at GD, and it started a three-year stream of nearly continuous projects at General Dynamics for the little two-man company.

To this day, every Atlas and Titan-Centaur rocket that is launched is made using equipment that Clint and Bob designed, assembled and installed at General Dynamics. And that 3-foot-tall stack of notebooks is probably still collecting dust in a closet in a condo in La Jolla.


There are three important lessons in this case study:

  • Don’t be intimidated by bigger, more experienced competitors. Your small size makes you more nimble and responsive.
  • Recognize your strengths and have faith in them. If you think you can do it and if the big boys tell you that you can’t do it, believe in yourself and ignore the big boys.
  • When something looks impossible, often it’s because the “impossible” things are blocking your view. Shove the pile of impossible things into a dark corner and clear your desk. Then try to understand the real goals and figure out how you can achieve them.

If you could benefit from some “outside the box” thinking to help you compete – against the big boys or against your peers – please call or email Clint to see if he can help you.