Many (exciting) steps are in front of you before to see your product in the hands of your customers. It is going to take time and effort (hardware is hard… remember ?) but you will have lots of fun and interesting discoveries along the way.
The typical process for launching a hardware company can be broken up into 10 essential big phases or steps. Each of them have their own challenge. Be prepared to meet and work with experts.
Here are the 10 steps to create a hardware company:
1. The Idea!
Every successful product starts with a good idea. Many times, products that fail are the ones that don’t solve a need. When you have a new product idea, don’t jump on it right away, give it some time.
It takes usually about a year to go from the first idea to the final shipped product. You need to be sure you love the idea enough before moving to the next phase. Of course, it makes sense at this phase to evaluate – even roughly – the size of the market you are trying to reach and how crowded it is. Keep a notebook with you and sketch your ideas as they come. It is a great way to brainstorm.
Useful resources for this phase:
Evernote is an awesome web app to take notes. They also now have a partnership with Moleskine notebooks so you can link your paper notes with your online notes. I haven’t tried it yet but it can come in handy (if you already use Moleskine).
2. The Proof of Concept
The proof of concept is your first prototype. Its goal is to show that your idea is not just a dream but could become something real. During this phase, focus primarily on the functions of your product: make the electronics work, create the rough shape of the product you have in mind.Keep in mind that you won’t obtain the perfect prototype right away. Many, many iterations are on your way. At this phase, don’t stress too much about the general shape of your product or the materials and components you are going to use. At first, it’s good to start with materials that you are easily accessible, such as cardboard, toothpicks, plywood. For the electronics, think Arduino and its clones.
Useful resources for the proof of concept phase:
TheMakerMap will let you find hardware stores and makerspaces around you
The Worldwide List of Open Hardware Online Stores that I gathered for you can also be useful to find specific electronics components.
3. Functional Prototype
Between the proof of concept and the working prototype, you will create many versions. Most products have seen at least 20 prototype versions before the final one. It’s also good to create prototypes with a specific purpose: one for the basic look and feel of the product (called “form study prototype“), one for the user experience (the “user experience prototype”, one for simulating the appearance including surface textures and colors (the “visual prototype“).
The functional prototype, or working prototype, is a full simulation of the final product, from the aesthetics and materials to functionality. This is the prototype you want to show at Maker Faire, photograph for your crowdfunding campaign, demo to journalists or during business meetings. Once the functional prototype is operational, it’s time to move to the next big step and prepare the manufacturing phase.
Useful resources for this phase:
Techshop is a membership-based shop for makers.
Autodesk announced recently that AutoCAD Inventor suite will be available for free for small businesses.
4. Design for Manufacturing
When your prototype is fully functional, it is easy to think that you can now make more of them and start selling, or that you’re ready for manufacturing. This is absolutely wrong! Your prototype is using expensive parts (Arduino boards and 3D printed parts for example). In many case, it would be way too costly to start selling it this way. This is when Design for Manufacturing (or Design for Manufacturability) enters the game.
You need to take into account the manufacturing processes in order to lower the costs and make your product actually manufacturable. Take into consideration fabrication, processing and assembly.
Useful resources for the DFM & DFA phase:
ProtoMold: get a quote and adjust your design
Now that you can estimate manufacturing costs and approximate price your final product, it is time to take the next big step. Launching a crowdfunding campaign at this time of the process can be an excellent idea: you will be able to test your idea in front of real potential customers and take pre-orders that will let you go to your manufacturer with confidence.
Think about your crowdfunding as the official launching of your company. This is when you create your official brand (including a name, logo, website, demo video, social network profiles) and share it with your audience. In this phase, the risk is not about the money, it’s about the love for your product: do people want it? are they excited about it?
Useful resources for the funding phase:
“Hacking Kickstarter” on Tim Ferris blog: a great article about crowdfunding strategies for hardware projects
Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, KissKissBankBank
“The investors who want to hear about your open hardware startups”: a handy list of incubators, accelerators and investors specialized in hardware
Selling a few kits doesn’t require full certification, but as soon as you want to scale your production, you will need to make sure your product respects safety norms. This process takes a few weeks and costs money. You will need to access to a lab that will test your prototype and make sure it respects the rules. It’s also the right time to take product insurances.
Once you have enough pre-orders or enough funds and you are sure that your product will be legal on the market, it’s time to go see your manufacturer and get ready for production. It’s a big step, actually the biggest one. You need CMs (Contract Manufacturers) that you can trust. Going to China might be a solution but in many cases, it makes more sense to start manufacturing locally. It will be easier to communicate and control the process. The manufacturing phase is not only about directly making the parts of your product. In many cases, the first step will be to create the tools and molds that will be used for mass producing your invention. It takes time.
Useful resources for the manufacturing phase:
Manufacturers send you the parts that will compose your final product. You need to find solutions for putting together all the pieces. Most of the time, this step of the process requires many people and a large space. This is your assembly line. For small batches (less than 500), friends and family can help you, but you will realize very quickly that assembling is extremely time-consuming and many mistakes can be made along the way.
You should test and re-test during each step of the process, but this one testing phase is a key one. The goal now is to make sure that your product is working perfectly and is ready to be shipped to your waiting customers.
You can then start shipping the product to your customers. Many companies can help with this phase by providing storage and taking care of the logistics.
By Mathilde Berchon, MakingSociety
MakingSociety is a blog and podcast with one goal: helping you build your open hardware startup