Product development usually takes a team of talented people with finely tuned skills to lift a concept from the napkin sketch, ready it for prototyping, and get it into the hands of consumers. Product companies have teams of designers and marketers who work, sometimes for years, before a new product reaches the shelf.
Product development agencies can be a great way to bridge the gap between the inventor’s idea and the finished product if the inventor hires talented designers and engineers to shepherd the product through to production.
Some intrepid entrepreneurs insist on taking on the burden of developing their product on their own. Here is some practical advice for those brave enough to go solo.
Budgeting Your Prototype
Even if you are saving money by not hiring out for development services, you still need a budget to build prototypes. The full development process will also require travel to events to pitch or show the product, general business expenses, patent filings, and eventually mass production of the product. It adds up.
Each product is different, so the amount of funding required will vary. Take into consideration the complexity of the design, whether it is electrified, or how readily available the materials are. These will all influence how much the development will cost.
It is common for many products to cost $100,000 or more to bring to market. If you cannot provide those funds on your own, you will need to do extra work to bring on investors.
Feedback on Your Design
Just because you are developing the product on your own does not mean you are exempt from getting feedback along the way. In fact, going it alone will require you to seek out feedback while you’re developing your idea.
It is crucial to understand how your product will be used by real consumers to ensure it serves a real need. Gathering this feedback can be done informally with family and friends, or in a more prescribed setting with invited guests who are under nondisclosure agreements to review renderings or prototypes. You’ll want to make sure that if you’re soliciting feedback from family and friends that the opinions they share aren’t sugar-coated.
Designing in a vacuum can result in a product that will miss the target in the marketplace. It could also lead to extra expense and lost time should you have to re-do any development.
Timeline to Market
Know that developing a product solo will likely take longer than if you work with a team or a firm. A lot of micro-skills are necessary to design and build products that professional designers have the training and experience to do quickly.
Be prepared to have to train yourself to do things like CAD design, building prototypes, using a 3D printer, accounting, pitching, and marketing. You will need these and other crucial skills to bring your concept to life.
If you are designing a product that may have a short window for sales, it may be too much work to do as a solopreneur. However, if you are able to hone these skills and deal with the longer timeline, you will have a set of superpowers you can apply to future projects.
Tools to Prototype
It takes many iterative prototypes to get a product right, and it takes the right tools to build them effectively. Make sure you have a great set of tools and equipment either in your possession or at your disposal.
Many products will benefit from a suite of great hand tools and light machines; others will require high-end machining centers or 3D printers. In either case, you must research which processes you are likely to use and ensure you have the right tools for the job.
If you need help, your local makerspace or toolshare is a great way to get access to, and training for, more advanced equipment that can help you on your journey.
Manufacturing Your Product
This is one of the trickiest and most costly parts of the process. It is helpful to consider manufacturing processes and costs along the way. Before you start working on prototypes, you should have a clear idea of the price range in which you’ll sell your product. This helps you understand if your idea is potentially profitable and worth pursuing. Ideally, you will be able to manufacture the product for four or five times less than the retail price to have a viable business. As early as possible, engage potential manufacturers to get estimates on the production costs so you can adjust or pivot your design to meet price targets.
Alibaba is a great way to find factories. Although most groups represented there are reputable, there are still bad actors out there. Protect yourself by reading the feedback thoroughly, talking to other customers for references, and making sure you have NDAs and/or patents in place before sharing any crucial information.
Know when to ask for help
As the late Kenny Rogers was known to sing: “Know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em.”
Product development is a journey that is rarely without twists and turns. Appreciate that it is difficult to bring a product to market even in the best of circumstances.
Going it alone compounds the difficulty. It is OK to stop and reach out for help. Even if it is only for small pieces of the process like renderings or initial prototypes. Having professional eyes on the concept may unlock valuable pieces of information that can help propel you closer to market.