Archive for the ‘Product Development’ Category

Prototyping New Products: What You Can Learn from an Industry Pro

By admin on May 6, 2011 | Category: Product Development | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off

I recently heard a talk by David Small, of Shoot the Moon products, at Hacker Dojo in Mountain View, CA. Shoot the Moon products is an uber-successful product development and invention firm in the toy industry.  Toy industry giants like Mattel, Fisher Price, and Hasbro often look outside the company to inventors and firms like Shoot the Moon, for their breakthrough products and ideas.  Shoot the Moon has had a lot of success with this–with a track record of over 100 product lines developed and licensed, creating roughly $2 Billion in retail sales. These guys are pros.

David, one of the cofounders of the firm, led the audience through several of their biggest hits, such as Laser tag, and showing videos of Elmo and Talking Teddy, two animatronic toys that were very successful in their time.  He then walked through their latest creation, to be released this June by Mattel.  Enter the doll, Fijit.

Starting concept ideation back in 2008, Small highlighted to the audience that it took their expert team 3 years before they would get their product to market. Creating a new product line that was to represent the cutting edge in toys, make kids go crazy with desire, and inspire images of hockey stick growth curves in toy industry execs, is not a feat that would be accomplished without years of hard work.

I think two of the most important takeaways that emerged from his talk were that 1) figuring out how to bring the product to life involved solving numerous, complex problems, the solving of which, led to many new problems, and 2) they used everyday materials, from whatever source they could find, to build out the prototype  It was not easy.

Let’s take #1.  In the ultra-competitive toy industry, price points are crucial, margins are thin, and therefore, cost is king.  Developing the killer new toy technology at a cost that is going to allow for affordable toy pricing, can be extremely challenging.  Anyone could have used high-end technology and disregarded assembly and part cost to build a product like Fijit.  The key was doing it at the amazing retail price point of $49.99.  This required problem-solving to create the desired capabilities as efficiently as possible.  They needed to make a doll that could pull off multiple movements in all directions, but only use a minimum of motors, battery power, and parts to do it. This took a great deal of engineering work and involved several dead-ends. When they finally developed a solution, they realized they had created a new problem: the skins (exterior of the doll) that they typically used with dolls, would not work with this setup.  The victory of the first challenge quickly created the tough work of solving the second–finding a material that would work.

The search for Fijit’s exterior skin was on.  Remember, these guys are familiar with all kinds of materials and have experts at their disposal. They looked at several materials, including plush, and needed to find a material that would house the guts of the doll safely, be flexible enough to move in a variety of directions, and soft and cuddly to the touch.  They went through a lot of options with no luck. They eventually found solution. A very soft, stretchy, rubbery plastic in…another toy.  When questions of prototype building comes up with entrepreneurs, I often encourage them to find and loot whatever off-the-shelf products they can for useful materials.  Not everything must be created from scratch and walking the aisles of stores is the fastest and cheapest way to see what’s out there that you can use.  Not only did David and his team find the plastic toy that used this material, but they bought it and spent painstaking hours taking it apart so it would be usable in their prototype.  It might sound like this is very difficult, and it may be.  But I can assure you that it is usually a faster method than describing a hypothetical material and talking to industry people and vendors to see if such a thing exists somewhere…out there…in the world.  Start with what’s in stores.  Loot existing products and materials that are easily accessible.  Get your hands dirty and be creative.

There can be a lot of dead-ends in new product development.  We spend a lot of time and resources traveling down the exploratory path of sussing out various materials and designs, only to find that they don’t work for some small reason.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we were foolish not to see the problems early on and save ourselves the time.  Well, as David lamented, even the pros go through this very process.  They might go through certain stages faster (even though Fijit development spanned several years), but the product development process is full of uncertainty.  As I mention in this blog post, like startup businesses, the goal is to fail quickly and cheaply, and iterate to success.  Even Thomas Edison described his invention development as a process of getting through failures to hit success.

Fijit is a very impressive toy, at an even more impressive price point.  It won’t be long till we see if 6 year old girls and parents everywhere agree.  Hopefully, for Shoot the Moon, their persistence pays off handsomely.

Prototyping for Success (and Failure): The Value of the Prototype in Design, Development, and Sourcing

By GSS on November 18, 2009 | Category: Product Design,Product Development,Product Innovation | Comments Off

I've recently been reading a bit from IDEO founder, Tim Brown, on design thinking and the importance of prototyping in IDEO's design culture.  IDEO is one of the leading product innovation and design companies in the world. I posted the above video because it quickly captures the reasoning behind why IDEO encourages utilizing prototypes extensively in the design process.  I love the question the video begins with: "How can somebody become great at failing cheaply and quickly?"  The concept of failing fast and failing cheaply is widely promoted by successful entrepreneurs and innovators as a way to reach a successful product or business model through innovation.  Devorah Klein (in the above video) and Eric Saperstein, of IDEO, gave a speech at the 2008 Nantucket Conference, Design Thinking for Entrepreneurs: Identifying New Markets and Developing the Winning Product or Service (h/t blogger Simeon Simneonov) which I thought gave a great snapshot of IDEO's process.  Some main points:

  • Focus on Desirability (As captured by Simeon: The core of the IDEO philosophy starts with a focus on desirability. Come up with something people want then figure out how to optimize the technical and business aspects of it.)
  • Get Inspiration:

    • Spent time with people, both current customers and people who you’d want to have as customers. Develop deep empathy. 
    • Imagine what the future could be. Do not constrain your thinking. 
    • Embrace failure. Failure is data. 
    • Build to think. The act of creation helps you see things in a different light. 
    • Build low-res prototypes. Paper is OK. Iterate quickly. Generate many options. Be passionate about your prototypes but evaluate them dispassionately. 
    • Build it yourself. It’s another way to get yourself to see things from a different perspective. 

In the successful product development projects and entrepreneurial ventures I've been involved with, executives and managers have always been extremely involved in the prototyping phases, often building the prototypes themselves.  If possible, build it on your kitchen table or in your workroom with whatever handy materials you can find.  By getting your hands dirty, you become fully acquainted with the ins-n-outs of your product.  Think of the early stages as play and allow your mind to roam freely.  

Understanding the emphasis on the iterative nature of this process is key.  Although it's fun to tell and hear stories of entrepreneurs having a dream one night about a product that went on to great sales success, the truth is that most successful product developers and entrepreneurs have a substantial amount of failure under their belt that we don't hear as much about.  Think: that old Michael Jordan commercial in which he talks about every game winning shot or free throw he missed, or Thomas Edison saying that he didn't mind failing over 100 times before he reached his successful lightbulb, because he knew that each failure brought him one step closer to success.  One is much more likely to develop a successful path to market by doing the hard, but fun, work of developing several iterations until something desirable and viable is reached.  

Referring back to my last post on developing empathy for those that might use your product, this goes for more than just listening to your users or potential users.  Involving your partners in the supply chain to foster collaborative innovation will help you develop a solution that accounts for the whole lifecycle of a product.  On the manufacturing side, through prototype iterations, one can discover and work to eliminate design elements that might cause snags in manufacturing and assembly.  

Thus, when it comes to the design and development of a product, although many see this as a linear process, it's important that valuable feedback later in the project–say, from a manufacturers point of view, can work it's way back into "earlier" points of the design process and change the design accordingly.  This is why it is important to fail cheaply in the beginning–because spending lots of money on something that is likely to change later in the process burns cash needlessly.  

Once the design begins to solidify somewhat, one might need to move towards more mechanical rapid prototyping processes to gain and share information more effectively.  This post on MindTribe's blog, a Silicon Valley engineering firm, does a great job of explaining some of the various forms of rapid prototyping, such as stereolithography (SLA), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Polyjet, and Machining processes.  

From a sourcing perspective, the prototype is immensely helpful.  Not only will it spur feedback regarding the design from a manufacturers perspective, it is often critical in communicating an enormous amount of information on the product's look, function, and construction.  If a picture speaks a thousand words, a prototype speaks a million.  One is much more likely to arrive at accurate projections and quotations of cost in the sourcing process, when manufacturing vendors can see, touch, feel, smell, and hear what they are to be producing.  

If your product or business is not enjoying the success you would like to see, perhaps you are still just in the prototyping stage and x number of iterations away from success.

DripTech: Solving Some of the World’s Water Challenges Through Product Development for Extreme Affordability

By GSS on July 21, 2009 | Category: Product Development | Comments Off

Waterdrip Watering plants may be as easy as filling a glass or turning on a hose for Americans, but for 600 million small farmers in developing countries, it's not so easy.  If they can't simply turn on a faucet or a spigot to get water to their crops, how could it be done in a way that they can realistically use?  And, who is going to develop a product that might change the way they irrigate their plants?

The San Francisco Chronicle has covered the story of DripTech, a company that is developing an affordable drip irrigation system for farmers in developing countries.  According to the International Water Management Institute, 600 million small farmers lack irrigation water and are therefore mired in poverty.  

Conceived in the Stanford graduate class, Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability, Driptech founder, Peter Frykman, began tinkering with off-the-shelf water timers and tube components from stores like Home Depot, to see if he could develop a system that solved irrigation challenges for farmers who were not able to grow crops during long dry seasons.  Of course, given the target market, cost was a major constraint to work within.  Not only did Peter need to solve the challenge of creating a system that would achieve crop irrigation in a simple fashion, but he needed to develop a product that could be manufactured easily and sold cheaply, to spur widespread adoption. International Development Enterprises had already developed a system over the last ten years that provided an irrigation system for poor, developing country farmers, and had successfully sold their system to 85,000 farmers in India.  However, an added layer of complexity in IDE's system has hindered them from reaching a wider consumer base.  

DripTech's technological breakthroughs have resulted in a reduction of total parts and installation time by over 80%.  Given their improvements, they are now setting their sights on the 100 million poor, rural farmers in India, as well as other possible customers in other countries and contienents.  DripTech's product development success is also helping them to gain media attention and investors are beginning to take notice.  The company has been featured in BusinessWeek, Forbes, and Red Herring, and they have advanced to the finals of the Draper Fisher Jurveston & Cisco Global Business Plan Competition.  

DripTech is a great example of how working within extreme constraints to develop products can result in simple, elegant solutions, that could help to solve major, world challenges.

Want to see how others are creatively solving water challenges?  Check out PlayPumps International to see adevice that combines play on a merry-go-round and water pumps.  Also, Charity: Water is another interesting organization that uses it's PR and marketing prowess to connect companies and people in developed countries with communities in Africa that need water solutions.

Manufacturing the Ipod Shuffle: How Apple Produces Great Products at Great Prices

By GSS on April 30, 2009 | Category: Product Development | 1 Comment

Shuffle-black BusinessWeeks' Technology section ran an article this month, Deconstructing Apple's Tiny Ipod Shuffle (h/t Supply Excellence), that takes a shot at explaining how Apple has managed to create its latest, buttonless MP3 dynamo.  Based on data supplied by ISuppli, a company which opens up consumer electronics products and estimates the cost of components (not including costs associated with design, software, manufacturing, and shipping, the hard cost of the latest Shuffle is estimated at $21.77, or 28% of retail price ($79).  Some interesting points:

  • Apple's mp3 player competitor, Samsung, who makes semiconductors, supplies Apple with some of their most important and highest cost components: the main application chip and flash memory.
  • The lithium ion battery is the smallest which iSuppli analysts have ever seen and the passive components, resistors and capacitors, are exceptionally small–indicating Apple's use of cutting edge components across the board.
  • Except for the power switch, there are no actual buttons on the Shuffle.  All volume and track controls have been moved to the headphones cord.

In my mind, these all add up to what Apple does a wonderful job of in their handhelds: making great, cutting-edge products at prices that the masses are willing to pay.  Pretty simple.  One of the resources they've developed which I think allows them to accomplish this is their intimate understanding of their customers.  Understanding that the forfeiture of button controls on the device itself, to reduce cost/size, would be acceptable to consumers, and perhaps even seen as adding the aesthetic of the device, is impressive. "It's almost like six dollars worth of flash memory tied to some flash
and a battery and not much else," Rassweiler says (iSuppli's analyst). "It's very basic and
downsized."  In a consumer electronics market where devices are usually outfitted to death with features–Apple has achieved excellence in distilling devices down to the necessary, or the few most desired features, while at the same time opening up new form factors and price points that in turn open sales up to new customers. 

Perhaps I am biased, as I am a mac, Iphone, Ipod user.  But, if they're making a substantial profit margin, I believe they've earned it.  When I get a device that works as wonderfully and reliably as my Macbook, I am happy to pay it.  

High-Quality Manufacturing is so “in”! How Can You Get Some?

By GSS on January 10, 2008 | Category: Product Development | Comments Off

Zoolander_2
Getting quality product from offshore manufacturers entails laying out and adhering to a development process.  Time to market is important, but delivering poor-quality product is probably worse than delaying your ship date a bit.  If I buy a product and it doesn’t live up to it’s promise (translation: it’s a piece of &$#@), you better believe that I’m not going back to that brand. 

To build quality INTO your products, consider the steps in the process that may need to take place and the time you may need to accomplish them.  Below is an example GANTT chart (you should be able to click on it to open it) for a product development schedule of a consumer electronic product I just came up with (this one is pretty cool and if 1% of the human market buys one, man…)

Example_gantt_chart_for_blog_3

This is a pretty raw chart, meaning it’s not based on a whole lot of information, and activity timelines could lengthen or shorten a bit depending on the issues that arise, the kind of product, etc.  This particular product requires complex, high-quality injection molding.

We’re at least 6 months out from being production ready.  What’s taking so long?  Well…

  • Production Package Release: The company has provided a full design package including industrial designs, parts drawings, Bill of Materials, and Specifications.  This is important.  It lays out exactly what the product will do, look, feel, and how. 
  • Factory Review/Component Sourcing/Costing:  A factory then needs to review all the materials received, answer any initial questions, go out and contact the appropriate suppliers, review relevant information with them, assemble all of the initial production and cost information, and pass that back onto the company.  It’s similar to the telephone game you played in Kindergarten, only harder.
  • Looks-like/Works-like Prototype Build: If the company builds a prototype, this will give them a good indication that the factory is nailing down the concept on their end and may provide the company with something to show the market, investors, etc.
  • Contract Negotiation/Prototype Approval: There’s usually some back-and-forth with the factory regarding costs.  There will also likely be some modifications made to the prototype after the company’s review, until the prototype is "approved" by the company.
  • Tooling Release (start):  Upon the approval of the prototype, the company issues a tooling release to the factory.  It’s time to build those big steel molds so that we can shoot molten plastic into them a million times or more.  The timeline on this may vary quite a bit.  Usually, 3 weeks or so is a minimum.  But, if my satellite imaging/dog feeder/garlic dicer needs to have specific finishes on the plastic to give them that sleek and shiny look, then extra time may be needed to polish and fine tune the tools to accomplish this.
  • First Shots on Tools: When the tools are completed, the factory runs them.  They shoot the plastic in them and see what comes out. 
  • 1st Engineering Pilot/Parts Review:  The factory tries to put the pieces together to test for "fit and function".  They may also pass the peices onto the company for feedback.
  • Tooling Modifications:  More than likely,
    modifications will need to be made to the molds to get them
    right.
  • Final Shots on Tools: The tools are run again.  Steps like this probably won’t take a week.  But it never hurts to have a little buffer time that may be eaten up somewhere else in the process.
  • Final Engineering Pilot/Parts Review: The pieces are tested and reviewed again by the interested parties.
  • Tooling Release (complete): When the pieces work, the company issues a tooling release indicating that the tools are approved.
  • Package Art Release: The company issues the packaging art to the factory.  This may happen at different steps in the process and is not really dependent on the other steps.  However, it’s advisable to be moving into this phase earlier rather than late. 
  • Print Proof Review/Approval: The factory sends packaging "proofs" back to the company for review.  If the proof looks good, the company signs off.
  • Product Testing: The product, in packaging, is needed for these steps.  Depending on the kind of product and the duress it will be under during transportation, use, etc., the factory will put the product and packaging through several tests.  Tests may include drop testing, environmental testing, transportation testing, power testing, throw it against the wall and see what happens testing, put it in the smoke break room and see what colors change testing, and finally my favorite, pour red bull and vodka into it and see if it can stay out at the club until 6am testing). 
  • Production Pilot:  Once the product meets the specs in the testing, the production line is set up, run, and debugged of potential issues.
  • Production Unit Review/Approval:  The first articles (the first units coming off of the production line) are reviewed and sent to the company in package for approval.  This is their baby and represents what will soon turn into millions of products flying off of the shelves into consumers garages or "what-have-you" drawers. 

I’ve now hit my bullet point quota for the next year, but there’s quite a lot to do here.  Going through a process like this, with several tests and verifications along the way, helps to ensure that what a company gets out of the production line on the other end is what they wanted in the beginning.  Notice that this doesn’t even include incoming QC inspections, production line inspections, and 3rd party inspections before shipment.   But if you allow yourself enough time to go through this process correctly and efficiently, you end up keeping your promise to your customers with high-quality products going into their hands.  That’s so hot. 

Product Design for Cutthroat Pricing: Start Making Friends

By GSS on January 3, 2008 | Category: Product Development | Comments Off

The message of this post came to mind after reading a post by DT at DesignSojourn, entitled 25 Bad Habits of Industrial Designers.  A few of the bad habits mentioned, specifically No. 11 and No. 13 ("not being friends with engineering" and "not being friends with marketing", respectively), got me thinkin’. 

Here is a product development approach geared towards failure which I often see in markets with high price sensitivity: 

Someone designs the product.  Someone engineers the product.  Someone applies for a patent on the product.  Someone prototypes the product.  Someone sources offshore manufacturing on the product. 

                                                              (quick breath…)

The tooling cost or unit cost of the product, even offshore, is out of the ballpark in terms of the organization’s cost targets AND/OR the materials or processes called out by the design will not be matched exactly offshore. 

The organization seeks the cheapest source and gets burned on quality, payment, or both, OR, the organization redesigns for manufacturing cost and feasibility overseas.  Design and engineering costs go up.  The patent claims become constrictive or are negated entirely.  Time to market is increased.  And the product manager, CEO, or whoever in charge puts on 20 lbs through stress induced over-eating.

I see this happen often in industries that are very price competitive, because if you are off by 5% – 10%, you’re out of the ballgame. 

Some might say this is just part of the development process.  Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but onward we plod with a success rate that looks more like a baseball batting average.

Design is getting a lot of attention these days and that is good. Who doesn’t like a well-designed product?   But…this also might encourage designers to feel they don’t need friends in engineering, marketing, and manufacturing.  Yes, I’m talking to the guy wearing the black turtleneck.Black_turtleneck 

What would happen, if 3/4 of the way through the design or prototyping process, a designer called up a few other people in other departments or companies and asked for feedback?  Do they risk having their creativity crushed?  Do they risk a flurry of rejections that could kill inspiration?  Maybe. 

But, what if they learned that modifying their design could reduce the tooling cost by 30%?  Or, if the material they plan on using to give their product that "look", will increase the unit cost by a dollar.  Perhaps they might learn that their product is just plain large and heavy, and reducing it’s size will reduce both the unit cost and shipping costs.  Quite often, designing a product to look "cool" adds cost.  Will the market bear that cost?

Good, experienced, industrial designers are often familiar with a lot of these issues.  But in today’s world, in which people often need to specialize a great deal in a given craft in order to excel and become distinguished in their field, there is less time and energy to invest in learning about complimentary aspects of the business. 

Thus, the ability to make and collaborate with other specialists is a skill/habit that is becoming more valuable.

If it’s price sensitive, you need to start making friends with everything (everyone) that impacts cost.  If it’s going to be made overseas (after all, it’s price sensitive), feedback from overseas early on will tell you if you’re on the right track or not, and will probably save you steps in the long run.   Save that product design from the trash and start getting friendly.

Solar Decathlon Underdog, Santa Clara University, Shows That Team Diversity in Product Development and Design Can Do Wonders

By GSS on October 30, 2007 | Category: Product Development | Comments Off

Beating out the likes of MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech and the University of Colorado at Boulder, Santa Clara University (SCU), located in the Bay Area of California, took third place in an international solar house decathlonThe U.S. Secretary of Energy dubbed the SCU team the "Cinderella story from California".

House_scu
The Solar Decathlon is an international contest drawing entries from Germany, Canada, Spain, and the U.S., in which students actually construct a small house representing the best in design and construction of an eco-friendly home.  I’ve posted a video below that depicts what a bunch of students go through to build a cutting-edge eco-house and enter the contest.  Previously unknown for its engineering resources and talent, SCU was a clear underdog from the outset (a German university took first and the University of Maryland took second). 

After taking a couple weeks to rest my blogging brain, I’m proud to come back with a story like this one.  Thankfully, this story offers more than the fact that it has to do with SCU, an institution near and dear to my heart.  When asked what contributed to their unprecedented success, SCU team leader James Bickford replied:

"Our strength was in the
diversity of our team," Bickford said. "We are dominated by engineers,
but we brought on communications majors, philosophers, anthropologists,
artists."

While the group debated various aspects of the project, "those
struggles are what made it a good house," he said. "Those diverse and
creative thoughts produced a better product than any one discipline
could have by themselves."

The benefits of a diverse team in product development aren’t a novel concept.  IDEO, a world-class design company that describes itself as specialists in human factors, psychology, business, design, engineering and manufacturing, is renowned for its ability to create diverse teams for the development process and create truly innovative and effective products.

T03_5
Although the concept of capitalizing on team diversity isn’t new, it’s so rarely used effectively.  One of the major reasons is the presence of "struggle" that comes with dissenting opinions.  Generally, hashing out conflicting opinions with others just isn’t fun.  But, as demonstrated by the SCU students’ Cinderella story, the benefits of doing so can be great.  Is everyone agreeing with you?


T2SE. Time to Shoot the Engineer?

By GSS on October 8, 2007 | Category: Product Development | Comments Off

What is this product?Free_ride_pen_3

A) Photon blaster from the set of Startrek

B) One of those solar-powered racing go-karts designed by MIT students, upside down

C) Don’t even go there…

The Answer:  None of the Above.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a ballpoint pen.

The Free Ride pen sells at $150. 

But before I rush off to the website to buy this over-the-top, engineering wonder (brought to my attention by the OhGizmo blog) and make my check-writing experience even more intriguing, I have to ask myself:

Is there a time to "shoot the engineer"? 

I googled this exact saying and got a page of search results which tells me: I am not alone in this question.  Or is it that, in the schoolyard of product development, the marketing bullies have simply come up with new ways to give a "marketing wedgy" of sorts to the engineering kids?  "For once and for all, go play sales and stop breathing down our necks!", the engineers scream.

As OhGizmo blog exclaims, the design and engineering of this pen may have been taken a stretch too far.  This company at least got this pen to market (I wonder how it’s selling…).  You’ve got to hand it to them, because the dirty alley of product development is littered with projects and products that never got into the marketplace and made money for their companies.  If only there was a blackmarket, or even an EBay for works-like prototypes and unfinished CAD drawings…

At some point, you’ve got to save the next batch of engineering changes for a future product release.  At some point, you need to take the reams of Excel files, Bill of Materials docs, Engineering Requirement docs, and drawings, and stamp "Final" on them.   At some point, you have to look at the money you have in the bank, the calender, and the state of your product design, and figure out that you needed to get your design package to the manufacturer yesterday. 

I’m sure that even the FreeRide pen had only so much time to be designed and engineered before it was built and shipped. 

Your product may be the next space machine or just a better mousetrap.  It doesn’t matter.  Just make sure you stop engineering and you start selling before you run out of money or someone designs and sells a better photon blaster than your’s.

Product Development at Triumph Motorcycles: Leaked Video

By GSS on August 20, 2007 | Category: Product Development | Comments Off

Courtesy of Paul Young’s ProductBeautiful blog, this highly sensitive, insider video was created at Triumph Motorcycles and walks us through their product development process.  Triumph is a British manufacturer of cruisers, the style of motorcycle championed in the U.S. by Harley-Davidson.  Their production line is one of a kind and this video may give you just the edge you need to give your product life.  It’s also a good start to a Monday morning.

Paul is also now posting some great insights into the The Challenges of Overseas Manufacturing and the role of a product manager in overseas design, development, and production.  This is a cross-post he and I collaborated on and he is building on a number of common themes and issues which I gave my perspective on in this post.  Part I of Paul’s points can be read here.  Part II can be read here

Patenting, Prototyping, and Manufacturing Your Product: What to do When?

By GSS on July 18, 2007 | Category: Product Development | 1 Comment

I recently had a very interesting conversation with Andrew Krauss, President of the Inventors Alliance and co-founder of InventRight, about the vast number of entrepreneurs and inventors who use the same, ineffective methodology to get their businesses and products going.  We shared a number of observations.  First, many starting out are convinced that they must apply for a full patent immediately before speaking a word to anyone about their product.  Thus, they find a patent attorney who will take them through the patent search and application process for a mere $3,000 to $20,000 dollars, so that after months of time and money spent, the entrepreneur or inventor can then begin to explore how they will actually make money off of their product.  I think Andrew and I arrived at the same conclusion that the question isn’t whether patent attorney’s fees are a good investment–but the question is when to invest?  The same question could be asked of prototyping as well as when to approach manufacturers?

Stephen Key of InventRight (Andrew’s partner) is one of the most successful inventors you will find.  He has developed and licensed products to companies like Disney, Nestle, and Coca-Cola, as well as manufactured and sold his own products.  Andrew and Stephen formed InventRight to teach inventors how to license their products.  Whether you are licensing or building a business around your product, their advice in these areas holds true. 

In a post on the InventRight Blog, Stephen answers a few questions regarding the issues of patenting, prototyping, and marketing.  This post regarded the question of obtaining a provisional patent versus a full patent.  Stephen comments: 

I’m not an attorney and can’t offer you legal advice. I will tell you what I use the Provisional Patent for.
 
Simply put, the Provisional Patent gives you one
year to fish off that pier and see if a manufacturer is interested in
your idea. It’s super cheap and I can file it myself due to it’s much
less demanding requirements.
 
If it’s a statistical fact that 97% of all
patents don’t make any more money than the inventor spent on the
patent, why would you want to go out and spend 6 grand or more on a
patent. I’m not saying you shouldn’t file patents, what I’m saying is
that you should get some interest from a manufacturer before you do.

In another post, he addresses the decision of when to pursue a prototype.  He responds to a reader’s question on this issue:

A better question to ask yourself is what is your plan once you have a
prototype. I talk to many, many inventors that spend a bunch of money
on a prototype and a patent before they even have a plan as to how they
plan on selling their idea. You need to understand the process of
selling an idea before you spend money on patents or prototypes.

One of the biggest and most important challenges in building your business around a product is selling your product.  Selling is hard.  Most aren’t comfortable with the rejection, numerous phone calls, time spent, and hard work involved in getting people and companies interested in your product enough to lay down their cold, hard cash for it.  Before you can even do this, you need to figure out the game plan on how you are going to sell your product. 

Before splurging on a prototype, you can file a provisional patent yourself, undertake some preliminary market research, and begin to formulate your gameplan.  How big is your market?  Who are the competitors?  Where are they selling?  How much are they selling for?  And, what messages are they driving at their customers?  Who will you need to contact to get your product out there?  Retailers?  QVC?  PR agencies?  Names?  Phone numbers?  Your sell sheet?  How does the whole puzzle fit together step-by-step? 

During this time, you may want to consider fiddling around with a home-made prototype on the kitchen table if you can.  But there is certainly no need to go out and spend $5,000-$15,000 dollars on the best prototype money can buy at this point.  If you’re going to approach a manufacturer and build and sell the product yourself, a simple, looks-like/works-like prototype will suffice in getting the ball-rolling.  They should be able to provide ballpark costing, or walk you through a few steps to get you to the point where they can provide information like this.   The general point to take away is to investigate, as much as you can, whether you will get a worthy financial return on your time and money spent before committing a large amount of your time and money. 

Testimonials

“GSS' performance throughout the entire process confirmed that we made the right selection and in every case you met or surpassed our expectations for what we asked you to do.”
by Ken Bertaccini Former President, AT&T Consumer Products