How to start... a hardware business

With the advent of 3D printing, and the emergence of new tools and materials, the sky's the limit for creating hardware that solves a range of frustrating problems. One such company doing really exciting things is Powergoat,  creators of elegant solutions to everyday problems. Their first invention is the genius Popcord - a charging cable that acts as a keychain, so you have it with you everywhere for when your phone dies. Here's how founder Frank Milani started a hardware business.

The spark

Powergoat’s first product, Popcord, was born out of a personal problem: my smartphone runs out of battery rather quickly and I’m really bad at remembering to bring my charging cable with me. That’s how the idea of Popcord, a charging cable that sits on your keys, was born. Quite a simple idea, but solving a very annoying problem experienced by millions of users every day.

Qualifications, licensing and experience

We didn’t have to become certified Apple MFi (Made for iPhone), but we decided to do it to show our commitment to quality and reliability. This allows us to source certified connectors from Apple-approved suppliers and offer a product that works reliably with iPhone. We had put the same effort in the Android version (Micro-USB) as we had gone through UL testing to certify we comply with general safety regulations as well as the USB-IF standards.

Specialist equipment

3D printing has been incredibly important in creating Popcord. During the design and development stage 3D printing allowed us to adapt the design and see the results in minutes. This had two major advantages:

1. We had been able to try different designs that were difficult to evaluate on paper, and see which one was actually better printing out a physical product. This allows to evaluate the look and feel, as well as assess possible manufacturability issues and easiness of assembly.

2. We had been able to iterate on the design, and from the very beginning started to show it to people and get feedback. We often went back to our “studio” (at that time our “studio” was our favourite coffee shop in London) and started designing again.

3D printing allowed us to have, at a very early stage, a product that was manufacturable and at the same time that we were confident people liked.

As I’m a student of a Masters in Innovation at City University I had access to a Makerbot Replicator 2 which allowed to print with PLA and ABS (plastic) to get quick iterations and test different designs. Furthermore, another two services that we used to print in different materials (including different metals) were i.materialise.com and shapeways.com, which are reasonably cheap.

Natural skills

More then skills, what I’ve found really helpful was having a passion for good design. When you're in a industry, it's very useful to be open and curious and keep an eye on what is coming out every day. It keeps your imagination open and can often spark your creativity when you least expect it.

Grit and endurance are also required to make it happen. In hardware, challenges and problems are sometimes difficult to forecast; you just have to keep working hard and believing you can get through them.

Market research

Our market research was our crowdfunding campaign. We already had a lot of great feedback from people we had shown it to, but we wanted to understand if there were enough people ready to pay for it. We thought that if at least 1,000 people ordered it during our Kickstarter campaign, it would be worth taking the risk of starting production and see if it would actually take off.

Early feedback is very important, but you'll often get people saying that your idea is a nice idea. It is only when you ask people to open their wallets that you truly realise if they see value in what you offer.

Location, location, location

We work at the Hangout. The Hangout is a super cool co-working and incubation space in Shoreditch, designed for students and graduates of City University London. It's a very inspiring and vibrant space, full of inspiring startups and creative companies always ready to give feedback and offer advice. A great place to be!

Marketing the business pre-launch

We started to market Popcord using every free channel we could think of. Social media, direct reach to friends and family, free Google Adword and Facebook Ad credit, as well as reaching out to blogs, magazines and cold-calling journalists. With trial and error we were analysing what was working best, and slowly moving our efforts to the most effective ones.

Launching

After about a year of product development and 2-3 months of preparation of the video, images, copy and fine tuning of the campaign’s page, we launched on global crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. We spent a few weeks before the launch reaching out to everyone we had told about our project, announcing the imminent launch, and getting them excited about it.

This allowed us to get great support from the first few minutes of the campaign being live and by the end of the day we featured as the most popular campaign live in that moment in the UK, boosting our visibility and earning us many articles and mentions on the media and tech blogs.

The first few weeks

The first few weeks, if not all the duration of the Kickstarter campaign, have been a very intensive time. The tasks quickly multiplied. We didn’t have to just care about product development - a whole new world rose in front of us. I was filling my mornings with calls to journalists, trying to get featured on newspapers and blogs, as well as trying to keep up with all the messages, requests and comments we were receiving from Kickstarter backers and potential ones. Social media, content marketing, and personal messages to our circles of friends and acquaintances was taking up the other part of my day, trying to reach out to as many people as possible. The night was often reserved to cultivate the relationships with the manufacturers we had selected and start planning the beginning of manufacturing.

Top tips

If you wanna start a hardware business, this is an exciting time. There are plenty of resources and support. Have a look at Maker spaces - these are great places to get support and develop your prototype. When your idea is a bit more refined it's worth having a look at Hardware accelerators like Hax.co and Highway1.io.  They are the best in class and provide support, guidance, and seasoned advice to bring a prototype to mass production.

Furthermore for endless inspiration and support there are networking groups and meetups specifically designed for Hardware startups, in which you can discuss and be encouraged by Hardware entrepreneurs that have gone through and are going through a similar journey. Have a look at Hardware Startup IO and Hardware Club.

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