Beyond Duct Tape: How to pick a product design partner

Grey Duct Tape

This post is designed for new hardware teams who have validated their technology via a duct tape prototype.  Your founding team has great R&D skills.  With a little fishing wire and bubble gum, and a generous amount of duct tape, you have proved the efficacy of your solution.  You are ready to take the product to the next level.  The only problem?  The founding team doesn’t quite have the skillset to productize the technology.  They need to find talent who can help them realize their vision.  This post will help you find people who can take care of the next leg in the relay.

First, let’s talk about the work content. With a duct tape prototype, the technology has been proven to work, at a bare-bones, purely functional level. With an actual product, the functionality needs to be presented in an ergonomic, usable manner. This requires an industrial designer – and oftentimes a hardware founding team does not have an experienced industrial designer on board. That’s the first place where the team may need help.

While the first iteration of a looks-like, works-like prototype is almost certainly not going to go straight to mass production, the electromechanical architecture does need to incorporate design for manufacturing / design for assembly principles.  A preliminary cost target needs to be arrived at.  Both of these activities require deep knowledge in product development, supply chain development and manufacturing processes.

You can certainly take classes and read books to learn the basics.  However, this is an area where Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, rules. The more times you’ve brought hardware devices to market, the better you will be in designing something that can be produced, is durable, and is of high quality from a construction and fit/finish standpoint. Put bluntly, it is frequently faster and cheaper to import the talent than to have a bright founding team derive everything from first principles.  This is the second place where the team can need help.

If you find yourself in need of help in one of the above two areas, you have two options. You can either hire several individuals (whether full time employees or contractors) to do the job, or you can hire a product design firm to take over the initial project.

When do you decide to hire a team versus hire a firm? Here are some considerations that can help you decide.

Choose individuals if:

  • You already know a few experienced and available people who have agreed to work with you on this – or you know someone who can easily introduce you to those people.
  • You are on a shoestring budget.  A group of individuals with the same experience will be charged at a premium if they are with a product design firm (which offers benefits in terms of scale and tribal knowledge).
  • You have time to hire the right people and to develop the team so it becomes a well oiled machine.
  • The hardware is the protectible core of your company and you want to build up your own core competence and retain creative control.

Choose a product design firm if:

  • You are new to product development and do not have a vast network of technical talent you can tap into – it will take you a long time to hire a new team.
  • You are adequately funded.  Each engineering iteration can cost five to six figures depending on complexity.
  • You are in a tearing hurry.  Product design firms typically can get the job done faster, because their staff is highly experienced, the team has experience working together, and they probably already have connections to the suppliers of key components required for building the first set of looks-like, works-like prototypes.
  • Your focus is not hardware.  If you are really a big-data, analytics, and algorithms based platform play which requires a device to be the vehicle to deliver value, the hardware is not actually the core of your company’s existence. Outsourcing the first iteration may make sense, so you can have the in-house team focus on software and algorithm development.

Let’s talk a little further about how to choose a product design firm.  The first thing you should do is to look at your product category and its key characteristics, then look for partners with experience creating products in the same category.  Developing a wearable device? Look for wearables in the portfolio of the potential partners.  Creating a medical device? Definitely look for companies who have gone through the 5(10)k process multiple times before.  Working in clean energy? Find a company who has experience with policy.   Developing a mass produced consumer electronics device?  Look for someone who has done consumer electronics, not people who specialize in one-off projects, like a piece of custom automation for a laboratory, or who work on high-margin, low volume items like military helicopters and the like.

Skip right over the corporate pitches and ask potential partners to talk about products they have created that is similar to yours.  If you are looking for, say, someone to create a seven-degree-of-freedom robot arm, and the only product category that the product design firm has ever worked on is mobile tablets, you can stop right there and move on to the next candidate.

The second thing you should do is to look at the key components in your product, then look at how your partners are staffed. Do they have all the talent in house to execute your project, or do they need to subcontract part of your project to someone else?   A lot of product design firms in Massachusetts come out of an industrial design and mechanical engineering tradition.  As of 2015, probably fewer than half have in-house electrical engineering and firmware capabilities. Yet, the vast majority of hardware startups are creating connected devices, or devices that have some level of IoT characteristics.  This requires three disciplines: industrial design, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering / firmware.  If your product design partner covers only two out of three functional disciplines, chances are they will not be as strong as another partner who has in-house expertise in all three areas.

Product design firms long on hardware and short on EE/software will either need significant support from your in-house team, or they will need to find a subcontractor, increasing the complexity of project management and reducing the efficiency of the whole process.

The third thing you should do is to look at whether your project can be a good deal for you and for the firm you are working with.  This is something a lot of startups overlook.  Many flock to top-rated, world-class product design firms, such as IDEO.  However, not every company and project is a good match for IDEO.  If the startup is minuscule in scale, the project is small in scope, and the product design partner is used to doing projects that are 10x in scale and scope, then the project will not be a good deal for the partner.  There is a fundamental impedance mismatch in how they do business. With best intentions, it will be difficult for the partner to be responsive to the startup’s needs.

It is far better for a startup to work with a design partner that is used to dealing with people like them – startups who are learning continuously from the market, who need flexibility and agility from a scrappy design partner.   At the end of the day, the startup needs a service rendered, and the product design firm needs to make money.  Always keep this in mind when selecting a partner.  The project has to work well for both sides.

Finding seasoned product design people to take your invention to the next level can feel daunting. But if you keep these things in mind, you will stand a much better chance of finding someone who will be a good partner with you.  Good luck, and go forth and conquer!

 

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