Got an idea for a new product? Be careful!

5th August 2015

Got an idea for a new product? Be careful!

Our growing enterprise culture is an important – some would say vital – part of the industrial economy. The ability of small groups or individuals to identify a problem or need and develop a new product to meet it has never been greater, or easier. Simple design tools, crowdfunding programmes and the ability to promote and sell online has enabled thousands of new businesses to be established and built into successful enterprises.

If you and your team already have all the right skills, the potential for profit and growth is tremendous, but what if you need some help with design, engineering, graphics, marketing or intellectual property protection?

1. Beware of snake oil and shiny pictures

There are an increasing number of ‘one stop shops’ that offer advice on intellectual property, design and product commercialisation. Some offer unnecessary and expensive work, particularly regarding intellectual property (IP) protection. Often, this simply exploits someone’s natural anxiety about keeping their idea safe. The best solution to this is to download ‘A Better Mousetrap - the business of invention’. This book is a clear guide to the sometimes murky world of IP and puts you in charge of the process.

You should also check what you will be getting for your money before you commit to working with any design or innovation consultancy. Will the resulting IP belong to you? If you are offered CAD files, which format will they be in (STEP or IGES for preference) and will you get the original CAD data (so you can continue the project elsewhere if you choose)? If you are offered impressive looking renderings, will they be based on something that can actually be manufactured or is it just an image? This matters. CAD renderings look great, but if the data it comes from can’t be developed into a real product, you’ve paid a lot for a picture - and will need to start again if you want to make it for real.

2. Keep your head in the clouds, and your feet on the floor

Some people, like Jobs and Dyson, became fabulously wealthy by following their vision and ignoring things like focus groups and market research. This is an exciting approach and clearly does work, but not for everybody. If you can afford to fail, or simply don’t care if you do, go for it – and may the force be with you. For the rest of us, there are steps you can take to minimise – but not eliminate - your risks (the failure rate for innovation does not make comfortable reading…).

First off, try to make your project about something that is a real need or desire for a large number of people. I meet inventors who are developing a solution to a problem that only they have – this is not a route to riches. Quantifying the number of potential customers for your product is difficult and will never be a precise science, but you can tip the odds in your favour with some basic research. For more information on defining your market, download the free document ‘Developing new products – an introductory guide’ here.

Secondly, try to establish what your target customer would happily pay for the benefits your product will deliver – and then work out if you can produce it for a low enough price to meet that target and still make a healthy profit.

Thirdly, make sure you have a detailed specification for your product, and have considered all the requirements. This is important, because if you discover that it has to pass a specific test at the end of the project, you may have to go back and start the design work again. For a detailed description of how to prepare a product design specification, download Crucible product development guide number three here.

Finally, keep a close eye on the market trends to minimise the risk of your new idea becoming obsolete before you make your money back. As technology continues to accelerate, this is becoming a more significant problem, particularly in any market associated with smart phones or audio products.

3. Surround yourself with good people

Whilst iconoclastic entrepreneurs like Tony Stark are popular in fiction, the reality is that successful product development is a team sport. Having worked on over 300 projects, it is clear to me that the most successful, profitable and enjoyable ones have been those where a well-managed team focusses on what they are good at and communicates well. They are also often the projects with the shortest lead times.

Sadly, achieving this is harder than it sounds. We’ve all sat in meetings where the unspoken objective seems to be avoid any responsibility for anything, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Building a ‘no blame’ culture is a vital first step, so that people can try new ideas without being punished if they go wrong. It is also important to meet frequently, with the same people and make sure that there is a clear agenda that covers everything. There is a British Standard for product development (7000/2) that has some surprisingly useful information on this topic. With the permission of British Standards, I have produced a management summary of the document, and you can request a free copy by contacting me here. There is also a free guide on the Crucible website (Successful product development – a management guide) that covers a lot of the advice given in the standard.

4. Make haste slowly

We’re so used to hearing tales of people developing entire new product lines in ten minutes (probably involving 3D printing) that we are conditioned to thinking that everything has to done in a massive rush. If your technology is about go obsolete, maybe there is a good reason for this, although it actually means that you’re working on the wrong project... In almost all other cases, it is a bad idea.

Apple famously take years to develop their products, which goes some way to explain the incredible quality of their design and manufacture. Similarly, it pays to spend time on getting the design just right, testing and improving until it is as close to perfect as possible and making sure that all your other ‘details’ like packaging and instructions are of the same high quality. These are the features that successful new products have, and it all takes time.

Thomas Edison’s famous quote about genius being ‘one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration’ could equally be applied to product development. You need the inspiring insight or idea, but turning that into a successful product takes a lot of time, investment and the support of other people. If you’re going down that road, I hope it goes well and if you would like any help or advice, please contact me here.

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