Last Update – December 19, 2014
Many founders (with good intentions) initially focus on the wrong areas. I’ve observed these behaviors in the wild (i.e. startup accelerators) when a group of strangers take up residence in a conference room and begin to plot world domination. But somehow they get lost in a Bermuda Triangle of strategy, superfluous jargon, opinions and egos – leaving little done at the end of the day with no real result.
To be honest, once upon a time, I too started with an initial focus on all of the wrong things – marketing, public relations, business development and so on. These things are very instrumental along the way. But they mean absolutely nothing without one simple thing – a viable almighty product.
How to Develop an ‘Almighty’ Product
Developing a viable product that is sellable and shippable should be your main priority. And if you’re on that path, or possibly your second or third startup – you know how important this idea truly is. When you get started down the product development road, one of your main challenges will be locating, selecting and hiring reputable suppliers and manufacturers. But don’t panic. Over time, this process can become second nature and systematic.
If you have an idea and you’re ready to turn it into a tangible product start with these four steps:
1. Admit you know nothing.
This is hard for some of us, myself included, but it’s important to start any business endeavor with a blank canvas. Be willing to “hunt and gather” as much information as possible. This doesn’t mean that you should aimlessly wander about hoping and wishing that a finished product will manifest itself on your kitchen table. Instead, start where you are.
Fashion designer, Ralph Lauren had no experience in fashion design, yet he now presides over a Polo/Ralph Lauren empire. “I didn’t know how to make a tie,” Lauren confessed to Vogue in 1982. “I didn’t know fabric, I didn’t know measurements. What did I know? That I was a salesman. That I was honest. And that all I wanted was quality.” It’s not what you know that makes you great. It’s your willingness to admit what you don’t know and move forward intelligently to acquire what you lack.
2. Discover prospective partners.
Now it’s time to develop a short list of manufacturers and suppliers that have done (or are doing) what you aim to do. “Where do you find this list?”
One of my most coveted resources that I personally use to locate manufacturers and suppliers is ThomasNet.com. Their supplier discovery and selection platform for OEM, MRO and other products and services is unmatched.
Start by searching out what you need. Then develop a short-list, give the vendors on your list a call, schedule site visits, slide each of them an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) across the table and begin to share your ideas with people capable of showing you how to bring them to life. You may not know the precise product roadmap, so it would do you a great service to partner with those that do.
3. Create a short-list of suppliers and manufacturers.
Once you’ve done your due diligence (and learned a few things along the way) take your new-found knowledge and make an informal comparison. Or you may want to take a more formal approach and send out Requests for Proposals (RFPs).
Ultimately, based on your information select the most promising partners (2-3 at most), gather your capital and move into sample (prototype) production. But take caution before you become married to your initial plans. Whatever estimates you have made – double them. It will always take longer than you expect and may cost more than you budgeted for. Don’t let your lack of mastery and speculation in these two areas put a choke hold on your company. Plan for the best and expect the possibility of undesirable outcomes.
4. Hire the best and execute.
Once you’ve seen your suppliers and manufacturers in action, it’s time to hire the best. Did they complete the job to specifications? Were the quoted lead-times met or exceeded? Did one manufacturer save you money by incorporating a design improvement you hadn’t thought of yet? Choose your partners based on their merits.
This is meant to serve as a high-level overview of the process and you may, or may not, choose to incorporate various details. Yet, this simple formula can help you make your dreams a reality and keep your idea from being tagged as “dead on arrival.”