Posts Tagged ‘Marketing’


The Dreaded Product Recall

January 28, 2009

danger_wrongway1Today, peanut butter manufacturers have a problem: salmonella contaminated a huge batch, and hundreds of people have gotten really sick, six have even died. The tainted peanut butter was packaged for industry, not retail, and distributed around the country. Since it was sold to industry to be added to other products, the outbreak was stalled while the product was processed into everything from crackers to dog treats. The FDA and food industry can’t identify everywhere it went, so it could be virtually anywhere. That effectively makes everyone responsible and every candy bar and plate of Pad Thai a potential outbreak. The FDA appears to have tracked the salmonella to its source, but containing the problem is slow-going and far-reaching. The real question is why wasn’t this problem caught by the manufacturers or even via one of the distribution chains? Are food safety precautions not stringent enough or too slow, or was somebody trying to avoid consequences for something they hoped wouldn’t become serious.

I went through a product recall once in a past job many years ago. It was a small-batch production, but enough products had the same problem that a recall was issued. At the time, I was preoccupied with other projects, and my responsibility to adequately supervise assembly was sacrificed. The hardest part was accepting and admitting the mistake both with my colleagues and with my customers. Luckily, this was a low-quantity product, the problem was caught early, we had a personal relationship with every customer, and the potential consequences were minimal (aside from the damage to my ego). Our actions seemed straightforward, but customers appeared to really appreciate our proactive approach to retrieving the items, inspecting and fixing them, and returning them quickly. It certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to initiate, but it was the right thing to do and our customers were happy we did it. As a result of this experience, I still strive to remember that the delicate balance of properly supervising someone – somewhere between micro-managing and saying hello at the annual review – should be based on the needs of the employee, not my availability.

Kryptonite Locks once conducted an excellent example of what every customer hopes would happen when bad products make it onto the shelves. Kryptonite makes super strong locks for bikes and motorcycles. The locks are well known for their ability to stifle a thief. In 2004, after being the market leader for years, a video surfaced on YouTube showing a guy breaking into a tubular-cylinder lock in seconds with just the end of a $0.10 BIC pen. Not good for the lock business. Kryptonite initially offered a qualified recall for locks under 2 years old, but then they did the unthinkable – they issued a full and free recall of ANY of their locks using tubular cylinders and ran their manufacturing line around the clock to meet demand. “ANY lock” meant every over-used, 10-year-old, clunker well past its warranty. The Voluntary Lock Exchange Program ran for more than a year and freely replaced over 400,000 Kryptonite locks worldwide. They weren’t the only locks affected, but they were the only company to react so swiftly. It was a brilliant move that kept their reputation intact, although they might still be paying off the free locks and manufacturing overtime for years to come.

Bad things happen to the best companies. How long have you remembered the companies that got it right? How about those that got it wrong?

Photo credit: Enrico Corno


Cross-train your brain

January 18, 2009

datastreamIf you’re going to run a marathon, or participate in any sporting activity, most experts agree that cross-training is important to improve your overall fitness. Focusing too hard on one set of muscles leaves other muscles weak and prime candidates for injury. As an engineer, focusing too hard on a small skill-set may leave other parts of your brain starving for stimulation.

The internet is FULL of great content. Let your brain do some cross-training by expanding your input stream. Instead of listening to another webinar on the features of the next Solidworks release, maybe you want to stretch out and listen to an interview with Seth Godin on marketing your small business or check up on the state of innovation in the medical device industry for 2009. Not only will you have new things to talk about at dinner parties, but you might learn something related to your everyday.

Who/what are you paying attention to? Please share in the comments.

Photo credit: Rodolfo Clix


Take this job and …

January 8, 2009

Build bridges instead of burning them.

I recently wrote a glowing recommendation for an old friend and ex-colleague. A bit ago, he moved on to greener pastures, or taller mountains, to improve his work/life balance. He’s an excellent engineer, and I hope to work with him again. He just needed a change. He tied up loose ends, simplified turnover, and even identified a candidate for his replacement. He reminded me that perhaps how we end a relationship is as important as the way we once cherished it.

This can be easier said than done, particularly when it comes to personal relationships. But, in a professional relationship, it’s generally not a personal issue. There are lots of reasons to leave a job or take your business elsewhere. Maybe you want more pay and less hours, or maybe you need a vendor closer to home to cut your annual shipping costs. However, don’t let these issues sour your professional relationship or conduct.

As satisfying as it might be to tell off your boss or vendor, nothing good can come from it. You’ll be much better served by acting professionally and graciously. Not only are you keeping your network intact, but you’re also leaving a trail of possible recommendations in your wake.

Photo credit: Julie Engal


Train hard, fight easy

January 5, 2009

lecture_room1Preparing to do something is often much harder that actually doing it. There’s often anxiety, stress, physical and emotional hardship, etc. In the end, most people sigh and quip, “That wasn’t so bad.” So why do we focus so much of our fear on the act itself?

Whether it’s giving a presentation, sparking up a conversation at a networking event, or sitting down to an interview, the act itself is often insignificant compared to the hours or even years put into preparing for this moment. Plus, let’s gain some perspective; unless you are actually training for a fight, the consequences are usually much less than we imagine. Is someone going to rudely quip that you’re stupid, yell at you in front of a crowd, or slap you across the face? Not likely.

Get out there. Revel in the good experiences, learn from the bad ones, and gain confidence either way. And, when you think, “What’s the worst that could happen?”, be realistic.

Photo credit: Fred Kuipers


Open-source my life

December 22, 2008

Not so long ago, much value was placed on keeping information private. For some things, it’s still a good idea: pictures of your kids, your social security number, what you’re buying your spouse for their birthday. Yet, web 2.0 communities like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and even WordPress thrive on people sharing tons of information about themselves online. The more information, the better. Preemptively answer, “How was your weekend?” with a few pictures and comments for your closest 200 friends. Everyone is a stalker, and based on the popularity of these communities, they love it. But, online communities are more than just cute pictures of your new puppy.

Software applications used to be developed behind closed doors and released with great fan-fare. Today, although its source-code is freely available online, the most popular internet browser is FireFox, a free, open-source application developed by independent programmers around the world. Yes, even with open access to its most formidable competitor’s code and tons of cash, Microsoft still can’t innovate a more popular product with Internet Explorer. Instead, a security flaw appears to be pushing customers away. And, the success of open-source software has been broadened to other venues.

MIT, Yale, UC Berkley, and Stanford all have two things in common: they are all Top 25 nationally ranked universities, and you can download thousands of their course offerings absolutely free. You can brush up on your Linear Algebra at MIT via streaming video, or you can podcast mp3’s from UC Berkley about the mating habits of a manta shrimp. What these universities grew to understand is that the value they offer is in the diploma, not the information. An MIT graduate hangs their diploma up to certify that according to MIT’s high standards, they learned everything they need to know to qualify as a geek (excuse me, “Electrical Engineer”). That degree might cost a pretty penny, but the information itself was among the stacks  in most public libraries.

If we haven’t yet fully understood our value, perhaps we’re selling ourselves short. If your value is quality or proven expertise, how much of an advantage is secrecy? For example, I once met a contract manufacturer specializing in thermoformed plastic that regularly provides a fairly comprehensive primer on designing parts for thermoforming.  Sure, he could try to sell you the service of optimizing your parts for you, but he’s instead giving you the knowledge to design the part yourself. If you can design a good thermoformed part, you might come back to him for manufacture, impressed by his expertise. Plus, it’s faster and cheaper for him to tool a part that’s been designed well, which makes him look better in the end.

Look around, consider your own business. Maybe you have some capital hidden away in your vault.


That one great idea

December 15, 2008

As engineering consultants, we are approached by a lot of inventors that are looking to sell their great idea. Frequently, it’s novel, but sometimes, it’s an improvement on a product already on the market. Often, it involves some modification to a toilet seat because, let’s face it, that’s the only time many people have to just stop and think.

The issue is that it’s not terribly easy to get a meeting with the NPD people at Bemis Mfg.

We tell inventors that presenting intellectual property (IP) and a functioning prototype goes a long way toward selling an idea, particularly in the device market where we operate. The more risk you’ve driven out of the final product, the more value you’ve added. However, if you’ve proven the concept, shown some efficacy, or (DING! DING! DING!) commercialized a product and made a few bucks you have a much better shot at getting a meeting.

As Seth Godin pointed out, getting that meeting is only half the job. You still have to sell the idea. However, if it was a good enough idea to convince you to invest your own time and money, maybe it’s not that hard.


The art of communication

December 10, 2008

My family went to North Carolina this weekend. With two small kids, the drive can quickly become an all-day affair. With my wife getting bored in the car, she took the opportunity to explore one of the personality compatibility webapps on her iPhone. It’s about as sophisticated as a teen magazine, but luckily enough, the app says we’re compatible (whew!). Best of all, since we answered certain questions the same, we should have an easy time communicating and an intuitive understanding of the other person’s concerns. Well, let’s just say there’s been a miscommunication or two over 5 years of marriage.

In business, many of my clients are often engineers, or maybe they’ve been one in a previous life. Maybe they’ve even worked in product development for 10 years. So, we have a lot in common; it would seem we’re even speaking the same language. However, I’ve found that no matter how many similarities there are between you, it’s all too easy for two people to be on different wavelengths. It may even take special effort just to realize that fact alone, much less correct it.

Sometimes, this fact can be exacerbated by the use of email. After all, if there’s any question down the road about who said what and when, I can just point to an email I sent notifying you of the change. But, having something said and having something heard can be two wildly different things.

Communicate early, and communicate often. speak clearly (leave out the jargon). LISTEN AND ASK QUESTIONS. Repeat.

If I tell you something, and you don’t understand, it’s my fault.