Have you ever wanted to take one of the many amazing, and revolutionary ideas you’ve conjured up and turn it into a multi- million dollar products or business? I get asked all the time, "What do you think about this idea?" or "What should I do next?" "Where can I get a prototype made?" "Should I apply for a patent and then start selling or see if people buy the product and then make the investment on the IP?" To my knowledge there is no blue print or point by point procedure to successfully launch a product. I’m sure Entrepreneurs from all over the world have done this every way imaginable and I’m sure your method will be as unique as you are. I do not consider myself an expert on new product development but I feel I have learned enough since launching Bottle Breacher with a Dremel tool, some spray paint and a sticker in my garage to give some broad stroke advice and lessons learned for those looking to do this very thing. The following thoughts might also shine a light on the fact that successfully launching a product might be more difficult than you imagined and that maybe it’s just not for you, but I hope that is not the case. I hope these are a few tools you can put in your bag and things to remember as you start one of the most exciting, challenging and fulfilling paths known to man.
CRAWL, WALK, RUN. This is a saying that my staff probably hears on a daily basis. When you develop new products, you can spend thousands of dollars before knowing if your customers will pull out their wallets and remove that all too often, illusive, green paper that will ultimately tell us if our products are heroes or zeros. This is why it is so important to follow the crawl, walk, run approach. The main focus of this concept is not to go so fast that you miss the road signs and get in way over your head. You need to start by making your initial investment (dollars and time) in your new product as minimal as possible. You need to PROVE YOUR CONCEPT. In common speak, prove that people are willing to part with their hard earned cash for your brilliant idea early in the process. All too often I see entrepreneurs make this mistake right up front. They completely skip the crawl phase and are off seeking capital and investors without ever proving their concept because their grandmother and some friends said it was a great idea. Some people can give you all the data from complex surveys and consumer reports that support their idea and will talk your head off about becoming multi-millionaires after capturing a measly 1% of market share. I personally know people, good people, who have several hundreds of thousands tied up into a new product and their house as collateral before they have 1$ in sales. This is a place I never want to find myself.
In SEAL training much of our training was very dangerous and dynamic. This is where I learned about the crawl, walk, run approach. Blocks of training would always culminate with a very realistic, high speed, training mission with many operators moving, communicating and shooting. We had all sorts of vehicles from naval ships, high speed boats and helicopters along with live breach scenes and active role players. We never allowed platoons to go into these dynamic environments without first practicing the crawl portion. In this case it meant the basic skills, like fast roping and clearing buildings one at a time, in a day light, static environment. Use your imagination for a second and see the correlation. It’s really all about minimizing your risk.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. Applying for trademarks and patents is something that should be done early in the process. How early is usually the biggest question. When you are starting out you usually don’t have the budget to spend thousands on trademarking and patents. I usually recommend proving the concept first before applying for the legal protection unless you have the capital and confidence in your product to do so. You have up to one year to apply for a patent after you begin selling your product. This is usually an ample amount of time to prove your concept. The dichotomy here is that you are exposing your idea to others without the existence of a patent pending. This could make things more difficult for you in court of law if anyone ever decides to rip you off and infringe on your idea. Again, this is up to you. It will be one of the many large decisions that you will need to get right if you want to continue towards success.
INSTINCT. I wish there was a way around this one, but there really isn’t. To be good at product development you need to have a combination of instinct, street smarts and the ability to quickly identify winners and losers. I have many trusted allies that are so much better than me in so many areas. They occasionally pitch me their ideas. At times I think to myself “did you really just suggest that?” Knowing full well that nobody would break out a shiny quarter for the stupid grenade they just lobbed onto my desk. I constantly rely on my instinct. Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I’m wrong. It’s all part of the game. Your wins need to exceed your losses and sometimes a product will hold water and need a revision or two to join the winner circle, but you have to be realistic and know that sometimes we all will miss the mark.
THICK SKIN, BETTER HAVE IT. We all love to hear about how great we are. We love hearing that our ideas are amazing and sure to be the next "big thing". The reality is this. If you are smart enough to surround yourself with people who will give it to you straight then you will get feedback that isn’t always what you want to hear. You will hear things like, "Its okay, but could be even better it you changed this." Or, "I don’t get it." It’s too easy to fall so in love with our own ideas that we block out any negative feedback. One of the best things you can do as a product developer is to learn to watch people’s facial expressions when they evaluate your prototypes and concepts. I have learned that people are usually better at disguising their words than they are their facial expressions. Are they excited when they see it, does an instantaneous smile break across their face? Or do they get a confused look on their face like you just plopped a calculous problem in front of them? If you get enough of the frowny faces or confused looks you probably have some tweaking to do. Don’t scrap it completely. Seek out that negative feedback and fix the problems if possible. Again, this is where your instinct will need to play a huge roll. If you know it’s a winner that needs work keep at it. If you’re unsure about it and continue to hit brick wall after brick wall, might be time to scrap it and go back to the drawing board.
PATIENCE. This is one of the hardest things for me. I am a notoriously impatient person. I think many of us that have a passion for designing are this way. For instance, I am still working on one product that has been giving me fits for close to 2 years now. The Bottle Breacher wine opener that we launched last year took us nearly a year from prototype to production. There were days and weeks that I thought to myself, “we may never go to production with this thing.” It took close to 9 months to find a manufacturer that would make it in the USA for a reasonable price. I believe that this is one of the biggest failures of most entrepreneurs. They want it now. When they don’t get it they move on or lose interest. As a young man I would have launched many of the products we have worked on far before they were ready. Impatience and failure to TE (test and evaluate) your product can be fatal to a product and even your business.
RESILIENCE. I believe this is the biggest attribute that a product developer can have. Any developer that has been at it for a good period of time is very familiar with Murphy’s Law which states “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Just when you think your prototypes or even your first production run is solid you will find out that too often there was something overlooked. Or that somebody in the production or assembly chain cut a corner causing a failure which could prove to be catastrophic in the launch. Remember, you only get so many chances with your customers. Many times one disappointment is one too many and your customer will move onto your competition. Two weeks ago, days before launching our new Bottle Breacher BBQ tools. One of our team members noticed that the weld connecting the steel rod from the .50 caliber handles to the spatula broke during a photo shoot. I was very concerned when I got the news because we were marketing these utensils as a very well made in the USA product. As we started going through the inventory our worst fears were realized. Over 50% of the spot welds were busting and in some cases didn’t even bond the 2 metal pieces together. These welds were being done by a very good friend and well respected local business. Turns out one of their laborers was not only cutting corners during production but also not checking his work. Thankfully the business stood behind their work and fixed every unit with lightning speed. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened and it won’t be the last. If you want to be a great product developer you better be prepared to put out large fires and think on your feet. You had also better develop strong relationships with your vendors so that they will step up for you in times of need.
TEST, TEST, TEST SOME MORE. Had we done a better job of testing we would not have run into this problem. We sell everything from Bottle Breachers to cozies, rings, apparel and more. You would be surprised at how many things can go wrong with even the simplest item. My attorney once gave me a very valuable piece of advice. He said, "Eli when you are making these products you have to visualize people doing the absolute dumbest things possible with them and then suing you for not protecting them from their own stupidity." One time a buddy asked me why I had 10 rings on each of my fingers. It wasn’t because I was trying to look like some hard ass biker. It was because it gave me the opportunity to test 10 units on my skin for comfort and product defect. Trust me I have screwed this up more than once. I have failed a couple times to do enough testing on my products. The importance of testing not only applies to making your product, but also selling it. When I first started selling my very raw, first edition Bottle Breachers, I priced them at $27 a piece. Nobody was buying them; 2 weeks later I dropped the price to $24. It worked, a couple people actually purchased at that price. We left it there for a couple weeks and then dropped for the second time to $20. Boom, the flood gates opened and orders started pouring in. The lesson here is that sometimes it isn’t your product. It’s your pricing. Test your customers reactions, test the durability and functionality of the product, and test your pricing.
As I said, there is no blue print or exact science to product development that I am aware of. I know there are many out there who have fine-tuned their product development departments and could teach me a thing or two. These are just a few lessons that we have learned along the way and I felt compelled to share them because I know many of you have great ideas and often wonder if it could be something more than just an idea. Maybe it could be the next big thing. But if you never start and are too afraid to fail, then you don’t have a chance. You will wind up like every old story teller who sits around wondering what might have been. You’ve got to start somewhere; don’t forget to Crawl, Walk, and then maybe, just maybe, you will be able to Run.