Scott Castanon is the founder and President of Symbient Product Development. Here we present an interview with Scott where he shares the company’s history.
What made you decide to start the business?
I was working at a pharmaceutical company in San Diego. We worked in partnership with another organization, and after that went on for a while, the owner of that company asked if I would work for him. I accepted, and my wife Randy and I moved to New England. After a few years, the owner decided he wanted to retire, so I ran the business. I learned a lot. I did that for a couple of years and then eventually moved back to San Diego, where I met someone who had a lot of contacts in the medical field, as well as in the field of product development. That was huge because while I was in Maine, I was doing business development while also managing the business and the employees. I knew that I wanted it to be different when I came back to San Diego, and I didn’t want to do absolutely everything. I wanted a partner so they would handle the business development and I would manage the projects and employees, allowing me to do the things I preferred to do.
What did it take to be successful in this business? What factors drove Symbient to where it is today?
The most important thing is that we are different than the competition. Every successful business needs to distinguish itself. We don’t want to be just another product development company, and we didn’t just want a group of engineers behind computers sending the work out to service bureaus to be fabricated. In that scenario, you are at the mercy of their lead time and their quality, not your own.
I knew I wanted to specialize. It is easier to be successful if you specialize in an area you know which is relatively narrow. It is difficult to be a generalist and good at everything. I know plastics well, so I knew I would be successful in that field. Then, I could choose the equipment and projects that allow us to move faster than anyone else.
One of the first lessons I learned at my old job was that for every day a product isn’t on the market, it loses $1 million, so you should do anything you can to reduce its time to market. I took that to heart and bought hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment so we could shave months off the development schedule.
Also, I learned the importance of experience, processes, and equipment. For Symbient, part of our mechanical engineering for diagnostic devices is the molding system I developed that allows us to make robust molds in a week or less. A lot of molds take several weeks to get done. Speed is a significant advantage we have, and something no one else can match. When customers see the equipment and the rapid prototyping, machining, mold fabrication and assembly capabilities we have, along with laser welding, ultrasonic and heat sealing, plus all the different processes that go along with the assembly of medical devices, it’s impressive. No one else has this combination of equipment and processes, so it’s an easy choice for the customers to make, and that’s been the secret of our success.
What qualities and skills do you look for in an engineer?
We always need someone that has a little bit of experience out in the field, working with some sort of medical products, so they have had exposure. Entry-level engineers work as support to senior-level engineers who manage our less complex projects. Principal engineers need to fly solo and work on the most complex projects.
We strive to hire engineers and individuals who are creative, so we have an evaluation to help us find the right kind of person. We also need engineers with great communication skills which enable them to work with our customers. We like outgoing and confident individuals who can express that we can get the job done. Confidence, creativity, experience, and communication skills – that is a combination that isn’t easy to find.
How did family play a role in your success?
Meeting my wife Randy made a lot of this possible. Having Randy in charge of the money as CFO allowed me to focus on growing the business and on projects, as well as dealing with the employees.
Randy and I met at a job back in ’96 – she was in accounting and I was in engineering, and we eventually started the business. She served as the bookkeeper from day one. My son-in-law Jimmy started out doing testing and assisting the engineers. Then he moved to molding for a few years. After that, we taught him machining and solidworks, and he became an expert. Now he knows both the machining and molding well, and he is managing both of those operations. I’m fortunate that I am able to hand these huge aspects of the business to very capable family members who I trust, so I wouldn’t need to worry about those operations, and I can focus on other areas.
Final Thoughts from Scott
I’ve been fortunate to come along with some key people in management that have been helpful to our success. Identifying people that have the right motivation and excitement for this type of work is crucial. I could have not done this by myself. It’s really been about the people that have joined the company and have been instrumental to its success.
When I find someone that is a good fit, I do everything I can to retain them. Even when I sold the company to Gener8, which was a major moment in Symbient’s history, I made sure employee benefits and salaries would not be changed and I was still able to run the company my way. It’s everyone here that helps make this work.
Involving employees and sharing the performance of the company each quarter has been important to our success. We share our financial performance and talk about how we are growing in profitability. It helps make the work more enjoyable for employees when they know they have a direct effect on the company.
I take it to heart when employees bring something up that they need. Everyone gets a say in how the company operates, and I can be overruled. For example, when employees wanted to purchase a laser cutter, I didn’t think we had enough work to justify the cost. But we took a vote, I was overruled, and it turns out we use that machine quite often. It’s been a useful addition. I value listening to employees – it’s no secret at Symbient that I’m not always right even though I’m the owner!