Team harmony and letting everyone feel like their opinion has been heard, even if the final decision is in a different direction, makes the whole organization more productive.
Dorota Shortell is the CEO of Simplexity Product Development, an engineering design firm specializing in the design of hardware such as IoT devices, wearables, smart products, 3D printers, medical devices, and biotech equipment. Simplexity has been chosen by some of the world’s most advanced technology companies as their engineering development partner, including HP, Microsoft, and Illumina. Simplexity has offices in San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and the Portland, OR metro area (Vancouver, WA). In 2017 Simplexity was selected by Inc. Magazine as one of the Best Workplaces in America and by the San Diego Business Journal as one of the top 100 Fastest Growing Companies.
Dorota has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, is a US patent holder, and has 20 years of new product development experience. In 2013 she was recognized by the Portland Business Journal as one of the region’s top business leaders as a Forty under 40 Award winner. She was also selected as one of the twelve 2017 Executives to Watch by the Portland Business Journal.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
Our founders met while working as engineers at Hewlett Packard. HP used (and uses) a phase-gate product development process. The two founders quickly realized the business potential of offering expertise with this type of design approach to other companies, grounded in hiring the best talent and focusing on efficient design processes. When I took over as CEO, we re-branded as Simplexity Product Development to capture our core philosophy of designing complex products and mechanisms in the simplest way possible.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
At the beginning of the day I review my calendar for meetings and appointments and look through my top three goals that I define for each week. These goals focus on the important in addition to the urgent. Depending on which day of the week it is, my day can look quite different. Since we have consolidated internal meetings to two days of the week, those days are focused on discussing company business with the directors in the other offices and making sure that the business is running well. On the non-meeting days, I have time to work on company strategy, attend events and meet with key clients and partners. Usually during lunch I go work out, which is a nice mental break and adds a boost of energy to my day. I make sure to stay productive by minimizing distractions and turning off email notifications when working on a focused task.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The short answer is through our very talented and dedicated team. Designing ground-breaking technology products requires a proven development process that allows enough breathing room for creativity. Design problems are open-ended, so there needs to be time allocated for blue-sky thinking, brainstorming, and experimenting with ideas. However, it needs to be time-bound since we are accountable to client schedules and budgets. Thus, the creativity is balanced with best practice design processes, such as discussing and documenting requirements with clients, holding design reviews, and meeting schedule milestones. Once the conceptual work is far enough along, then we believe in prototyping the high-risk areas early to make sure that the concepts will work given the manufacturing processes required.
What’s one trend that excites you?
It’s exciting to see how augmented reality will change the way that work, learning, and everyday tasks are done. With access to information at our fingertips, the next challenge is how we deliver that information in a context appropriate manner that makes it easy to use. Rather than having to look up items on your phone and then translate it to what you’re doing, results would be context sensitive. For example, we’re starting to see instant translation of foreign languages via our phone’s camera and an app. To extend that, imagine that you want to understand how a certain machine works. You could just point a device at it giving you a full cross-sectional view, with animations and visualizations. Overlaying that with the real world will improve efficiency and accuracy, such as when performing maintenance or repairs on equipment.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I believe that frequent and precise communication with my team improves productivity. By taking a little bit of time up front to make sure we have buy-in or any concerns are heard, it saves long-term churn, miscommunication, and having to do work a second time due to a lack of clarity. As entrepreneurs, we tend to want to move very fast, so forcing ourselves to make sure we’re not bulldozing over valid concerns and differences of opinion actually leads to better long-term productivity. Team harmony and letting everyone feel like their opinion has been heard, even if the final decision is in a different direction, makes the whole organization more productive.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to take the time to get to know more people, especially in graduate school. It turns out that many of my classmates from Stanford are also running very successful companies. I was focused on getting the huge pile of work done and not as much on socializing and meeting everyone around me. I would tell my younger self to slow down and take the time to go out and get to know people more. We work with who we know, so building relationships is critical to long-term success, regardless of your field.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
That healthy eating can be tasty. Seriously, I really enjoy eating hummus and arugula sandwiches, but not everyone sees it that way. My kids have mentioned that we eat weird food, not like everyone else, since I’m all about organic, locally-sourced, and made from scratch food. Eating healthy is not only tasty, but a good use of time, but most people would rather just buy a quick bite to eat.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I track my time just like our billable engineers. This way I have the data on where I spend my time – how much of it is going to overhead activities like processing emails, vs. sales or strategy. I write down what I worked on every single day before I shut down my computer. As entrepreneurs, we tend to just work on the most urgent task at hand, but looking back at where our time has been spent is critical for evaluating what only you can do, and which items can be delegated. By constantly evaluating your own productivity, you can start to build the foundations of the team needed to grow your business. You can’t do it alone, so figuring out what items can be outsourced or delegated and being constantly vigilant of your own time and productivity affects how fast you can grow.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Our expansion into other geographic markets has opened the door not only to new clients in those regions, but has allowed us to make some key hires of engineers we would have not otherwise been able to attract. This has helped us not only grow our business via geographic expansion, but has also built a team with additional capabilities that can be used to generate new business across all of our offices. For example, the engineers in our newest office came in with more medical device experience, so in addition to opening up that geography, it augmented the team and made us stronger in that market companywide. This ultimately relates back to hiring the best people you can find, those that are smarter than you. Our growth wouldn’t be at the level it is without the amazing team we were able to hire.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
My biggest failure was not having the right systems and monitoring processes in place to give earlier warnings of a downturn in business, rather than just looking at lagging indicators like month-end financials and profit & loss reports. Looking at leading indicators like the sales pipeline would have allowed us to respond faster to a downturn that we had a few years ago. During that time, we ended up having to lay off a few employees to weather the reduced amount of revenue coming in the door. If we had the earlier warning systems in place, we may have been more successful in bringing in other work to make up for the downturn earlier. Since then we have improved our processes and systems, so we see what the future is likely to hold much earlier than when we review backward looking metrics like financial reports.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Given the technology trends in augmented and virtual reality and the fact that we use computer aided design (CAD) to do our engineering design work, I think there is a real business opportunity in the cross-section of those areas. Just like when we went from paper drawings to computer-aided 2D drawings, to 3D CAD, we’re poised for the next innovation. Currently, one of the longest portion of the design cycle is waiting to receive and actually touch, feel and assemble the parts, which has been much improved with 3D printing and rapid prototyping technologies. However, I think we could be even faster if there was a way to input a CAD design into a virtual reality system and then invite users to interact with it before anything is built. There could be a real business opportunity for the company who figures out how to do that seamlessly with the CAD systems that engineers are already using.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Buying authentic Polish sausages and great food for our company picnic this summer that we held in my backyard this summer. I was born in Poland, so I enjoy the opportunity to share my culture with others (and always enjoy trying food from other cultures as well). Spending money on good food that brings people together, either in a business or personal setting, is always worth it for me.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
We’ve adopted Atlassian tools (JIRA, Confluence) for our internal business process needs and for communicating project progress with our clients. We take meeting notes in Confluence which allows us to tag people in the notes and create action items. Then all the action items are automatically aggregated across all the meetings that each person has assigned to them. This means no longer needing to email out meeting notes or follow up on who was supposed to do what by when, since it’s all in one spot.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Eric Reis’ The Lean Startup is a good one for entrepreneurs too worried about creating the perfect product before showing it to potential clients and getting feedback early. I always tell aspiring entrepreneurs that the odds of anyone stealing your idea is incredibly low, until it’s proven to be a success. There are just too many unknowns and hard work to make an idea viable, so bounce it off of anyone who will listen (and apply for a provisional patent if it is something that can be patented).
What is your favorite quote?
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupery
• Invest time in meeting people and cultivating relationships
• Constantly evaluate where you spend your time and think of what you can delegate that doesn’t have to be done exclusively by you, even if you’re good at it and you like it.
• Spend the time seeking opinions other than your own and evaluating opposing view points in a genuine, interested way. You may just be surprised by what you learn.