Making Something From Nothing: Ned Hill Of Position Imaging On How To Go From Idea To Launch

Posted On December 11, 2022

Originally Posted At

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Find the right investors, not just the first investors: I can get into many horror stories but will just say it is much, much easier and more effective to grow a company with investors that you trust and can bring something to the table vs. just money, especially if this IS your first rodeo.

As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ned Hill.

Ned Hill is the founder and CEO of Position Imaging (PI), a pioneer in advanced tracking technologies. Under Ned’s strategic vision and guidance, PI has developed industry leading AI and computer vision-based platforms, Smart Package Room and iPickup, that improve package delivery logistics efficiency for residential and retail markets. He has also raised over $40 million in funding, driven technology, product, and application development, and created a global partner ecosystem including industry leading couriers, hardware and software companies, and service providers. Ned graduated from University of Massachusetts, Amherst with a B.S. in Economics and is the inventor or co-inventor of over 60+ patents/patent applications. He has been a leading industry speaker on topics such as eCommerce Fulfillment, Asset Tracking Technology, Smart Retail Technology and Artificial Intelligence.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Sure. I am the product of a single mom with an absentee dad, living hand to mouth for most of my childhood. My father was always the “unfulfilled potential” example to me growing up; a brilliant mind, full boat through Harvard MBA, a great athlete (won state tennis singles championship), great career with the Navy, etc. But, he never lived up to his potential. He was a problem drinker and lacked the drive and work ethic that are crucial to success in business and life. My mom always taught me that no matter how smart you think you are, if you don’t put in the work, you will never amount to what you could be in life. That lesson combined with being a relatively poor kid taught me that if I wanted to make something out of my life and live without the same financial hardships I knew as a kid, I better get to work!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have several Life Lessons that I repeat here at the company all the time. As strange as it sounds, I think you can really help yourself through difficult times if you remind yourself of certain key quotes or sayings that you have in your back pocket.

One saying I often use is the question: “How do you eat an elephant?”….One bite at a time!” This is particularly useful to our company as we work to make an enormous impact in the world and as a small company we need to be focused and not get overwhelmed by the gravity of the venture as a whole. Stay focused on the small bites and before you know it, you’ve eaten an elephant!

Another saying I use often at work and at home is “The hard road and the right road are often the same.” Sometimes you are faced with difficult decisions on paths to take in work and in life. Most times, if you really analyze the options, the harder roads are the right ones, even though it is human nature to take the easier path, because, well, it’s easier! I’m not saying you should always take the harder road, I’m not a masochist! BUT, I do think that if you look back at the important choices you have made in your life, most of the right decisions were also the heaviest lifts….

Another saying I use all the time is “He who laughs last, laughs best.” I remind my teammates and my son often that this is a very powerful notion and true aspect of life. If you’ve put up the hard work, remain focused on your convictions, and believe in yourself, you will end up in a good place and will be able to laugh knowing, in the end, you were right and earned the rewards!!

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Glengarry Glen Ross is a movie that struck me as a kid. First, it was tense and showed a sign of sales that is dark and scary. I never wanted to end up in a boiler room schlepping products or services like they did in this movie. That was very depressing to me and guided me to avoid ending up in that environment. Second, it showed a good tool in sales, “ABC” (Always Be Closing). While I don’t subscribe to pressure sales, I do appreciate that even if you aren’t willing to become a prototypical pushy salesperson, you still need to ask for the order!

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?

I often say there are millions of million dollar ideas and the reality is, that’s true. There is no shortage of great ideas but only a few have the “stuff” to become actual businesses. Although I could never be the judge and jury on idea quality, I can say there are some helpful guidelines to narrow the field.

The first is that you need both uniqueness and leverage for a winning product. Important elements of your solution should be either difficulty to replicate or painful to get around. These elements can be from patents, trade secrets, special teams, or key relationships with big partners in the industry you are targeting. Somewhere in your solution there needs to be a protectable position because, if the market opportunity is big enough, big players will eventually come in to challenge you. As Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I will move the world”. In this case, know where to stand (what are your strengths) and develop that lever with relationships and/or IP and you can leverage and, if done right and with some luck, you CAN actually move the world!

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

I think one of the most under-utilized resources when evaluating new ideas is doing patent searches. When you develop your idea into a tight and concise description, you can either have a patent attorney do some research or you can do it yourself (made much easier today via Issued patents can tell you not only what is already protected, they can also tell you what is NOT protected. If something isn’t protected yet, then you have a good path ahead. If something is already patented, that also may be OK because every good idea is based on other existing products or ideas. You can use those existing patents/products to either circumvent the patented solution or think about what is next AFTER this patented solution. Thinking two steps ahead is always a better approach for both getting patents and getting to a truly unique and trailblazing solution. Don’t think about how great your product may be today, think about how great the NEXT product is going to be tomorrow and use that knowledge of the existing patents/products to help get to that next product.

For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

The steps for getting products to market are many but I would always start with a patent search on your idea. This tells you if you need to innovate beyond the initial idea (in case the idea is already patented) or file a patent on your concept. You need to produce a description of the product and then use those key phrases to do a patent search. You can do these initial searches yourself and then, depending on the results, bring in a patent attorney to do a formal search.

Once you have developed the patent concept and filed an application, you can work to build that innovative product. You may have to do some work to build this product but you’ll need something because in the end, very rarely will anyone fund or sell just an idea. So, this is where you put in the work and potentially where you have to spend some money. This initial product may be a proof of concept or simple prototype but without it, you just have an idea, and that just isn’t enough.

After you have developed this product, you can start to look for the right partner to help you sell it. But, this partner will need to be convinced you have something that is protected and valuable and after filing the patent (so you can tell them it’s “patent pending”), you need to produce metrics to show how big the opportunity is, who your customer is, and how you are going to execute. This business plan doesn’t need to be a 1000 page report but does need to be compelling. You need to do your homework and show why this is an important product/solution in a large and growing market. This takes doing your homework, a lot of homework, but needs to be done because you won’t convince anyone to invest or partner with you if you haven’t done your research to show why you may have the next killer product opportunity.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?

  1. Find the right investors, not just the first investors: I can get into many horror stories but will just say it is much, much easier and more effective to grow a company with investors that you trust and can bring something to the table vs. just money, especially if this IS your first rodeo.
  2. People love to be naysayers or tell you that “they” thought of this before: Forget about them, they are jealous of your drive and ambition. Stay focused, take any empirical data from them that makes sense, then forget the rest. This is your baby and you should know that if you are honest and true, you will overcome limitations or shortcomings in your product (it’s never perfect and the best products evolve with real world data).
  3. It’s harder and will take longer than you think: The days of killer apps getting funded then bought for huge money are over. You need to do the work to create something unique and valuable and that takes time. Be prepared for that. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
  4. You can do more than you think: When I started, I used to leave the “tech” talk to others and just be the “idea guy”. That was a lazy and unrealistic position and cost me in the end. You need to become an expert in all things or at least well versed in all aspects of your company. This will help you, the product, the company, and your likelihood of success.
  5. Find a great life partner: Entrepreneurship is hard and is a long road. If you have a good spouse or life partner by your side that will support your hard work and understand the kind of grind you will endure to get this dream realized, then you have already won, the rest is house money. Coming home to a loving partner will be invaluable to your efforts when most of the day will be dealing with people telling you no or that your idea isn’t good. You need support and if you are lucky enough to find that person, I’d say you’re lucky enough.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

I would do a ton of research on the market the product idea would be addressing and see what else is out there. If the market is clear of competitors or even if it has competitors but you can evolve the product idea into something that is better than what is currently out there, then you’re ready to do some patent searching. When both market competition and patents look clear, then you’re ready to file your patent to at least get to that critical “patent pending” status. When you have patent pending status, you show that there is something that MAY be protectable AND you have a confidential position to leverage (no one can see your patent details when it’s pending). When this product and patent research work is done, then you’re on the way to build it!!

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

NEVER, EVER hire a product consultant to do the work for you. For one thing, they likely don’t know as much about the product or market as you do. They also would rob you from doing the critical research to identify and codify the product opportunity. You need to learn about what you are trying to build, not use someone else to do it for you. Strike out on your own, make mistakes, and if you have to, bring others in to help you with the work, but not do it for you.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

I am a big fan of bootstrapping vs. venture capital but in the end, it’s likely a moot point anyway. Unless you are a Nobel laureate, no VC will fund you unless you have done some bootstrapping to bring the solution far enough along to fund. Those paper napkin blank check days are over! Do the work, bootstrapping as you go, and eventually, if needed, you’ll find the money.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I look around my company, at the great people that I get to work with everyday, and know that if I didn’t take the risks and work this hard and eat crow for years, none of these people would be working here. I am lucky enough to have created a special company with a unique culture that I guarantee will lead to other future companies and future innovations. In the end, these people will make the world a better place. Using the scar tissue I now have to help my team prepare themselves for their next adventures, mentoring them to become the next great business and technology leaders in the US, is a huge source of pride in what I do and energizes me to keep pushing ahead.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am personally committed to giving back after my company. “Giving back” doesn’t mean donating money because that would be the easy part. After the journey I have had creating technologies/products and the lessons I have learned as a result, I realized long ago that after I leave this company, I will apply that experience to other pressing issues that are important to me. I have become a technologist and product person from this work and am committed to leverage that knowledge to help the world mitigate climate change.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Steve Jobs was always a hero in business to me and incredibly we have people in this company that used to work with Steve. I always wanted to meet and engage with him on product and technology challenges but sadly he is no longer with us. Today there are many people that I think are groundbreakers; Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Brian Cornell, Max Levchin, Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, Dean Kamen, and of course, Tom Brady!….OK, I’m a big Patriots fan!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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