The ethical, financial, and logistical challenges with hardware support #makerbusiness
When we look at the making of a succesful product, the focus is often on the founder, the idea, the company, or the manufacturing process. Often undiscussed and overlooked is the importance of the support that is available after a product is delivered.
Apple, led by the impressive Steve Jobs, made beautiful, easy to use products. But one of the reasons they became so beloved is their replacement policies and assistance via the genius bar. Indeed, one of the reasons they are facing so much scrutiny now is because of right to repair issues, and fears of planned obsolescence.
Danielle Applestone took to Medium to recount a support issue that induced truly existential questions for her business. Other Machine Co. got off the ground because of a succesful kickstarter that raised over $300,000 and delivered 200 desk-sized CNC machines to the backers.
In the years that passed, we moved on from those original machines. We were now on our radically redesigned, fourth generation product. We found our customer (professional electrical engineers) and our problem (rapid PCB prototyping). We even had a new brand and product name (Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machine). The Kickstarter Othermills contained some custom parts that we could no longer fabricate, several hobby components that were not intended for heavy use, and a few commercial parts that got discontinued. As the machines started to wear out, we sent replacement parts when we could, but the options were dwindling. When our extra parts eventually ran out, we were left with one of the biggest moral decisions that every hardware company faces: what do I owe my customer as the product ages?
This issue, while applicable to cheaper items, really starts to become important when you’re dealing with really expensive pieces of equipment, which often have am implied longer lifespan. You can’t expect your users to buy a $3000 piece of equipment every year. But when these unique machines start to break, with no real way to repair them, and the financial liability of replacement enough to put your company underwater, how do you proceed?
Ultimately, we decided we wanted to be the type of company that values its customers, but limits the cost to something that we could absorb. We offered all the Kickstarter Othermill owners $1,000 credit towards the purchase of a brand new $3,199 Othermill Pro, but that they’d need to use the credit within the year. It was a thank you, but it also acknowledged that we are a business, and told customers that if they really did need to prototype PCBs on their desktop, they’ll need to spend some cash. We also decided to focus our software support and new features on our newer products.
There is a lesson here in that manufacturers should always keep in mind product lifecycle and consider how to support customers long after the purchase has been made. But there is also a more general lesson: good ethics is often good business. Supporting your customers, and doing right by them may cost money, but it also encourages a more loyal community of customers.
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