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Keep Your Eye on Donut Opportunities

Jon Titus

November 22, 2011

3 Min Read
Keep Your Eye on Donut Opportunities

My dad often sang this little ditty, "As you travel on through life, son, let one thing be your goal; keep your eye upon the donut and not upon the hole." That advice sounded good -- don't let something "empty" take your attention from something more important.

Several years ago I thought about creating a series of hands-on microcontroller courses and talked with a fellow I knew about assisting with teaching and creating the course materials. My friend "Bob" liked the idea and started to think about electronic educational hardware for students. Bob produced several interesting designs and he continued to try to fit more and more on a small circuit board. He scoured eBay for deals on components and got the bill of materials to an absolute minimum.

Bob and I talked often and he always explained his latest innovations, hardware ideas, and why students would like his newest design. "But Bob," I'd say, "there's a lot of good, inexpensive hardware out there now. What if something changes and you can't get a component? Or suppose a microcontroller you use becomes obsolete? If we decide to teach about Ethernet or USB, you'll have to create a new design. And you'd have to stock materials, assemble boards, test them, and keep an inventory."

Bob always assured me he had everything under control and ended many conversations with an explanation of what his next hardware iteration would do and look like. To me, the opportunity centered on teaching useful skills and creating publishable educational materials, not creating hardware. Then, as now, MCU demo and evaluation boards with all types of peripherals and add-on devices could give students good, inexpensive commercial hardware, development software, and real-world code examples. As Bob fixated on creating the ultimate teaching hardware rather than on the course information, I abandoned the project and moved on to other work.

I have seen entrepreneurs fall into the "donut-hole trap" many times. They lose sight of the overall problem and fix their vision on something unimportant, or already done by someone else and readily available. I fell into that trap several times, too.

My brother Chris and I always liked chemistry, so naturally we created all sorts of fireworks and used our grandfather's 10-acre property as our proving ground. As a teenager, Chris decided we should publish our "formulas" and sell them to other do-it-yourself fireworks enthusiasts. We ran small ads in Popular Science magazine and business took off. Then we thought, let's sell some chemicals and pyrotechnic fuse, too. But soon the fuse supplier ended its manufacture and the postal service decided to refuse to ship our "smoke powder." We had lost sight of what we did well -- creating fireworks formulas and selling them.

Early in my design career, I helped start a small company that produced electronic hardware. But after going down that road for about a year, it became clear that manufacturing and creating one-off equipment would not pay. And handling production problems took time away from creating new designs. So my colleagues and I licensed designs to a company and collected royalties. We continued to come up with and license designs and let someone else worry about staff, delivery, inventory, and other problems. I had lost sight of our strengths -- creating products for others to manufacture.

I could share other stories but will give you an opportunity to share one of your "donut vs. hole" experiences.

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