One of the smartest things I ever did was to take a job with the intention of adding to my skill stack.
I have recommended this to several budding entrepreneurs who are planning on launching a business: take a job in a field where you want more expertise, or one which will help you understand the market you want to pursue.
There is no better way to learn what your customer needs than to have them pay you to learn it. Work for them for a while and learn everything you possibly can about them.
Needing Expertise in Consumer Products
In the late 1990’s, I was a frustrated engineer at Hewlett Packard. I had been there several years, and I had been through the patent process several times as an inventor. But I was hoping to get out on my own.
I wanted to invent my own products and do something with them.
It was tempting to think I could just invent ideas and license them to big companies, but there were a couple things missing from my skill stack.
First, I had a lot of experience in designing industrial machines that ran in a factory, but I did not have much experience in designing consumer products. The second was that I did not have much insight into my potential customer – a consumer products company who would license my great ideas.
I stumbled into an opportunity to work at WaterPik as an engineer.
At WaterPik, I was working in consumer products. I designed the “Cascadia” shower head and got it into production in China over the course of a year and a half. (I have to admit it is cool to see that a product I designed over 20 years ago is still in production.)
Adding to the Skill Stack – the Tangible and Intangible
There were two big areas that I added to my skill stack.
The first was purely being in the trenches of a consumer products company and being part of the team of industrial designers, manufacturing engineers, and product marketing people that it takes to launch a product.
I was responsible for the final engineering designs of the product. I did the CAD work, and worked with an incredibly talented model shop to get prototypes built. Once built, the product went through rigorous testing before being released to tooling. Once the tooling was built, we shot and verified the first parts, then helped get the assembly line up and running.
WaterPik had the benefit of being small enough that I got to touch many different phases of the product, but big enough that we were able to launch high volume consumer products.
The Intangible Things I Learned
The second thing I added to my skill stack was more intangible, but every bit as valuable.
I got to see how a medium sized consumer products company handles intellectual property, and how they develop new products.
I didn’t know it at the time, but WaterPik had just been spun out to some private investors who were pumping money into the company. At the time, they had the “Shower Massage” shower head which was a consistent money maker. They hired an industrial design company to roll out six different families of shower heads, all around a standardized “engine” that had different sprays.
WaterPik was in search of new ideas, so they were licensing patents from inventors. They had specific internal processes for handling idea submissions, and I got to hear countless stories about how different patents were licensed – or how the inventor failed to get their product into WaterPik.
It was fascinating to see how every person in the situation had different incentives, different goals, and different metrics for success. The engineering VP had one set of incentives and goals, which were different from the sales and marketing group, which were completely different from the inventor.
Standing on the outside looking in, it seems like a consumer product company is a big, monolithic entity with a single goal: produce products.
Being on the inside showed me how fluid and dynamic it really was. Different people have different goals and metrics, so their behavior will be wildly different than the simplistic narrative that I had been told by the “experts.”
My run at WaterPik was intentionally short lived. As it turned out, one of my coworkers was taking the Patent Bar exam and was gracious enough to let me borrow the study materials. I had not even heard of the Patent Bar before this, but I studied like I have never studied before – and became a patent agent. This opened up door after door for me.