What I Learned from 25 Years of Experience in Corporate America (and From Shark Tank) About Developing a New Product
I Have a Great Idea...Where Do I Start?
Let's face it, the world it not set up for average Joes to start a business or develop the next BIG thing. It takes money, time and energy. Most of us work at least 8 hours a day, and when we're done, we're too tired to do anything else other than eat, spend time with loved ones, and have a little time for church, entertainment or the gym. That's the way the world works, and if you ask me, it works that way for a reason...but I digress.
So, Can It Be Done, and if so, How?
I would say that the majority of the people that succeed at starting a successful business have some type of "advantage" over others. It could be a contact, a relative or friend, education, experience... But what if you don't have these things? I believe that most people have some amount of one or more of these so called "advantages". Maybe your "advantage" is passion or desire. Sometimes...that's enough.
How My Wife and I Did it Together...
This article is about our path to developing a successful product.
I'll admit it, we had some advantages. I was an engineer. I worked in product development for several years. I understood the basics about how to get a patent. I had a few contacts.
And we had the desire. My wife and I had a lot of great ideas through the years. In fact, it was kind of a running joke. The idea of the week...
Lessons From Shark Tank
Oh, and there was our love of the show Shark Tank. We set the DVR and watched Shark Tank nightly. We discussed the great ideas and the not so great ideas. We learned some things from the show:
1) There's a difference between a business, a company and a product.
- Business - Something that's been done before that offers a service to others. It may be a unique twist on a similar thing that's already being done.
- Company - A collection of products under one umbrella. At least that's what the Sharks want you to believe. I can't tell you how many times they told someone on the show, "You have a product, not a company".
- Product - A unique item that is new and innovative.
2) If you can start small and do things on your own, you don't need investors.
3) Investors can help you grow quickly, but at what cost?
4) The Sharks want you to go all in. Your "big idea" has to consume everything you do. You need to quit your day job. It can't be a hobby. On this one, I disagree. But we'll get into that later.
5) If you have a "product", it helps to protect it with a patent.
6) Just because you love your idea, it doesn't mean everyone will.
7) The "experts" aren't always right.
8) Online sales are more profitable than retail sales and not every product needs to be in stores.
9) Social media is a great way to advertise. It's inexpensive and it works.
That's a few of the things we learned from Shark Tank. But the biggest thing we learned was from a little boy on the show whose teacher gave him some good advice. "Find a problem and solve it." That's what my wife and I did.
It's about time for me to disclose what our product is. Our product is Shoe Armour. Shoe Armour is a shoe hole prevention insert for running and athletic shoes. Ever since I was a boy, I would get a hole in my shoes from my big toe.
You may be wondering, "Why did we pick this product"? We had lots of other great ideas. I have an engineering background and experience in electronics, manufacturing and mechanical design. So why a shoe insert?
Here's our thinking:
- Find a problem and solve it...I had been getting shoe holes caused by my toe since I was a little boy. And, it turns out that a lot of other people do to. A quick internet search proved that there was a market for the product.
- There was no other product on the market to solve the problem. I knew this because I couldn't find one to buy.
- We wanted a product that we could patent. We were new to this and we couldn't compete with the "big dogs". We also wanted to set the market price without competition.
- We picked something that we could work on as a hobby (against the Sharks best advice) and did it on our time, at our pace. We didn't want to disrupt our life, which we were very content with.
- We picked a simple product even though we had ideas for more exciting and complex products. The reason was, complex products require more investment. Complex products might need tooling, or software development or custom designed electronics.
- We picked something we could do on our own. The investment was minimal up front. We didn't want to be tied to investors that were looking to turn a profit. We wanted to be able to walk away from it at any time if it didn't make sense for our family.
- We wanted to minimize our risk. We aren't afraid to take risks, and we definitely took some along the way. But they were controlled.
We've been at it for a little over 4 years and our company is doing great. Our hobby is now a full-fledged company and sales continue to grow. Here's the high level sequence of events that got us to where we are today.
- We made prototypes. This was an interesting process. We researched materials and bought samples of those materials. We spent time at the kitchen table dismembering old shoes. We tried different designs. We worked and challenged each other until we were happy with the result.
- We tested the design. This product was something I needed, so I was the perfect test subject. Interestingly, my son, my wife and my sister-in-law had the same problem with toe holes. More test subjects...
- We contacted a manufacturer. I'm a manufacturing engineer so I called on a supplier that made product for the company I worked for at my day job.
- I conducted a preliminary patent search using Google Patents. There were no patents for our product idea.
- We filed a provisional patent using a patent firm that I had worked with at my day job. Patents are expensive, and you don't want to pay for one unless you're sure you have a winner. But, provisional patents are inexpensive. Ours cost a few hundred dollars. Provisional patents protect your product for 1 year and that gives you time to try your product out on the market.
- We set up a company. We formed an LLC and registered our company.
- We set up a website.
- We listed it on Amazon. Amazon is the greatest thing since sliced bread and the worst thing since the Ford Pinto all wrapped into one. It opens your product up to the world and helps market it at a low cost. But it's not very user friendly unless you know what your doing. We called Amazon over and over until we got it right.
- We engaged social media. Facebook, Instagram, blogs, etc. And, we continue to do this almost every day in little bite size chunks.
- We monitored sales and set growth goals for ourselves.
- We asked a lot of questions and sought out people who could help us.
- And sales grew.
- We engaged retailers both face-to-face and through emails and social media. I am not a salesman, but I became one.
- We filed for and received our patent on the product. This took 3 years and a lot of money. The good news was we could use money from the sales of the product to pay for the patent.
And it worked.
Our Lessons for You
Here's what we learned:
- It can be done. It takes money, time and energy. But if you do it at your own pace, it's manageable.
- Don't be afraid of failing. We had no idea if our product would be a winner or a loser.
- Be willing to learn new things and step outside of your comfort zone.
- Be persistent. Effort in small chunks of time done consistently adds up over time. You don't have to do it all in 1 week, 1 month or even 1 year.
- Seek help when you don't know what to do next. Use the internet, talk to people and ask lots of questions. The information is out there.
- Ask people you know who may know someone who may know someone.
- Protect yourself. Go through the proper steps to form a company. Use an accountant. Pay taxes. Treat it like a real business.
- Lastly, the learning process is as important as the destination. We know how to do things now and we are saving a ton of time the second and third time around.
If you do get shoe holes...you need Shoe Armour. Installing Shoe Armour in new shoes prevents holes from forming.