5 tips to create a hardware product

It's a really exciting time for inventions in the UK now. 3D printing, innovative materials and new ideas mean that the sky is the limit for entrepreneurs who invent. One such entrepreneur is Frank Milani of Powergoat, creators of the Popcord - a micro keyring charger for your phone whose ingenious design led to a successful Kickstarter campaign. Here are his tips for creating a hardware product.

We hear it every day. Hardware startups are hard. Sure they are. One of the main disadvantages compared to software startups is that you can’t press a button and send an over-the-air update to fix your product, you can’t polish it up to make it look better after you shipped, and you can’t even improve the product to make user’s interaction easier. You only have one shot. And you need to make it work.

But hardware startups are exciting, because you get to build something. I mean something real. Something that you can feel, touch. And it’s a great feeling to hold in your hand the product you’ve built through hard work, sweat and tears. If you are not sold yet on the sexiness of a hardware startup, let me share with you a few tips on how to make things a bit easier.

Start with a problem

Think about what problem you are trying to solve, and ask as many people as possible how they are solving it at the moment. Only then figure out if you can do anything better. Often companies do it the wrong way around. They decide what to build, they build it, and then try to market it, only to realise that nobody wants it, or there are not enough people willing to pay for it.

In the Lean community we talk about the difference between building the right thing vs building the thing right.

Start with something simple

Once you’ve defined a problem, find the least complicated way you can solve it. Don’t focus on any unnecessary features. Every extra feature is an extra variable that increases your chance of getting something wrong. The more basic you can keep your product the easier it would be to build it, test the market, and learn from it.

Build your audience from day one

Although building hardware is hard, you will find it’s even harder to sell it. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”. I tend to disagree with that. If you don’t build your audience from day one, you will soon find out that it doesn’t matter how good your product is: if no-one knows about it, no-one will buy it. Start blogging, engage in online communities, listen and interact with your future customers on social media. Furthermore, stay away from the myth of overnight viral success. What seems like overnight is often the result of months of hard work behind the scenes, accurate messaging, and tireless reaching out.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

3D printing now allows you to print your design, check how it feels, and test dimensions and usability in minutes. You can quickly and efficiently print different variations of your product, show it to people and see their reactions. You will not only get early feedback on the design, you will also engage with your future customers and involve them in your design process, making them feel part of your journey. This is very important for two reasons: you get great and honest advice from your target market, and you start to build your audience of fans and early adopters. Often they will be the ones who jump on your product as soon as you launch it.

Balance your energy levels

As a founder in an hardware startup, you will have many tasks to focus on. Time seems to fly by, and you still have to answer that very important email or finish off that drawing to send to your manufacturer. You might end up outsourcing production to somewhere with a different time-zone. You probably have to put into account some late nights talking to your suppliers based in other countries, and subsequent early rises to get updates from them before they go to sleep and avoid wasting precious days. At the same time it’s important you don’t let your energy levels drop. Introduce healthy habits in your daily routines - eat healthily, exercise, and do things that keep your energy high. After all, with hardware startups you are in for the long-haul. You don’t want to run out of energy before you win big.

So if you are serious about your hardware startup, get out of the building, and talk to people about their problems. The journey of a hardware startup is a tough but exciting one; a truly rewarding journey. Build something that people love, and make it better, while keeping an eye on your energy levels. Remember, when you have doubts, to ask questions: you will find how passionate and helpful hardware communities and founders can become.

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