Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Part 1: Customers Ask Great Questions

Thoughts on jobs, kids, innovation, entrepreneurship...and our approach to economic recovery.

While writing this post I stumbled across a New York Times article written by Op-ed Columnist Thomas L. Friedman entitled “More (Steve) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs”. The piece resonated, inspiring me to take a short detour and disclose a bit more about what we’re up to at Homepath Products.

Friedman discussed federal policy-making concerning job creation through innovation. Paraphrasing, he suggests that the current administration should bolster job creation by stimulating our youth through creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. “What the country needs most now is not more government stimulus, but more stimulation. We need to get millions of American kids, not just the geniuses, excited about innovation and entrepreneurship again. We need to make 2010 what Obama should have made 2009: the year of innovation, the year of making our pie bigger, the year of ‘Start-Up America.’”

Friedman continues “to reignite his youth movement, he [President Obama] should make sure every American kid knows about two programs that he has already endorsed: The first is National Lab Day. Introduced last November by a coalition of educators and science and engineering associations, Lab Day aims to inspire a wave of future innovators, by pairing veteran scientists and engineers with students in grades K-12 to inspire thousands of hands-on science projects around the country...The president should also vow to bring the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, to every low-income neighborhood in America. NFTE works with middle- and high-school teachers to help them teach entrepreneurship. The centerpiece of its program is a national contest for startups with 24,000 kids participating. Each student has to invent a product or service, write up a business plan and then do it.”

In general I agree with Friedman. More innovation begets opportunity for success; more success stimulates innovation, in turn, growing the pie and fueling economic expansion. He presents some well conceived ideas echoing an industrial era economist named Joseph Schumpeter who espoused “creative destruction” and focused on the importance of entrepreneurs to strong economies. Friedman adds a noteworthy twist...that is to nourish the innovation and entrepreneurship process through exposure during youth.  I find this compelling and believe it may help sidestep the tendency toward risk aversion that sets in with age. This notion parallels what we’re doing in our own small way here at Homepath Products.

For many reasons I traded in the security of corporate America to pursue this new venture called Homepath Products. One (of many) important goals was to spend more time with family. For years I noticed opportunities slipping away while I focused on career, a universal dilemma faced by all parents and those with aging forebears...a challenge with few good answers...part of life.

At Homepath Products we innovate, we experiment, we teach, we are a startup and our kids play a vital role in what we do and, perhaps more importantly, why we do it.

Reflecting on Friedman’s assertion that youth should be energized to nurture creativity and become entrepreneurial consider the following. Our kids also need opportunity to grasp the interconnected nature of things and events, to learn risk taking, and to become aware that they have a voice in matters seemingly beyond their sphere of influence...beneficial lessons for adulthood.

Many regular readers of this blog know that Homepath Products recently introduced the eXapath™ in-wall cable pathway system. With this innovation we aim to improve how homes are designed and built, complementing energy conservation while preparing the structure itself to change as consumer electronics evolve. Not an easy task when wires within walls compete for the same space as insulation.

To see where kids come into the picture you must first understand the product.

Energy Conservation and Upgradeability

One of the many features of eXapath is that, once installed and hidden by drywall, it can be located using a common density-based stud finder. This benefits the home or building owner by enabling the addition of outlets from floor to ceiling. After generations of occupancy the structure remains prepared to adapt when new consumer electronics come to market...without disrupting the insulation envelope.

In shallow inside 2x4” framing, outlets can be added from either side of the wall, in effect serving two rooms. Great for speaker wiring, HDTV, Mirror/TV’s, computer wiring, automation, that sort of stuff.

With deeper outside walls important questions come to light. Today, most exterior walls are built using 2x6” construction. The wall cavities are then completely filled with insulation, except where studs, wires, waste pipes, and electrical boxes reside.

Picturing the installation in an exterior wall, eXapath sits toward the inside of the cavity, in direct contact with drywall. Viewing the system from above note that eXapath has an “H” shape to accommodate our unique snap-in outlets.

With a footprint of 3 3/8” square, 2 to 3 inches of space is provided for insulation. Once installed, eXapath becomes a permanent hollow pathway for low voltage cables enabling moves, adds or upgrades at any time.

Whoa! Did You Say Hollow?

This is a good example of the great questions customers ask...and how they are asked: 

”If that thing is in my wall displacing some insulation, what affect does it have on energy conservation?”

The short answer is that eXapath does not present a problem with energy conservation...but it’s a complex question that deserves thorough investigation and a more complete response. Getting to that answer is, well, a science project in heat transfer. A look into the second law of thermodynamics. So, we asked ourselves, in addition to a complete answer, what other benefit can come from this investigation?

Aligning with personal goals the question presents an opportunity for us to bring science out of the class room and into the real world. We’re asking our kids to participate in the exercise in order to help bring practice to much of what they learn in school. We’re involving them in problem definition, design of experiment, measurement, data collection, and analysis. With exposure to an academic project with real world implications, we hope the kids will appreciate that their studies do ultimately prepare them for bigger things. In this case we tie the learning to commonly discussed ideas like energy conservation and sustainability. The students vary in age and academic level but all study the basics including mathematics, global studies, earth science, language arts, etc. They’re actively learning of our interconnected world and often work with abstract problems in homework assignments. Their school teachers bring practice to lessons while reinforcing major points and we hope this magnifies their effort while adding more fun and meaning to the process.

Get ready kids!

Please checkout Part 2 of this series: Kids Don’t Suffer Self-Imposed Limits - We Can Learn From Them

For interim results, skip directly to Part 3: Staggering, Remarkable, Stupendous!

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Better Mousetrap

Fiddling with a new gadget inspired me to write this post. Less “techy” than the usual stuff, but a testament to what interests me and how I view value. Function, form, and simplicity.

We all know the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door”, right? There’s a company in the village of Lititz, Pennsylvania that’s been doing this for over a hundred years. You may not be familiar with the Woodstream Corporation but I’m sure you’ve come across their iconic products.

We know them as Victor® Metal Pedal mouse traps. Available at virtually every grocery, hardware store, and big box retailer, they are more prevalent, perhaps, than the mice they’re intended to catch.  Simple and effective for over a century. I'm inspired when otherwise mundane products stand the test of time...and often wonder whether our society is too focused on immediacy.  Have we become so fixated on "late and great", so focused on short-term results, that we've forgotten about lasting value and durability?

Each winter here in New England as the days get shorter, temperatures plummet and natural food sources become scarce. The relative warmth of our basement attracts a few unwanted guests, not many...and we do our best to keep it that way. To understand my relationship with these critters you first need to know a bit about my wife.

I adore her, she's truly a gem. She’s everything a person could desire in a spouse, a wonderful mom to our kids, a bright spot for me every day...and still tolerant of my antics after many years. Impressively fearless, I’ve discovered that she has one acute, dare I say irrational, fear.


About five years ago we first saw evidence of mice in our basement. She discovered the signs...but clearly it was my problem. Do you know this feeling?

Midsummer, while enjoying a family vacation and visit with relatives on their farm in western Illinois, we marveled at vast golden wheat fields, an uncommon sight in our native Connecticut.  The family time together was memorable. As a souvenir we “harvested” some of the beautiful grain to bring home.  Artfully arranged, the wheat was proudly displayed on the mantle for several months.

As autumn turned to winter we decked our home for the holidays. Anticipating its return during the summer months we carefully stored the arrangement downstairs.

The mice were grateful...but far from gracious.

My wife suggested that I “take care of the problem.” I snapped-to, taking what I now recognize as a laissez-faire approach to ridding our home of these pests. I removed potential sources of food, blocked any access I could find, set a few traps, and experimented with various baits. How tough could this be?

On day two I checked my traps, learning that mice overlooked cheese in favor of peanut butter...Skippy® -no cholesterol and zero trans-fats. With care, I placed the quarry in an opaque grocery bag for the trip to the trash, emerging from the basement victorious like a Peacock displaying its plumage. Skilled hunter. Great protector. Problem solved.

On my way to the outside trash bin I boastfully announced “Hey, bagged eight of ‘em!”, carefully closing the door behind me before returning minutes later.

After peeling my wife from the ceiling it occurred to me that her initial challenge was orders of magnitude greater than I realized,. An “aha” moment. Now I truly understood her. Late night sentry duty; dark, damp, cold basement; motionless in my lawn chair; full camouflage; night vision goggles; air pistol charged and ready. Fully aligned with her notion of “take care of the problem”!

A wife possessed - husband obsessed

I bought more traps, plugged more gaps, and scoured the area, eliminating all traces of edible material. After the initial catch my success rate dropped to near zero. Dutifully, I baited and set traps, often snapping my own fingers in the process, and always with the eerie sensation of being watched. I noticed that most of the traps remained set but bait was disappearing. Certain that peanut-butter didn’t evaporate, I recognized that these crafty little beasts had outsmarted the great hunter. So I did what every self-respecting husband does...and blamed the traps. Now desperate but determined, I experimented with the Victors to understand how they actually worked...looking for design issues along the way. How flawed could these things be? Heck, they’ve been flying off the shelf for more than a century.

Fast Forward to this Winter

Now my annual ritual as the cold sets in, I shopped for new traps, hoping to get a jump on this years batch of mice before they had the upper hand. There on the shelves was my favorite brand. Similar in appearance to the tried-and-true but, lo and behold, a difference. What was this new yellow platen “thingy” in place of the old stamped and formed copper bait pedal? Giddy, I had to have some...exciting stuff in my world.

Enter the Victor Easy Set® Mouse Trap. A new era. Could it be...a better mouse trap?

I bought a few and rushed home to investigate. On close inspection the improvements were obvious. Shifting from the stamped and formed copper pedal to an engineered, molded platen, designers had added important new features:

  • Larger platen, more surface area, improved likelihood of triggering
  • Longer platen, greater leverage, less force required for triggering
  • Dual settings, elective sensitivity for triggering, what every mouse hunter wants
  • Pre-scented to attract prey, how cool is this?

Seemingly minor changes to a single component dramatically improved the benefits for me, the end user. Easier to set, more likely to trigger...a better mouse trap. Oh, and made in USA including a sustainable shift to managed forestry products.

Being a  veteran of product development, I guess I’m sensitive to these little changes and have developed an appreciation for the effort that goes into them. Countless cross-functional team meetings, concept proposals, design reviews, budget debates, tooling discussions, intellectual property filings, materials assessments, prototyping, testing, focus groups, pre-production evaluations, etc.

Tremendous effort and planning result in products that simply work better and the process of design holds real beauty for me.

A Better Mousetrap

This story reminds me of a query from colleagues at RemodelCrazy. RemodelCrazy is a web forum where remodelers, builders and related industry talent gather to discuss issues relevant to home construction markets. I encourage readers to review, participate, and witness the passion these artisans have for their work and the pride with which they exchange information and operate.

The RemodelCrazy question: “Tell us why you developed the eXapath™ system. Was it out of necessity or did you see a way to fill a void in the market?”

Why - do we do it that way?

While not chasing mice in my basement I scurry around running a start-up company called Homepath Products LLC. We produce the eXapath system. This new product was developed from the standpoint of the homeowner in need of energy conserving structural design and also the flexibility to adapt to emerging consumer electronics technologies. eXapath is an innovative in-wall low voltage cable pathway that integrates seamlessly during construction and renovation, providing the flexibility to move , add or upgrade low voltage cables without major disruption.  It’s revolutionary and provides a great example of the product development process...the art of building something better. eXapath addresses a latent need that most homeowners realize after they’ve occupied a space for some time...at which point it’s a painful oversight...too late and very expensive to work around.

For eXapath we asked “why do we do it that way?” about traditional home wiring and rejected the pat answer “because we’ve always done it that way”. Specifically, we address a key difference between electrical wiring (line voltage) and the low voltage wires used for things like cable TV, whole-house audio, data networks, home theater, media room, security, automation, etc.

Think about it. Compared to the life expectancy of the home, the wiring for electric power changes little, therefore, permanent installation makes good sense.

Conversely, low voltage wiring, the technology we get most of our information and entertainment through, changes often and is expensive and difficult to move, add or upgrade when installed permanently. Add to this the tightness of better insulated homes and changing permanently installed wires becomes even more difficult and costly.

Why not build homes that are energy conserving AND ready for technological change?

eXapath enables you to do this.

There’s a lot more to the story, including features of the eXapath design that benefit home designers; builders; installers; and foremost, the homeowners themselves. Click here for a new paper explaining the system and see what’s in it for you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you're curious about energy conservation and the eXapath system be sure to read this.

Function, form, simplicity, and benefits that last as long as the home.

(for the record these are my own opinions and observations, I am not associated with any company or product named in this article other than those related to Homepath Products LLC)