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I caught up with Dugan Karnazes this year at AltiumLive and we discussed his new startup, Velocity Research, a one-stop shop for design made up of technical creatives. The Grand Rapids company is already doing design work for a variety of customers, from individuals to multinational companies.
Andy Shaughnessy: When someone mentioned that Dugan was here, I thought, “I bet I know who that is.”
Dugan Karnazes: There’s only one of me, I think.
Shaughnessy: We spoke last year, but since then, I understand you’ve stepped out on your own. Tell us about that.
Karnazes: I started Velocity Research in February of 2018 and switched over to doing that full-time this summer. It has been a very fun roller coaster ever since. We’re an on-demand talent pool of professional and technical creatives. I like the term “technical creative” because it speaks more to what we do, what engineering means, and what wakes you up in the morning. We offer services not only in electronic engineering but also in mechanical design and firmware design. We also do user experience, app development, and web development.
We’re trying to be a one-stop design shop for anyone who’s trying to make a product. We have all of the capabilities you need to do it. Not everyone needs all of them at the same time, so we listen to what people are really looking for and put the right people on the job. We have two other people who are internal to the company in addition to me, and a talent pool of 30 other professionals who I’ve embedded and worked with that are really solid at what they do.
Shaughnessy: Were you always planning to start your own company?
Karnazes: Yes, but the timeline was accelerated. I didn’t think I would be able to run my own shop until I was at least in my 40s. I became involved with Little Space Studio in Grand Rapids and was surrounded by other entrepreneurs who were doing professional, full-time work independently, which made me rethink my own timeline. I started with smaller jobs, and then by word of mouth, larger projects came in. It got to the point where I had to say no to a few large projects because I still had my full-time job. I didn’t want to do that anymore, so I made the jump and have not looked back.
Shaughnessy: What have been some of the challenges? Do you have any advice for somebody who might be considering starting their own company?
Karnazes: If you want to do full-time engineering, don’t start your own company. There’s a lot of other stuff that goes into running a company, but if you want more freedom and exposure to a lot of different needs, problems, and industries, then consider it; that’s why I wanted to do it. I wanted to solve more problems and get into cooler things.
Shaughnessy: Are you the only one doing PCB design?
Karnazes: I’m not the only one who does electronics, but I’m our Altium guru. Some clients want us to use Eagle, so I have someone else that I use for that. I also have CircuitStudio, so we have a few different options. For the really technical designs, we use Altium because of the capabilities. For some of the simpler stuff, people want to use Eagle because they can maintain the design without a full investment into Altium; that’s right for some customers, but not for the others.
Shaughnessy: I hear good things about Eagle. They have some fanatical users.
Karnazes: It has its niche, but Altium and Eagle are vastly different tools.
Shaughnessy: Who is your typical customer?
Karnazes: I don’t think I have a typical customer. I thought I might, but we have one startup company, Inductive Intelligence, doing interesting things with smart heating and food packaging. Amway is still a client of mine, too, and they’re an $8 billion company. I work with other design partners, as well. There’s a mechanical engineering firm in Holland, Michigan, where I’m helping with some of their electronics. We also work with individuals who have an idea for a product or an Arduino board that they want to take to the next step. We help hobbyists to massive corporations. We have a lot of different services, so we can help a lot of different people in various organizations.
With the explosion of IoT devices, there’s a whole niche in designing the product, getting it connected, and then getting it interfacing. It’s not just one product anymore but an ecosystem that you have to design. It has to be compatible with other ecosystems if it’s really going to thrive. That’s the niche that we have identified and where we’re focusing.
Shaughnessy: It sounds like you have room to grow as you need to organically with just three of you, and then contracting people as you need them.
Karnazes: A big part of what we do is making opportunities for those individuals too.
Shaughnessy: Do you have a brick-and-mortar office?
Karnazes: We’re in the Harris building in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. We have about 7,000 square feet, and there are a number of businesses that operate out of there. It’s a creative co-working space in a very fluid and artistic focused environment. We get to be the technical side in there. When you marry creative and technical, some really interesting things pop out.
Shaughnessy: That’s nice not having a whole big staff, so you don’t have to spend as much time on payroll and stuff like that.
Karnazes: That will come. We’re already looking at it, and it’s going to be something we deal with a lot more this year. A big part of what comes with running a company and an organization is establishing your culture. That’s one thing that you really feel here at Altium. You get a sense of what their company culture is like because they invite you into it, and you see that they care and listen; that’s something that I take pretty seriously too.
Shaughnessy: It’s good to have a fun culture. Work hard and play hard.
Karnazes: Fun, supportive, empowering, and compassionate. We want people to like what they’re doing. We want to listen to what they want to be and how they want to spend their time.
Shaughnessy: Very cool. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
Karnazes: Our website is velocityr.com, and we’re always looking for contractors. We focus on West Michigan and the Midwest, but we’re not exclusive to it. We’re always looking for designers, especially people who are proficient in Altium.
Shaughnessy: That’s the one bad thing about having 4% unemployment: There’s not a lot of people looking for work. I don’t know any designers who are out of work.
Karnazes: Exactly. Maybe some companies want a full-time person working on their projects, but some people don’t have the budget for that, so they’re looking for somebody who’s just trying to pick up something extra. That’s one of the strengths of our company—we can link that up so you can find a good solution.
Shaughnessy: A lot of companies say, “We’re not trying to be everything to everybody,” but it sounds like you are almost trying to do that.
Karnazes: We have a pretty broad range of interests. Exposure to a lot of things is what makes us strong, and in the coming years, that’s going to be a big factor for us. The more industries you get to see, the more ways you get to see opportunities. One of the talks yesterday was on software engineering techniques applied to hardware development. That kind of cross-collaboration is not a huge jump from software to hardware, but when you start looking at the way different industries are doing things and the way different products are developed in various industries, that’s where we’re positioning ourselves to help; cross-collaboration is one of our strengths.
Shaughnessy: Before this, what was your favorite subset of PCB design?
Karnazes: Wireless power, like the QI standard that’s used in iPhones and Android phones. The engineering team that developed that was all from Amway. Some of them have gone on to do other things in West Michigan, and we’re staying plugged in with that. Wireless power is a West Michigan niche, and it’s cool to see what’s happening out there.
Shaughnessy: Sounds great. Well, thanks for your time, Dugan, and good luck with your company. Maybe a designer looking for a new gig will read this.
Karnazes: That would be great. Thank you, Andy.