Over the next few weeks, I will be covering product development from idea generation through launch and scaling. Product development is a long process with many hurdles to get over, however, if you approach it correctly and do your homework it can be an exciting ride as you create something from just an idea and watch it grow in sales and market acceptance. I will guide you through product development best practices and show how to avoid common and costly mistakes.
Identify A Problem
The best products are created out of a need to solve an irritating problem that many people experience. Whether you’re a business looking to create a new product line or an entrepreneur looking to launch a new startup, the first step in product development is identifying an irritating problem. There are many ways to go about doing this.
In your work or hobbies, you may have found an experience that is irritating where you ask “why has no one come up with a better way?”
One example of this is Spanx®. In 2000, Sara Blakely got frustrated with the current offerings of pantyhose after being unable to find a pair that didn’t have seemed toes or rolled up her legs. While many others had surely experienced this same problem, Sara was the first to decide to do something about it. She immediately began work on a prototype and secured her patent. She then began developing Spanx® to the where it is today, generating over $250 million in revenue. Spanx® is just one of many examples of an individual entrepreneur finding a frustrating problem that is widely known and turning it into a life-changing opportunity with years of work.
Get Out The Door
If you work for an already established company or are an inventor in need of inspiration then its time to get out the door and talk to people. Your customers and people within your target industry have problems that are in need of better solutions. Not only does getting out and talking to people provide great insights into product opportunities, but it will also help build brand loyalty by listening to your customers.
Before visiting those in your target industry, you will want to create a customer discovery report card to fill out during your visit. Below is an example customer discovery report card to use that can be revised to better suit your needs.
Example Customer Discovery Report Card
One example of this is DeWalt®. With approximately 12,000 members in their product testing community, DeWalt® gains insights into the current frustrations with products which allows them to act on opportunities. Thanks to the insights DeWalt® had gained through their program they were able to act on the need for a miter saw that could cut commonly used 11-1/4″ deep lumber sections in one single pass. Although their first 12″ double-bevel sliding compound miter saw came with a high sticker price of $400 in a market filled with $150 miter saws, thanks to advantages of the increased depth and power, sales of their new miter saw took off. Contractors no longer needed to rotate long lumber sections to get a full cut which significantly increased productivity making the high cost easy to swallow. Since DeWalt® began their program, other tool companies have begun to also start tool tester programs of their own in order to keep up in a highly competitive market.
Find A Solution – Identify The Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
Now that you’ve identified a problem in the market its time to find a solution to it. To do this create a minimum feature list that is needed to solve the problem you’re addressing. Also include other product properties that may be crucial to the product’s success such as weight, ease of use, and more. Once you have a minimum viable product features list get out the door again and talk to more potential customers to determine the accuracy of your list. At this time it is common to go through multiple iterations prior to reaching a feature list that accomplishes your goal while not having any extra features that could complicate the product and increase costs without adding value.
It may be tempting at this time to add features that are only requested by individual potential customers. However, in order to keep costs low and to simplify your first product, it is critical to focus on only features that are absolutely needed to solve the potential problem. With time and future iterations, product features can be added to incorporate user demand.
During this time you will also want to perform an initial patent search. We recommend using both patents.google.com and www.uspto.gov for your patent search. The broader your patent can be, the stronger the patent is. It’s critical to not publish your idea prior to filing a provisional patent. Publishing your idea can disqualify it from being patented due to no longer being considered “novel”. Provisional patents are more affordable patents that give an inventor one year to develop and market their idea prior to filing a more expensive and complete utility patent. While a patent attorney will include a patent search in their services, if you’re looking to save money it’s critical to perform a patent search yourself prior to seeking our an attorney. Attorneys also are not perfect with patent searches and do occasionally miss patents that may disqualify your idea from being patent-able or may require it to become more specific and therefore weaker. Also know that as your idea and product develop, your patent may need to develop alongside it.
Develop An Initial Design
With the minimum viable product feature list determined its time to generate an initial product design. To do this you can begin by sketching out basic designs of the MVP. If you also have Computer-Aided Design (CAD) Software such as Autodesk Fusion 360, Autodesk Inventor, or SolidWorks you can begin creating a 3D design of your initial prototype. Most manufacturers will require drawings which are typically developed through the use of CAD software. For quality prototypes, you will also want the capability to use Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining which requires a Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) file. Quality manufacturing processes require fully specified components. In order to generate fully specified components and eliminate the potential for clearance issues we strongly recommend using CAD software to generate component and assembly models of your prototype.
If your product experiences any loading as most products do, an analysis is required to deliver a quality design that can withstand use. The alternative to performing an analysis is to iterate with a guess and check method which can add significant costs and time to the product development phase and doesn’t output an optimized design.
To assist with the development of the initial design, ASR offers a wide range of services including mechanical engineering design and analysis, manufacturing support, product testing and validation, and business support. We will work with you to develop an initial design for your product based on a supplied feature list and any other material you can provide. We will generate CAD renderings, manufacturing drawings, and a presentation which you can show to your potential customers for additional feedback. Once we are given direction to continue our design process we can generate an advanced computer model of your product to analyze it for potential loading scenarios in order to optimize the design to deliver adequate durability while minimizing manufacturing costs. Once we have developed an optimized initial design for your product, we can move forward with support for manufacturing prototypes.
Common Mistakes To Avoid
- Be cautious of biases in product ideas. While you may believe a product idea could be the next big thing to hit the market, it’s critical to first get feedback from those in your target market. You may be surprised by what you find when you start talking to potential customers.
- Always get unbiased feedback on a product before trying to go to market. While many people will tell their product ideas only to their friends and family, it’s uncommon to receive quality feedback on your product idea from those close to you.
- Make sure you can deliver your product for a price people are willing to pay. Observe market pricing trends and perceived value of features and solutions. While occasionally something big comes around that completely changes the pricing of a market such as Starbucks charging $4.00 for a cup of coffee in a market used to only pay $1.00. These big market shifts in pricing are the exception and not the rule. What’s far more common is being directly compared to your competitors on price and if you aren’t in the same ballpark, customers will simply move on before looking closer at your advantages.
- Competing on price is very difficult. While you may believe that if you can just reduce the price of a product or solution by 10 or 20% in order to win over customers on lower cost alone. Established brands have a huge lead in manufacturing experience of their product giving them significant advantages in manufacturing efficiency. Brand recognition is also crucial when dealing with retail and gaining customers. Offering a new innovative solution that fixes a painful problem does far more to building your brand compared to simply reducing the price of an already successful product that another brand is known for supplying.
- Don’t focus on winning just 1% of a market. While it can be tempting to look at a multi-billion dollar market and saying “if I can just get 1% of that market then we could make it”. In practice, this is far harder than it sounds. Either your product is going to be a great solution to a problem for a market or it won’t be. When a market identifies a great solution to a painful problem something magical happens, word of mouth can begin to spread increasing your sales. For all of these reasons, gaining the first 1% or even 0.1% of a market can be the most challenging. Earning 1% of a market still requires having a viable solution and communicating your advantages over your competition. It’s far better to be growth driven. Focus on gaining compound growth by providing great solutions, earning a strong brand reputation, executing on your idea and promises, and being consistent with your work.
Read our next post in the product development series covering prototyping and beta-testing.