How to go From Prototype to Pro

How to go From Prototype to Pro
Plethora helps makers go pro
Plethora helps makers go pro.

It’s the big question that draws hopeful hardware entrepreneurs to this event. How do you make that leap from a maker to a real company?

Part of the solution is the ability to quickly iterate through prototypes. “This is a prototype revolution more than a manufacturing revolution,” said Dale Dougherty.

Ben Einstein, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Bolt

Is that all there is to the story? In these three sessions, some of the pros share their experiences and advice, from prototype to market.

Early Stage Roadmap

Ben Einstein, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Boston based Bolt asks, “Why is hardware hot?”

Contract manufacturing has changed the landscape for businesses. Start-ups certainly need investors, but what are those investors looking for?

  1. A world class team
  2. Products or services that solve a big problem
  3. The ability to gain traction in the market
  4. A company with a bold vision
Scott Miller, Co-Founder and CEO of Dragon Innovation

Dragon Innovation is a crowdfunding platform in the business of helping hardware start-ups. Their client list includes Sifteo, Romotive, Pintofeed, Pebble, and of course, Makerbot. They bring years of manufacturing experience to the table. “You can’t Google manufacturing information,” Scott Miller says.

What you can do, is listen to your backers. If you can build a community behind your product, you aren’t just getting funding, you’re gauging your market. “Crowdfunding is great for market validation,” Scott adds.

“The difference between hardware and software,” says Rob Coneybeer (@robconeybeer), “is touch.” There is an intrinsic importance to how your customers will physically interact with your product. Strong product design is essential, and branding is an integral part of product design.

Robert Coneybeer, Managing Director of Shasta Ventures

“Lego is a paragon of hardware branding,” says Rob. “How many products do you know where the name of the company is on every single piece of product? Lego put the time into their design. You don’t get that tactile feedback of parts snapping together in a cheap knock-off.”

You do have to keep it simple. Keep names short, but make sure you have differentiation. Don’t underestimate the power of word of mouth.

  1. Make it very easy for the people who love your product to advocate it. Short names, easy to spell, easy to pronounce.
  2. Social media. What colors and shapes work well? Does it show up well when photographed?
  3. Don’t try to do everything at once. If you are building a product that is Internet connected, you can push out better functionality. Updates can help build your brand loyalty.

Rob also suggested searching for ‘branding principles’ in your favorite search engine. Read and apply what you find in the top links. It’s good advice.

Getting it Made

Bunnie Huang, Co-Founder of Chumby
Bunnie Huang, Co-Founder of Chumby

Bunnie Huang (@bunniestudios) describes the gap between making one unit and making thousands of units. There’s a high cost for initial injection molding, but the on-going unit cost is an order of magnitude less than 3D printing.

Makers must ask themselves, “When do I make the jump across the gap?”

Good manufacturing partners can help with that judgement and more. A partner that uses sub-contractors is a good thing. They are picking from their partner ecosystem to select the right manufacturer. This is better than a partner who feels locked in to using their own factory.

Bunnie also explains the importance of avoiding a designer Vs. manufacturer relationship. “Design with your factory,” Bunnie says.

Pick the right size partner for you. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. “If you are not having dinner with the CEO of your factory partner,” Bunnie explains, “you are nobody to them.” Your partner should share their bill of materials including the cost of each item. “Light is the best disinfectant,” he jokes.

Dorian Ferlauto, Founder and CEO, ELIHUU
Dorian Ferlauto, Founder and CEO, ELIHUU

Dorian Ferlauto of ELIHUU jokes that her company obviously didn’t listen to the branding rules Rob Coneybeer described earlier.

She explains that ELIHUU is about getting designers and manufacturers together. Hardware entrepreneurs are looking for manufacturing partners. Manufacturers are looking for work, and need to partner with good product designers.

ELIHUU is building a network of trusted and capable designers and manufacturing.

Nick Pinkston and Jeremy Herrman, Founders of Plethora
Nick Pinkston and Jeremy Herrman, Founders of Plethora

It’s difficult to access the manufacturing capacity in US and China. Nick Pinkston (@nickpinkston) of Plethora has a plan to address that.

“Manufacturing really hasn’t changed in 100 years,” he says. “A Ford plant that produced the Model T looks pretty similar to one today that produces the F150.” Nick thinks we can use software to make manufacturing easier.

What if we could apply some of the highly iterative software development methods to hardware manufacturing? Plethora’s manufacturing process is accessible through a custom CAD system. Customers use their CAD system to design their parts.

The system identifies errors in red (can’t be done), problems in orange (expensive to do), and potential failures in yellow. The system also automatically adjusts costs of the design on the fly as you pre-correct these design mistakes.

Getting it to Market

Zach Kaplan, CEO of Inventables
Zach Kaplan, CEO of Inventables

Zach Kaplan (@zkaplan) sees the world going through a new renaissance. The exclusive ability for large corporations to produce a product is changing. Individuals and small companies have a growing place in the market.

Inventables calls themselves “the designer’s hardware store.” They allow companies to buy parts and materials in small quantities. This helps plug the gap that companies face when developing small productions runs.

Brady Forrest, Vice President of Highway1
Brady Forrest, Vice President of Highway1

Brady Forrest (@brady) has been advisor to multiple technology companies, and is now, Vice President of technology incubator Highway1.

He explains that despite all the advances in rapid hardware prototyping and a growing ecosystem of manufacturing partners, there is still something missing.

It is still a challenge for a company to get started and then ramp up prodution without making large investments. What is needed, he says, is something like an Amazon Web Service for hardware.

In the meantime, hardware incubators and accelerators continue to have an important role for many start-ups.

Emile Petrone, Founder of Tindie
Emile Petrone, Founder of Tindie

Emile Petrone of (@emilepetrone) Tindie set out to create a marketplace for hardware start-ups. “We’re Etsy for hardware,” he says.

Emile explains that it is important to create a community for your hardware idea before you manufacture. You must also understand what kind of product you are going to bring to market. Will it be a finished product, assembled component, or a kit? Decide before you productize.

Equally important is having a feeling for your expected sales before you start ordering.

For crowdfunded projects, Emile advises, “Be open and transparent with your mistakes; your followers will understand if you admit to them up front.”

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Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and author of How Things Are Made: From Automobiles to Zippers. Andrew is also an electronics and robotics enthusiast and has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children's Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Enrichment in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.

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