The Inventor's Product Development Road Map

Over the last several years I’ve had the privilege of working with a bunch of individual inventors, helping them refine their product ideas, iterate through prototypes, and consult through the manufacturing process.  I’ve come to the realization that the bulk of the inventors I’ve worked with have had one thing in common: when they came to see me it was their first foray through the product development process.  They probably could have used a road map which lays out the typical steps to follow through the process.  Thus, for the benefit of my future clients, I’ve laid out the high-level steps that the typical product must go through prior to releasing the product to market.  I’ll go into a little bit of detail for each high-level step but this post is really about laying the groundwork for subsequent detailed posts for each process step.  I’m really excited about the potential of this post and the collection of detailed posts to follow because the content is very much in line with DiFi’s core mission:  to set our client’s dream products on the path to reality.  If this collection of posts provides enough valuable content to help just a few people navigate that path than DiFi has done its job.  So here is a high-level look at what it takes to bring your dream design to market.        

1.  It All Starts with an Idea

Most of the inventors I’ve worked with spark an innovative product idea out of a hobby or industry that they are very passionate about.  But if that’s not the case for you, you might want to ask yourself a tough question.  Am I passionate enough about this product that I’m going to do what it takes to bring it to life?  Product development takes time.  You will need that passion to draw from when you have those low energy days that you need to push through.

If your level of passion behind this endeavor is unquestionably high, then start by doing some initial market research.  The first question you want to ask yourself and a few potential customers is: Does this product solve a problem that many people in my target market are experiencing?  If you’re product doesn’t relieve a pain point for potential customers than it likely won’t thrive.  Secondly, scour the internet to see if there are any similar products currently on the market.  That’s not to say that your idea couldn’t blow the competition out of the water, but you need to be aware of the competition as well as any potential active patents you could be infringing upon. 

2.  Concept Sketches

Once you’re convinced that your idea has merit you’ll need to start fleshing out the initial design.  But many of you may be saying to yourself, “I suck at drawing”.  Don’t worry.  You are not alone.  You don’t need to be a classically trained pencil artist to whip up some concept sketches.  Many people I’ve worked with have trouble thinking in 3D.  In fact, much research shows that a human’s ability to think three-dimensionally, known as spatial visualization ability, is tied to several factors, including the nature of his/her upbringing and even genetics.  So if you have low spatial visualization ability don’t frustrate yourself by trying to whip up a polished three-dimensional sketch.  Just start by drawing a top view, front view, and side view of your concept design.  This will give your future CAD designer, who presumably has high spatial visualization ability, enough information to put together a 3D version of your concept.    

3.  Rough Prototyping

If your product is simple enough, you may be able to churn through a few iterations of rough prototypes to test for functionality.  Don’t worry about making it pretty at this point.  Just grab whatever scrap wood, plastic or foam you can find along with some inexpensive hardware, glue or even duct tape to join it all together.  The goal is to learn as much as you can from a cheap, rough prototype before moving forward with more refined prototypes.  This allows you to quickly iterate through early design changes and saves you some money upfront.       

4.  Make a plan

At this point you are probably ready to get a few more people involved in your project to help take it to the next level.  However, the more people you get involved the more complicated the project can become.  Have you ever heard the expression, “There’s too many cooks in the kitchen?”  You are fixing to experience a flood of information and potentially differing opinions so you need a tool you can reference as a team to help keep you on track.  This is where a project plan comes in.   I recommend putting together a basic plan for your product prior to involving other team players.  This plan will include a timeline goal and initial retail pricing and target manufacturing costs. 

You’ve never put a project timeline together?  Just use the process steps I’ve laid out in this post and apply your best estimate for how long you think each step will take.  This is a tool you will constantly reference and tweak as a team throughout the development process.  Once you’ve put together a few players to help you refine your design you can leverage their expertise to finalize the plan as a team. 

5.  Legal Care-Abouts

A lot of inventors get hung up on the intellectual property side of their invention.  Several people I’ve talked to are so afraid of someone stealing their idea that it prevents them from talking about it at all and the project stalls out.  Or many people think they need to apply for a full-blown patent right off the bat; but the shock of the cost prevents them from moving forward.  My opinion?  Put together a simple Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and have those you get involved in the project sign the agreement prior to sharing any information.  A quick Google search will provide a NDA template suitable in most cases, but involving a lawyer to give you some quick advice isn’t a bad idea.

6.  Initial 3D CAD Development

With initial sketches, a project plan, and simple legal protection in hand you are ready to polish your design in preparation for refined prototyping.  Manufacturers typically require 3D CAD files in order to quote production costs so you’ll need to find a solid CAD designer that you can trust.  The challenge is to find a CAD designer that can hit the aesthetics you’re looking for while keeping manufacturability in mind.  Try to find a CAD designer who can flesh out potential challenges in your product’s manufacturing process and one that can help guide you through material and prototyping options. 

7.  Refined Prototyping

Now that you have 3D CAD developed you can utilize technology to build some refined prototypes.  Research prototyping options such as 3D printing, milling, and cast urethane processes.  Keep in mind that this will likely be an iterative process.  You’ll discover things in your first refined prototype that you just couldn’t foresee without getting your hands on a physical prototype.   This means you’ll likely have to go back and forth between CAD development and prototyping until your happy with a final prototype.  Ideally, try to find a service provider who can provide both CAD development and prototyping services to avoid having to go back and forth between multiple entities.    

8.  Field Testing of Your Prototype: In-depth Market Research

Once you are happy with your latest prototype you are ready to field test and do some more in-depth market research.  I recommend producing a handful of prototypes and getting it in the hands of some impartial potential users.  That doesn’t mean handing prototypes to your closest friends and family members.  They love you too much to break your heart.  Try to find individuals you don’t know who are a part of your product’s industry or who represent your target market.  Come prepared with your NDA for them to sign as well as a brief survey to collect as much information you can about the functionality of your product and how well it solves the problem you’ve set out to solve.  Take what you learn from this research to tweak your design one final time if need be. 

9.  Pursue Manufacturing

This step can take more time than you’d think.  With your finalized CAD and prototypes in hand you are ready to start sending information to potential manufacturers to Request for Quotes (RFQ).  Search for manufacturers that specialize in the manufacturing process or processes that you and your CAD designer designed for.  If possible, try to find someone local or not too far away that you can meet with in person to discuss your CAD and let them handle your prototype.  There’s potential this could help flush out any last flaws in the design.  There are a bunch of questions that you should be prepared to answer when pursuing potential manufacturers.  Would you like molds fabricated and parts produced in the USA or overseas?  What material/s would you like your product made from?  What is your distribution model?  What assembly methods are you pursuing?  What quantities would you like quoted for per unit cost?  And several more.  In turn, you’ll have several questions you’ll want to ask the manufacturer.  Once the tooling is complete, do I own it or do you?  What is the lead time for tooling fabrication?  What is the lead time for part orders?  And several more.  Ideally, you’ll have someone on your side to help you find the best answers to these questions and navigate the manufacturing world.  Once you have a few manufacturers in the works expect one to three weeks to receive detailed quotes.  Depending on the complexity of your design and whether molds are fabricated in the USA or overseas, molds typically cost between $5000 - $30,000.  

10.  Funding

In my opinion, this is the number one reason an inventor’s product development project stalls out.  They simply don’t have the money or can’t raise the money to move their idea to production.  Fortunately, there are a bunch of resources out there this day and age that can help when looking to fund your product.  Search for community programs for entrepreneurs or look into crowdfunding.  And, while it’s arguably the riskiest of your options, you could apply for a small business loan.   

11.  Legal (again), Business Admin, and Marketing

Prior to pressing play on a Kickstarter campaign or giving your manufacturer the go, it is time to start thinking about the legal side of patents and trademarks.  Keep in mind that a full utility patent can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but there is something called a provisional application.  Think of this as a place holder that protects your idea for one year and has a few advantages over applying for a full patent.  A provisional application is:

  • Easier to prepare
  • Significantly lower in cost
  • Allows you to designate your product as “patent pending”, which can be a big marketing benefits. 

Another legal tool that inventors should look into is trademark registration.  Try to settle on a name for your product that is unique and catchy, then trademark the name. 

When it comes to setting up your business name it’s a good idea to keep it different from your product name.  If your product is selling very well you could potentially attract an individual or company who wants to purchase the rights to your product.  If this is of interest to you than the last thing you want is for your product and business name to be the same.  If the rights to the product are sold than your whole business goes bye-bye as well.

In step 9, you should have already asked yourself, “What is my distribution model?”  Are you going to be selling wholesale to big box stores?  Or are you going to sell retail through your own online store or Amazon?  Or maybe a balance of both?  Have these questions already answered prior to starting manufacturing. 

Once you’re happy with your legal protection and your business is setup you can begin marketing your idea.  At the very least, I recommend doing these few things to begin marketing your product:

  • Setup a simple website landing page
  • Think about having a product video produced
  • Setup as many social media outlets as you can manage
  • Network at conferences or workshops in your product’s industry
  • Start reaching out to online publications in your industry to potentially write about your upcoming product. 

The goal here is to build an audience, especially if you are going to be trying to fund your product through crowdfunding.  The most successful crowdfunded projects are those that already have an audience.    

12.  MFG is a Go

 You are funded!  It’s time to give your manufacturer the go.  Depending on the complexity of your design, expect 4 – 8 weeks for mold fabrication and about 2 weeks for your manufacturer to fulfill production orders.  But your manufacturer will be able to give you tighter estimates. Keep in mind that there still could be, and in most cases will be, unforeseen hurdles to jump.  Maybe you’re not 100% satisfied with the quality of the finish on your part or the manufacturer didn’t hit a dimension quite right.  Make sure you work these potential setbacks into your estimated timeline. 

13.  Sell, sell ,sell!

With your beautiful, functional, fully-manufactured product in hand you’re ready to sell.  If you’ve had a successful crowdfunding campaign your first obligation is to your backers, so make sure you over-communicate the progress of your product’s development and you must deliver finished product to them first.  In parallel to producing this first batch of orders for your backers look into a few other selling avenues, such as:

  • Have a pre-order page setup on your own eCommerce website. 
  • Look into ways to keep costs down at first by doing your own packaging and shipping.  You may even be able to do this out of your home if you’re product is small enough.
  • Once you’re 100% satisfied with the quality control of your product over time I’d recommend looking into “Fulfilled by Amazon”.  Many manufacturers will deliver your finished product directly to Amazon, who will warehouse your product, package it, and ship orders, all without you having to touch it.

There you have a good high-level look at what it takes to lead a product from idea generation through launch.  If this article left you with more questions than you had prior to reading the article, stay tuned for follow-up posts where I’ll be taking a deep dive into the details of each step.  While this list isn’t inclusive of all the details you need to know I’m hoping it gives a few aspiring inventors a road map to build their product development goals around.