The 3 Biggest Roadblocks in Product Development
There is no roadmap when it comes to entrepreneurship. Every founder has a different path he or she takes to get from point A to B and a unique experience to go along with it.
That said, as a product-development consultant (and former entrepreneur), I continue to see startups encountering the same set of roadblocks over and over again. Founders often are more concerned about things like perfection rather than execution, which not only lengthens the timeframe for launch but can also have other side effects such as a weak product-market fit.
Here are the three biggest sore spots and my advice on how to get around them:
1. Knowing when to stop adding features. During the development and prototype process, added features will occur to you or people will suggest them. Knowing how and when to say no is vital. (It isn't called a minimum-viable product for nothing.)
The reality: There are plenty of situations when launching with, for example, a number of different sizes or colors will be required, but the critical thing to realize is that any complexity you add to your product in terms of features and variants will increase development time.
Besides, if the product isn’t saleable without these added features, this is a red flag: You might not yet fully understand what will make the product great. Go back to the drawing board. I lean toward launching with a simple product and learning from its success and early adopters’ feedback what it needs to be more complex.
Get around the block: Attempt to put yourself in your consumers' shoes and figure out -- either through your own intuition or by asking them -- what they really want and what they will buy. (A note about user research: If you give people a choice of colors, someone’s going to choose one of each. Use your product vision to limit the concepts and variations being tested -- and to filter the findings.)
Bottom line: Don’t just expand the offering because you think you need to. Expand it only because it’s critical. You don’t have to fulfill every user’s requirements right from the beginning. The best course for startups is to launch, then ramp up and go bigger.
2. Striking the right balance between pre-launch and post-launch product learnings. Is nailing the product something you think you can do internally or do you need the forces of the marketplace to help you figure it out? And is launching an imperfect product likely to cause irreparable harm to your company? Software and websites launch all the time as work-in-progress products, but tweaks are much more difficult to make to physical products.
The reality: There is always a gap between what you can achieve in the lab with internal testing and what happens out in the real world. Once in the hands of consumers, your product will be more rigorously used and abused than you could ever hope. Often it’s the second or third version of a product that really gets it right. There are a lot of physical products that improved after being launched in the marketplace.
Get around the block: Work on developing and launching a first version of your product but also lay out a strategy for how you can iterate and improve it.
Bottom line: The most important thing is to figure out the process by which you gain feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. This can be done during development via user research or post-launch via contact with your customers
3. Getting things made right. The classic thing you hear from startups about manufacturing is a somewhat vague plan to get their product made overseas. This has the reputation of being the best low-cost solution, but it takes a huge amount of work and time on your part to get the right product back. No matter where you get things made, you have to build a strong relationship with your manufacturing partners and be extremely focused on quality -- two things that are more difficult to do long distance.
The reality check: Things have gotten more sophisticated in the past five to 10 years, especially in China. And while there’s a new breed of offshore manufacturers who either have domestic offices or sophisticated offshore offices and are good at working through design and development issues, it still takes plenty of work, time and hovering on your part to receive delivery of high-quality products. (If you need more information, here is a great article on how to make offshore manufacturing work.)
Get around the block: Provide what you think are too many samples, prototypes, drawings and documentation of critical tolerances and required quality. This last element is key. Ultimately manufacturers do not spend a lot of time understanding how products are used. It’s not enough to know something has hinges and snaps. They need to know how to achieve the right tolerances so the hinges and snaps feel the same way every time the user opens and closes them.
Provide the manufacturer with a functional test to make sure it is working correctly every time.
Bottom line: Design it and spec it, so it always works. Also provide metrics for making sure everyone has a common language for understanding how it’s supposed to feel and function. You’ll up your chances of success by developing these functional tests for the manufacturer to perform and by providing clearly stated, well-defined acceptance criteria.
Related: Embrace the Soft Launch
JD Albert is director of engineering at Bresslergroup, a product development consultancy in Philadelphia. After receiving his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, he co-founded E Ink, whose technology is used in e-reader devices including the Kindle and Nook. He was named a 2016 inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his contribution to that invention. Albert has been granted over 60 patents and is frequently called on to speak and write about product development in entrepreneurial settings, including at SEGD, Intersolar, Wharton, and Harvard Business School. He recently contributed a chapter on design thinking for early-stage startups to the book, Design Thinking: New Product Development Essentials (Wiley, 2016).