Racing the Clock in a Time of Trials
By Lisa Bergson
"Difficulty at the beginning works supreme success, furthering through perseverance."
-- The I Ching.
"The conclusion from the manufacturer was that the unit had apparently been malfunctioning during the test," a key customer reported to his senior people, with a copy to us. "It will be returned for retesting."
That memo was hardly a ringing endorsement for our MTO-1000-H2O, the world's first device based on cavity ring-down spectroscopy, a powerful sensing technology that is so fragile it has been limited to use in research laboratories up until now. Then again, from our botched debut at Semicon West, the semiconductor-equipment industry's major trade show, where our booth was one of the great secrets, to our initial customer demonstrations, Murphy's Law prevails. (see BW Online, 7/23/01, "Overlooked, Not Looked Over")
At the same time, with the economy tightening and a longstanding source of funding in jeopardy, the pressure is intensifying for my startup to gain market acceptance for the MTO, a highly sensitive but robust instrument for parts-per-trillion moisture analysis in electronic gases. We're going on three months since Semicon -- about as long as you've got before you start attracting the "phantom product" moniker. "It has to be out there, and it has to work," I admonish my technical team. "We can't start pulling it on and off the market. You lose all credibility."
It's a real hazard with engineers, their tendency to keep tinkering. At some point, you just have to call it a ready-for-market product and move on. You must be ruthless about it: Set goals that are mutually agreed upon and stick to them -- or at least try your hardest. In this respect, outside deadlines, such as trade shows or an important customer demonstration, can help. It's also an approach that can backfire if used injudiciously. But with the clock ticking, we have to move. So when a particularly tough and exacting customer asked when he could test the MTO, naturally I replied: "When do you want it?"
STRANDED IN TEXAS.
In retrospect, perhaps Sept. 10 was not the most auspicious day to start. Having volunteered to demonstrate the unit, our director of engineering, Calvin Krusen, landed in Texas only to find the MTO damaged. "I opened it up, and the AOM was not diffracting the light at all," he recalls. The AOM is a simple device that directs the laser light. Turned out, it was just a matter of replacing that part, but Calvin worried he might make a mistake and blow the whole thing. With no advance notice, our young optical technician, Steve Geserick, caught a plane with 15 minutes to spare and flew right down with a new AOM.
On the second day -- September 11 -- Calvin and Steve went to the customer's site at 7 a.m., verified the problem, swapped out the part, got the unit working, and headed for the airport so Steve could catch a 9:20 a.m. flight and get back in time for night school. The rock station on the radio said something about a plane crash, but at the airport all the TV monitors were off. Good thing Calvin waited with Steve. Soon, all flights were canceled. The two returned to the customer's site just in time to learn they were shutting down their offices too: "We just do what headquarters tells us."
By Wednesday, Calvin was at least satisfied with the MTO's operation. "It has been working flawlessly since Steve replaced the AOM," he e-mailed, convinced that the customer was "quite happy with the instrument and the technology." In the wake of the attacks, I couldn't quite feel joy, but was certainly relieved at the news. At that point, with airports closed, Calvin's best chance to get home to his worried family was to catch a ride with three of my guys also stranded in Texas for a trade show. And so, believing his mission accomplished, he cut short the test and shipped back the unit. Buoyed by success, he later drove the 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift on their 29-hour marathon journey back.
By the following week, however, when conflicting data flowed up to our Pennsylvania plant from Texas, Calvin was less certain, at least of his interpersonal skills. "I guess I don't read people that well," he murmured. A complicated debate over the test set-up and the interpretation of the data ensued, and Calvin reluctantly acknowledged that there could have been a problem. "Next time, plan on leaving the instrument here until we get data that makes sense or we make sense of the data," e-mailed our independent sales representative from Texas.
"You need to organize this next demonstration like the entire future of your company depends on it," the sales rep continued, taking the further step of offering specific suggestions and ways he can help. He wants us to succeed. The customer does too, otherwise he wouldn't give us a second chance. We're fortunate to have a technology that people really seem to need -- and enough goodwill in the marketplace to buy a little more time. But time is not on our side.
"Everything is in motion: therefore if one perseveres, there is a prospect of great success, in spite of existing danger."
-- The I Ching
Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies web sites at www.meeco.com or www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at email@example.com.