Building a successful team for connected products requires diverse skills and perspectives. It’s essential to have people at the table who can address the product’s desirability, feasibility, and viability. This means bringing in people who understand the needs and wants of the target customer and those with the technical expertise to build and launch the product. On this episode of the IoT For All Podcast, Ryan Chacon sits down with Brian Tol, CTO of SpinDance, to discuss building the right team for your IoT project. In addition, Brian shares insights on various challenges and downfalls he’s seen in IoT and the role of UX in IoT success.
Brian Tol is currently the CTO at SpinDance. He is a full-stack IoT architect with 20 years of experience solving complex business and technology problems. Broad business and nonprofit background, including software architecture, business strategy, business development, and user experience design. In his roles, he has been instrumental in helping professionals at all levels of a company understand what IoT means to their business, why these projects are complex, and how to overcome common pitfalls.
Interested in connecting with Brian? Reach out on Linkedin!
SpinDance designs and develops fully integrated, custom software systems that bring products to life with compelling user experiences. Their passion for crafting the highest quality solution, combined with their human-centered and end-to-end systems approach, results in innovative products that work. They can help you take your product from ideation to production, from planning to hardware design to embedded, cloud, web, and mobile applications, to launch and support – and everything in-between. Their highly skilled team is motivated, nimble, easy to work with, and above all, dedicated to your success.
Key Questions and Topics from this Episode:
(04:20) Keys of selecting IoT team
(07:28) Bringing your IoT team together
(15:00) Discussions with clients
(16:36) Challenges of designing hardware
(18:17) UX mistakes in IoT
– [Brian] So yeah, we often spend a lot of time talking about the technology with IoT and connected devices, and that’s important. But at this point, a lot of the challenges in IoT are solved problems, so to speak. We know how to make a secure device, we know what connectivity looks like, we know how to build a great cloud and so forth and so on. It’s really about bringing all those skills together and solving a business problem. And that’s why you need kind of a way, well rounded team. So where most people spend 80% of their time talking about the technology and maybe 20% of the time talking about the team in the process. I think we need to give a lot more air time, so to speak, in terms of who do you need around the table and how are you going to help them be successful.
– [Ryan] Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of the IoT For All Podcast. Presented by IoT For All, the number one publication and resource for the Internet of Things. I’m your host, Ryan Chacon. If you are watching this video on YouTube, please give this video a thumbs up and subscribe to our channel if you have not done so already. If you’re watching this, or sorry, I should say, if you’re listening to this on a podcast directory somewhere like Apple podcast, please subscribe to get the latest episodes as soon as they are out. All right, on today’s episode, we have Brian Tol, the CTO of Spindance. Spin Dance is a company that designs and develops fully integrated custom software systems that bring products to life with compelling user experiences. And today we are going to talk a lot about the importance of building a holistic team for connected products, the importance of giving the team the right process to be successful, and general challenges in the space. Keys to success with connected products across the board and what you really need to look for kind of going forward when it comes to bringing a connected product to market. Very interesting conversation. This is a topic we haven’t covered a lot about in the past, so I think we get a lot of value out of it. But before we get into it, any of you out there are looking to enter the fast growing and profitable IoT market but don’t know where to start. Check out our sponsor Leverege. Leverege’s IoT Solutions development platform provides everything you need to create turnkey IoT products that you can white, label and resell under your own brand. To learn more, go to iotchangesaving.com that’s iotchangesything.com. And without further ado, please enjoy this episode of the IoT For All Podcast. Welcome Brian to the IoT for all podcasts. Thanks for being here this week. Thank you.
– [Brian] Yeah, thanks for having me.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. So what I wanted to do is kick this off by having you give a quick introduction about yourself and the company for audience.
– [Brian] Yeah, happy to. So I’m the Chief Technology Officer for Spindance. We’re a small software consultancy focused on IoT and we’re based in the western part of Michigan, about 2 hours north of Chicago. Yeah, we help organizations figure out their strategy for their IoT product and then we help design and deliver the software components of whatever they’re trying to do.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. Are there any areas or kind of verticals you all focus in or is it kind of pretty agnostic to all that and just love to learn a little bit more there? Fairly agnostic, yeah. We have a diverse customer base. We work with everyone from funded startups to Fortune 500 and it’s about 50/50 between consumer devices and commercial devices.
– [Ryan] Got you. Fantastic. So some of the topics I had lined up for us to chat about were about some areas of IoT development that we don’t get to touch on too much. But I thought it’d be interesting to chat about today and one of them is about kind of the team aspect of what is needed for connected products to be built and launched successfully. So can you talk to us a little bit at a high level about the importance of building, I guess, like a holistic team for connected products, what that means, what that looks like, what’s important to note?
– [Brian] Absolutely. So yeah, we often spend a lot of time talking about the technology with IoT and connected devices and that’s important. But at this point a lot of the challenges in IoT are solved problems, so to speak. We know how to make a secure device, we know what connectivity looks like, we know how to build a great cloud and so forth and so on. It’s really about bringing all those skills together and solving a business problem. And that’s why you need kind of a well rounded team. So where most people spend 80% of their time talking about the technology and maybe 20% of the time talking about the team in the process, I think we need to give a lot more air time, so to speak, in terms of who do you need around the table and how are you going to help them be successful?
– [Ryan] Absolutely. And so what are some of those keys in your mind to, I guess, take us through kind of the keys early on in the process for how to go about selecting the right team members and then at the same time, once that’s kind of established what’s important to take note of in order to bring that connected product to life, launch it, scale it, and so forth, and kind of the pieces that the team really play in that, as well as just what you should be keeping in mind as you’re building that team.
– [Brian] Yeah, those are great questions. So for me, I think there’s kind of and I’m a visual thinker, so I think there’s really two visuals that I like to keep in the back of my brain. One is kind of the three lenses of innovation, which is a very common tool in design thinking. Land. And if you’re not familiar with that, it’s basically you think about the desirability of the product, the feasibility of the product and the viability of the product. And usually the viability is more on the business side. The feasibility is on the technical side. So to start with really bringing people around the table for those three lenses and saying hey, do we have a great idea here? And if not, how do we maybe pivot or cancel the project or improve it? So at the beginning you need to be thinking about the desirability do we really know what our customers want? Do we know what their needs are? Then you kind of pivot into technical feasibility and that’s where you can look at do we have everything understood? And that’s where you might do a proof of concept or a technical pilot but before you do that you want to go back to the desirability and say hey, do we actually have a prototype people care about? Do they feel really good about that? So starting there and then finally on the business side going do we know what this is going to mean in terms of costs both in terms of an upfront capital investment and an ongoing cost and do we know what we’re charging for this so we can make money? So that’s kind of the first visual so let me know if you have any questions about that and then I’ll kind of talk about the second one.
– [Ryan] No keep going, that’s fine.
– [Brian] Perfect. So the second one then is more of a system design. And this is again on the technical side, once you know what you want to build and you have a good business case for it, then you actually have to move from the proof of concept to the actual full system. And that’s where doing a system design and really thinking about, okay, what are the major components of my product? The physical device, the cloud system. Maybe it’s a visualization if it’s a commercial product or a mobile app if it’s a consumer one. So it’s really thinking about what are the big pieces, how are they connected up? How are they going to work together? Figure that out, figure out the skills that you need for each one of those major areas of your project and then bring the right people into those areas. But that’s not enough because they still have to work together. Oftentimes we see people make a mistake of like oh I’m an embedded guy I’m going to just let the cloud people worry about that or the cloud people go oh I don’t have to worry too much about that. The embedded people are going to focus on that and that always goes badly if you don’t get all those people connected.
– [Ryan] So I guess that’s a good kind of follow up question here is then giving that team the right process to succeed, the right tooling to coordinate, and things along those lines. Talk to us about the importance of that, as well as how you can put one of those together and what you should be thinking about when you’re developing that process to bring these team members together kind of around that vision, especially if they’re not within the same organization, which oftentimes they are not exactly. Yeah. And you have very different needs sometimes and very different processes. Hardware is hard, right? It’s not an agile type of experience. So if you try to have a software team treat their hardware counterparts in a scrum methodology, that’s not going to work. On the flip side, if an embedded team doesn’t really understand the need for security of a connected environment, they’re not going to bake that into their process. So really going back to the beginning, looking at the system design and then, you know, everybody having a conversation about, okay, what’s important to our team for success. And then from there, building out your project goals, building out your timelines. Typically we found it important that you let your hardware team and your UX team get a head start before you dive too deep into the software and the end of the project. Then too, you got to leave enough time for integration testing to be able to actually bring all these disparate teams together to test and integrate. And if they never done it before, if this is a new endeavor, they’ve never done IoT or connected products, you got to leave time. We’ve seen some people leave, oh, yeah, we just need a week for integration testing, right? Yeah. Don’t do that. You’re going to fail.
– [Ryan] Yeah, for sure. When it comes to kind of seeking out the right team members, do you have any advice for companies kind of looking on the best way to do that and evaluating who to bring on? Because I think there’s a couple of different obviously ways people would come into this is one, if they’re kind of outsourcing kind of everything and they’re just like, hey, we have this problem, help us solve it, versus somebody who does one of the different components of an IoT solution. Like, for instance, they already built hardware. They need connectivity, they need software, they need the other pieces. So they’re out there kind of sourcing and trying to figure out how to bring the right team members. Is there anything that you recommend that they look for or kind of think about during that selection process?
– [Brian] Yeah, definitely. I think there’s two things. One is, do you have a team that can do everything? One of the value propositions for spindance is we do the embedded and we do the cloud and we do mobile and the web, but oftentimes we’re working with other groups within an organization. There’s already an established hardware group, for example. So I think it’s? Do you need a group like us where you can do everything or are you kind of mixing and matching, which is a very viable option, but if you do kind of mix and match, what is their approach to partnership? What is their approach to teamwork? Are they very litigious and they’re like, well, we have to have everything defined and we’re going to point a lot of fingers. You don’t want that. You don’t want to be able to bring the team together and just have a very open and honest conversation.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. Yeah. It’s a very interesting process to kind of hear how companies approach it. And a lot of times this not just the process we talked about, but that the selection of team members and companies to work with really determines the success of a project. And I think as the company grows, there’s more options not only with the technology side, but also just people to choose to work with. And filtering through all the different companies out there and experts out there and figuring out who the best is to work with is not easy for companies to do at all.
– [Brian] No, it’s not. But it’s really worth the effort. There’s a saying I heard, managers spend 2% of their time hiring and then 75% of their time managing their problems and their mistakes. So if you can spend a little bit more time up front building the right team, it’s going to take a little bit longer, it’s going to feel like it’s a lot of busy work, but you’re going to end up with a much better experience during the project and a much better product when you’re all done.
– [Ryan] I totally agree. So let me ask, outside of the team element of it, what other areas have you seen to be kind of the key to success when it comes to bringing a connected product to life? Obviously, choosing the right technology is one, we talked about the team aspect already, but are there other elements that people maybe aren’t thinking about as the true keys to success when it comes to the connected product side?
– [Brian] Yeah, for sure. I think two that stick out is the beginning of the project. Like we talked a little bit about the three lenses of innovation and making sure you have a good business case. So many projects get to pilot and they stall out because they can prove the technology, they can’t prove that anyone cares. So you want to focus on that. And then the other major thing we see people kind of forget is the maintenance and the upkeep of a project. So you think about a connected device and you think about the physical life of that, except for maybe a cheap connected light bulb, you’re going to have a product around for a couple of years. In the commercial space, it might be 20 years, right, if it’s a piece of equipment. So what is your strategy for maintaining and keeping that up to date. You think about a device that we built today, 20 years from now, that’s 2042. Technology is going to be very different. How do you invest into that? And that’s both a technical challenge and a business challenge, because if you don’t have a revenue stream to support updates, you’re going to have a big problem.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. Yeah. This is kind of going to tie into my next question I have for you here, which are the challenges that companies have bringing connected products to market. And there’s a few I wanted to have you touch on. I’ll kind of just go one by one, ask you to kind of give feedback. But talking about the business case element and how that is often a challenge and why that’s so important for companies to think about.
– [Brian] Oh, it’s key, I think. Just a couple of quick stories. We oftentimes run into situations where the CEO has gone to a conference or he’s talked to a friend, and IoT is important. Connectivity is the future. And they never paint a real vision for their team. They just say, Go do it. So I’ve been in a number of workshops in the last two years where people get done and say, yeah, we just needed to get the CEO off our back. That’s a horrible place to be. So if you can give your team a business case, paint that vision in terms of why this is central, they then can go and start to connect those dots. So you got to start with a great vision and then help your team kind of build from there.
– [Ryan] Yeah, I think it also ties into the communication within the organization around what are the key business cases to focus on and what is a true definition of success. Kind of around the ROI to determine if this is going to be something that is worth investing our time and being able to kind of have that buy in and understanding ahead of time. Otherwise people can waste a lot of time and money.
– [Brian] Oh, so much money, so much time and morale. Right? If people yeah, we’ve seen so many great people burned out because they just weren’t given great leadership. And this is tough. And I think it comes down to you can’t pick a winner. And when we do our innovation work, for example, it’s a lot of numbers. So how do you start with a bunch of ideas? Start to prove those out and you’re going to end up with one or two you’re actually going to take to the market. Most people don’t operate that way. They think they have a winner or they hope they have a winner and they just plow through and it doesn’t work out very well.
– [Ryan] What do you all look for when you talk to customers, companies? I kind of want to reverse the conversation here for a second. When you talk with companies, are there ever situations where you have to walk away from working with an organization because they just don’t have something sorted out. And the reason I think this is a good thing to answer from your perspective is just as companies are thinking about, okay, I’m going to reach out to a company like spin dance, but I need to have my stuff together in order to make this a valuable relationship? Or for them. What should they need to know before going into that kind of thing? To make them a company that you also want to work with because you can’t take on every deal and opportunity. And I’m sure there are some that make it more attractive than others because of how well organized they are, what they already have in place, what they’re trying to solve. Just what do you all look forward to in that selection process to kind of identify the companies that you think have the best chance of success?
– [Brian] Man, I love that question. I haven’t thought about that in a while. But I think just a transparency first and foremost. We’re a small firm. We really like to work closely with our customers and our partners, so they don’t need to have it all together. I think it’s going to become very clear pretty quickly how much they have together, but I think it always works out better if we can be honest with what we don’t do and where we need to bring other people around the table and to understand where they’re at in their journey. Connected hardware, security software, these are all things that you just don’t wake up one day and just go, oh, I’m a master of this. So just some humility and the ability to say, hey, we’ve got a lot to learn, let’s learn together. And I think that’s the cornerstone of a great project.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. I want to get back to kind of what I was talking about here with the challenges in the space, and there’s two others that I wanted to just ask your thoughts on the hardware, obviously, and you mentioned this earlier, hardware is hard. It’s something that can be tricky at times. But I think the design element of hardware is often not discussed enough on how that contributes to success, as well as what kind of challenge that imposes. I’d love to kind of hear your take on some of that.
– [Brian] Yes, I have so many thoughts running through my head. Well, I’ll give you a quick example. We’re working right now on a startup, and they have a medical device, and they’re not the first to market. There’s about five other people that have already done this over the last couple of years, and we worked with a partner to do a tear down and do a review of the existing product. And the user interface on these across the board is horrible. Small touch screen, leggy interface, connectivity is poor. Literally. Some of these had WiFi dongles to connect to them. And you could tell it was just cobbled together. It’s a difficult problem because you have the industrial design, you have the mechanical, you have the electrical and then you have the digital interface and you can always tell where they kind of skimped on one of those four areas. And so again, this is where bringing the right team around the table, giving them time to really create a great industrial design, create a great digital interface, and then have the electronics platform to support that. That takes time. It takes effort.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. Yeah. So you can’t rush it, for sure. So I totally agree. And last thing I want to ask you regarding challenges, and this is something that I think is really interesting to talk about, is the user experience side. So the actual interface where the end user is going to engage with the solution in most cases, what are some of the practices that you see companies do poorly? And on the other side of that, how should people be thinking about best practices when it comes to UI/UX design?
– [Brian] I’ll start with the best practices because in a lot of ways, again, this is a solved problem. We’ve been doing digital interfaces for 25, 30 years now as an industry. Every website, every mobile app, there’s best practices there and there’s best practices for hardware. So where connected really sits as bringing those two disciplines together and having those trade offs. Because, yeah, you might want a really slick set of animations and the reality is the chip you would need to do that is going to break the project’s budget. So you really got to understand the limitations of your hardware and produce a great user experience within those constraints. So that’s probably the first thing. The second thing is really thinking about the cognitive load that you’re putting on your user with a device, it’s sometimes very tricky to ask your user to understand what the connected capabilities are. Quick examples of light bulb, right? I buy a dumb light bulb, I plug it in, I turn the switch on and I’m done. And I just went through this the other day. I bought a new switch from my office and did a great job walking me through the set up process. And then we got to the point where I had to turn it into access mode and the credentials. And I like to think I’m a smart guy. It took me like 15 minutes and I had to reboot the device like ten times before it would actually connect to my phone. Just that simple act of enabling this device took way too much brain.
– [Ryan] Yeah, I bet. I always wonder what the thought process is around the development of that guide and instructions and just experience from an intuitive standpoint, because it’s an art to do this well. And there’s a thought process that I’ve always been a big believer in and that’s really thinking about things from that end user backwards because I think that helps instruct all the different elements that need to be built and designed for a solution. If that experience the end user has is not a good one, then the solution is never going to be used and the value is not going to be found in it. So it’s super important and I think oftentimes it’s maybe not as focused on as it should be.
– [Brian] No, I think you’re exactly right and I would add to that I think there’s a lot of other personas that are impacted by IoT within an organization. So quick example, a couple here, like dealer networks are often left out. So you think about the opportunity of a large organization developing a connected product and having a direct connection with their customer and the dealers are like, what’s in it for me? So that’s an important persona. I think another important persona internally is your support team. Someone’s going to call up and like me, said, hey, I’m trying to connect your device, I just can’t do it. What tools, what script, what training, what empathy are you giving your support team to help people turn a bad experience into a great one and keep that person around as a customer for a long time?
– [Ryan] Absolutely. This has been a fantastic conversation. I really appreciate your time and kind of talking through all this. Last thing I want to ask you before I let you go here is just high level anything we maybe did not cover regarding general advice for companies looking to kind of get a connected product built, what’s the best way to get started?
– [Brian] Yeah, the best way to get started is to train your team to get everybody on the same page. Oftentimes we come into it, especially a large organization, and people kind of know what IoT is, but they’re using slightly different words and they all have their own perspective. So getting everybody on the same page and really walking through what it is, what the vision for the organization is and then I think as a leader, giving people time and space, you’re not going to do this in a year. Right? This is a multi year journey and just understand that and support your team as they grow and as they figure out what they’re trying to do.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Brian, what’s the best way for our audience to reach out and engage with you all? Whether it’s a follow up to this conversation, learn more about what Spin Dance does, may have questions in general, what’s the best way they can do that?
– [Brian] Yeah, we’d love to talk to people. You can find us on the firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s one word spindance.com. And then you can email us at email@example.com and we’d love to start a conversation and answer any questions you might have.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. Well, Brian, thank you so much for the time. I really appreciate it a good topic, needs more attention paid to it, for sure. The importance of teams and all these challenges that we’re seeing in the space, I think we’re great to shed more light on. So thanks again for taking the time and really appreciate it. Would love to have you back at some point, talk further about other things going on in the industry.
– [Brian] Wonderful. It was great to be here. Thanks for having me.
– [Ryan] All right, everyone, thanks again for watching that episode, the IoT For All Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please click the thumbs up button, subscribe to our channel and be sure to hit the bell notification so you get the latest episode as soon as they become available. Other than that, thanks again for watching, and we’ll see you next time.