Where do Great Ideas Come From?
There are two deep secrets to this process. Success lies not just in a designer’s ability to generate concepts. First, great ideas are entirely hostage to the information and stimulation the designer (or aspiring Maker) gathers to provoke their gestation. In other words, it’s all about the goals and research. You can think of this almost like cooking. The better the ingredients, the better the food. Ideas need to be fueled by great inputs.
The second critical building block to generating successful ideas actually precedes the research described above. As Eric explains it: “The first step is to define the problem you’re trying to solve very clearly. The Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen calls this ‘the job to be done.’ This clarity then narrows down the field of possible solutions and brainstorming activities. If you just start brainstorming, you lack context for deciding which concepts are best. If you can clearly articulate the problem, often the solutions seem to magically appear and become obvious. But getting to that point of clarity is the real challenge.”
Educating the New Entrepreneur
Before you start asking anyone for anything, you need to do some basic research from the comfort of your own couch or chair. Below are the first-step resources to give you a working knowledge of just about any topic, technology, company, or person.
- Google (google.com): The omniscient Google has become everyone’s go-to place to start for basic information, resources, and articles on just about everything.
- Quora (quora.com): An online question and answer site that allows users to post and answer in real time. With 100 million monthly visitors, the site is a great place to get crowdsourced answers and discover the pros and cons of anything you can imagine.
- Wikipedia (Wikipedia.com): This free online encyclopedia is a great place to get background details, dates, or a general understanding of a company or person. Not all information on Wikipedia is verified, so it’s best to use it as a jumping-off point or to discover original articles, which are listed in the Reference section.
Once you have your first blush questions answered, you will find yourself in need of the type of people Steve Jobs tapped. You will have learned which organizations or people have the keys to the castle in terms of resources or knowledge. Now your job is to get to them. One way to find those people is to attend a trade show in the area of interest for your business.
Tapping Established Expertise
Phone calls, meetings, and Google alone are not enough for this stage. Instead, this is the time to try to build reliable, accessible sources of expertise. Of course some of that can be assembled through a constant trawling of publications and gatherings that represent people pursuing relevant ventures. For instance:
- Maker Media (makermedia.com): The team behind Maker Faire publishes information to help Makers share ideas, build community, and introduce new technologies.
- Maker Faire (makerfaire.com): Created by Make: magazine, these events are part science fair, part crafts fair, with DIYers who are branching into arts, engineering, and crafts.
- Meetup (meetup.com): A social networking site that enables members to join in-person or online groups around the world. Members can find others with common interests and tap into knowledge and expertise either locally or virtually.
If you still crave more assistance and expertise (and you will), here are some relatively new and vibrant sources to fill this need:
- Maker and hacker spaces
- University startup labs and incubators
- Business accelerators and incubators (general)
- Hardware accelerators (dedicated to physical products)
- Custom advisory boards or peer groups
Smart market research tends to divide into two categories. First, there is up-front research to assess the size of a target market. Second, there is research to determine customer responses to your concepts, prototypes, brand position, or packaging.
People skip this step for a variety of reasons. First, they think just talking to friends and family is good enough. It is not. Unless you are directly related to millions of people, friends and family will not be your full customer base. You need to talk to strangers who do not love you and will tell you the truth about their needs and desires and willingness to pay for your idea. The second and more valid reason people skip the market sizing research is that this task ranges from mildly difficult to almost impossible.
Design & Documentation
Most products are more complex, and that’s where a designer can be invaluable. Industrial designers tend to focus on physical products and complex services design. User interaction/experience designers are their necessary counterparts when it comes to orchestrating the specific flow and nature of a person’s interactions with a product, system, or application.
At a minimum, an experienced industrial designer and user experience team (occasionally, they are a single person) will address the following areas:
- Human factors and ergonomics
- User experience (UX)
- Materials and finishes
- Manufacturability, durability, and cost effectiveness
- Form and function
Design and “documentation” are often confused. It should be noted that starting out on paper, on the back of a napkin, or in some other nontechnical format is not just a cute scrappy way for first-timers to make a product. It’s an essential first step for any designer to quickly get ideas out of his or her head and onto the page. Dan Schults, the head of user experience design at The Grommet says, “This is in fact how the pros work, too. In this fast, low-fidelity format, you can rapidly refine and iterate at almost no expense of time or money. There’s no need to break out the CAD software or the rapid prototyper until you have a good sense of the direction you’re heading in.”
So how do you find a designer? LinkedIn is your friend, but you can also benefit from trawling a host of online resources.
Very few people you might ask for help are going to throw over their current livelihoods to take on the grueling work of copying your undeveloped napkin-sketch idea. People rarely fall that deeply in love with someone else’s baby. So by all means, take the teeny tiny risk of sharing your idea with individual advisors, experts, and potential investors. Your early job is to figure out if you have a viable business idea in the first place. Lawyering up or fiercely defending a bad idea is just a waste of time, so realize that the benefit of outside assistance far outweighs the threat of experts and advisors stealing your stuff.
in contrast to seeing expert advisors as potential competitors, inexperienced entrepreneurs can be too trusting of potential business partners. Founders will engage a distant factory in China who might easily knock off their idea, or list their product on Amazon and expose it to a world of counterfeiters without even taking the steps to protect their product. So the art of managing intellectual property is more about risk assessment than anything else.
First, a word of caution. If you are intending to make your business your full-time gig and you haven’t started prototyping, don’t quit your day job yet. Even if the size of your available market and business plan are giving you dreams of someday owning a small private island. Even if your test Facebook ads or focus groups yield a fantastic and encouraging market response. Even if you hate your boss and can’t spend one more minute filing TPS reports. One of the critical parts of assessing the viability of your venture will happen in the prototyping phase.
Consider the riddle about the chicken and the pig.
Question: In a bacon-and-egg breakfast, what’s the difference between the chicken and the pig?
Answer: The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed!
You will morph from being the chicken to the pig soon during the process of prototyping. Having said that, try to stay in the fowl category as long as possible before you sign up to give it your all.
Industry Access and Exposure
Cracking open doors by putting yourself out there is not an academic exercise. These activities can yield key customer awareness, retail distribution, employees, suppliers, investors, and invaluable media coverage. It’s a crowded world and everyone is busy. External validation is a universal shortcut for people to determine who is worth their time, partnership, or money. Everyone loves when others do the hard work of vetting for them. This is why you see awards badges prominently displayed on packages and on the home page of websites.
Before you jump on any given source, let’s review the basics of what kind of funding needs you can anticipate. Your capital requirements are likely to fall into three buckets:
- Business operations
- Capital equipment
The first bucket, business operations, is the only one in which you might consider taking on equity investors, or people who expect part ownership of the company in exchange for their capital. Selling equity (as opposed to, say, taking loans, running a crowdfunding campaign, or securing short-term financing from a customer or a line of credit) is the most expensive form of funding. Why? Every percentage of investor ownership is a percentage you give away. If and when you sell the company, or if and when you use stock options as a way to attract top-notch employees, you will be very protective of the equity pool. Equity ownership percentages will move from simply being a pie chart diagram to real economic incentives for employees and real money in a transaction.
While many Makers finance the business operations by hook or by crook, and never pursue the high effort/high reward activities of an accelerator or competition, virtually all successful Makers find funding inventory to be a pressing need.
Many use Kickstarter and Indiegogo for the first run up that hill. A successful campaign is a business in itself and not for the faint of heart, and there is a whole cottage industry of advisors and resources for crowdfunders to tap. Don’t go it alone without studying the best practices and devoting substantial time and energy to the campaign. The rewards can be high in that a successful campaign is like a friendly low-cost loan against your first production run (much of which you typically use up to repay the funders). Compared to meeting the needs of retailers or online customers, this community is patient and supportive of the ups and downs of delivering their inventory, as long as you are highly communicative during the whole process.
When it comes to capital equipment, there is a whole capital marketplace built around getting businesses the funds to acquire equipment. Leasing is one solid option, and often the dealers or manufacturers themselves will offer this route. If you are unsure of your long-term equipment needs, a lease may be advisable.
Loans are another traditional option with possible tax deduction advantages. Beyond the tax implications, comparing this decision of buy (with a loan) versus a lease is similar to a personal car decision. If you take a loan and pay down the debt, the equipment becomes an asset to the business. That is not the case with a lease.
The hurdle to capital equipment debt is a little lower than straight business loans because the debt is secured by a physical asset. You can finance all or part of the purchase, you can finance used equipment, and interest rates vary tremendously but are generally lower than other business loans. The core theory is that the revenue produced by the investment will more than cover the annual debt service.
Other Skills Required to Make Stuff Now
- Retail distribution
- Direct to consumer (dtc
- E-commerce and payments
- Customer experience
- Financial management
- Inventory management
- Growing into the future