EiR Spotlight: Bob Salem

Experts in Residence Spotlight
November 21, 2017 By Hai Truong

Bob Salem brings over 30 years of product management and marketing to the high technology market, with extensive experience in taking products from idea to commercialization, and all stages in between and onward. His career highlights include being part of three startups, two of which were eventually acquired. In the corporate world, he was involved in the acquisition and integration of several startup companies, an experience that gives him the unique insight of both sides of an acquisition.

Graduating from UC Irvine as an electrical engineer, Salem started as a design engineer before moving to product line management and marketing. Until recently, he managed products as diverse as processors, communication interfaces, and software design IP. During this time, Salem saw significant changes in the market. Salem has observed that today, a successful product manager must consider complete ecosystems (hardware, software, partners, manufacturers, and competitors), not just simply the features and benefits.

He has been involved in mobile computing, Internet of Things (IoT), storage, optics, and the Autonomous Driver Assistance System (ADAS). When Salem is not helping the Wayfinder program’s cohort of startups, he is consulting for clients as diverse as a fabless semiconductor company developing a high-speed communications product to consumer class security systems.

Q1.  Given your expertise in innovation and technology as they relate to business development, what are the most common challenges companies face in trying to drive market uptake within the ecosystem?

This is actually a two-part question. Note that I am using the term product in a general way, it could mean actual physical product, service, or information a company provides.

The first part of the question is that a company should always ask itself, “Why should the market care?” Some of the more common answers are that “It will save you _______ !” where you fill in the blank with money, time, and/or other resources. The market is actually looking for an answer to the question “How is what you are offering currently being addressed in the market today? Will your company offering be attractive enough to persuade the market to switch?” Here is an example to help think about the subtle but important differences between the two. What drove the popularity of the microwave at the time of its introduction? Was it to reduce cooking time or to replace helpers (a person who was no longer available)?

The second part of the question actually exposes the fallacy of the often misquoted saying, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” The truth is that the world does not care about your product if it doesn’t know about it, because you have not evangelized the product and created an ecosystem to support it. A classic example of this is the Psion. What is the Psion, you ask? It developed the first PDA which morphed into the smartphone that is now dominated by iOS and Android. Both iOS and Android did not become the successes they are today without evangelizing, partners, channels, and marketplace developments that provide a complete ecosystem. Companies do not have to create a new ecosystem from scratch but should make sure that there is an ecosystem to support their product.

Q2. How do you determine whether a business ecosystem is susceptible to new technology disruption and how do you determine unmet product needs in the market?

The answer to this question is quite simple. Any and all business ecosystems are susceptible to new technologies. Your company is no different. The only difference may be how quickly a product might be replaced by new technologies.

Do not despair however if you are an early stage company, you can succeed despite the harsh environment of a competitive market. It does require that you have a roadmap of what your company will produce. You do not need a detailed plan, especially if you are struggling to get the first product out. Having a roadmap will help you in the following ways: clarify your mission statements, focus your strategy, optimize development costs by over many derivatives, provide a process for market’s feedback to influence next product derivative, and a coherent story to potential investors.

As for determining your customers’ unmet product needs, you must really listen to them. What I mean by “listen” is not to simply hear what they say, but to understand the reasons and motivations behind what they say. Today, some of the more innovative companies are “listening” by living their customer’s life for a day — observing everything they do and how they interact with the company’s product. When you live your customer’s life, don’t be surprised when your company develops a product that will propel you to success.

Q3. What is some advice you would give to technology businesses seeking to reach the next level of growth?

Early stage companies are always juggling resources and time. Many are struggling to even make it through the next three months, so it is easy to ignore long-term planning. It is counterintuitive to advise these companies to take time to identify what and where they want to be in three to five years. The plan does not have to be detailed. Actually, I advise against an overly detailed plan as it will most likely change once you have market and/or technical feedback. But, the plan will provide these companies their general direction, and the so-called roadmap and mission statement that will help guide the companies.

Having a grand plan was behind Kennedy’s successful execution of his vision to land a man on the moon. This is, in many ways, how Musk’s vision to colonize Mars drives the Space-X plan. If it is good enough for Kennedy and Musk, why not for UC Irvine’s Wayfinder cohorts?
Vision is not enough, businesses need to instill a culture of action. An action is needed to move a business from zero to one ( A term originally coined by Peter Thiel that clearly captures the task – http://zerotoonebook.com/). Decide on a plan of action, execute quickly, reassess at specified milestones, and then move again. Many businesses fail because too much time is spent getting the perfect product, anticipating all possible outcomes, or being afraid of making a mistake. Mistakes will happen, successful companies will learn from their mistakes and move on.