FAQ: How long does it take to develop a new hardware product and get it to market?

This is the first in a new series called FAQ Fridays.

Last week I answered the most common question I am asked. This week I answer the second most common question. Obviously everyone wants to know how long this whole process is going to take to bring a new hardware product to market.

The simple answer is: a long time. The more accurate answer depends on many variables, including:

Variable #1 = You

Yes, you are the biggest determining factor to how long it will take to develop and manufacture your product. The truth is no one will ever work as hard or as fast as you (and any co-founders).

If you have all the necessary technical skills to develop your own product, then doing it yourself is the fastest way to market. But that’s rare, and even if you’re an engineer you will likely have to learn many new skills.

For example, the hardware product that I brought to market back in 2010 required significant mechanical designing and 3D modeling. Since I’m an electronics engineer I hired a mechanical engineer to help develop my product.

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Being an excited entrepreneur I wanted things to move fast. I was very impatient and I’m sure the engineer I hired thought I was a pain to work with. He didn’t work fast enough to suit me so I switched to another mechanical engineer. But the second engineer wasn’t fast enough for me either.

Finally, I decided to teach myself 3D modeling and how to design for injection molding so I could finish the mechanical design myself. This helped to drastically speed up the development of my product.

The positive impact of doing a design yourself is more significant when appearance is critical since getting the “look” of a product right requires a lot of back and forth communication.

There are two morals to this story: First, no one can ever out work an excited, hyper-focused entrepreneur with a vision! Second, knowledge is power so the more you learn the more likely you are to succeed, quickly.

Variable #2 = The Product

Another critical variable that determines the time to market is the product itself. The more complex the product the longer it will take to develop and scale to manufacturing.

For example, it’s going to take you much longer to develop a complex robot with vision and speech recognition capabilities, than it will to develop a relatively simple Bluetooth Low-Energy product.

You can break down the product development into discrete steps, some easier than others to accurately estimate.

For example, with the necessary experience it’s relatively easy to estimate how long it will take to design the electronics schematic, or the Printed Circuit Board (PCB).

However, estimating the time needed to debug any issues found in your prototype is much more challenging. The first prototype for any new product is never perfect, and there will be problems that need to be fixed.

By its very nature, finding and fixing a bug means you are dealing with unknowns. If it was known you likely wouldn’t have designed it to have this bug, right? This is why debugging can be a challenging step to properly forecast.

One way to reduce your time to market is to focus initially on getting a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) version to market.

To be brutally honest, you don’t have a proven product idea until its actually on the market and you see what consumers really want . You may think your idea is a winner, but you cannot be sure.

The only way to know what consumers truly want is to sell them your product and get their feedback. Then you can implement this feedback to create the product they really want to buy.

So you need to focus on getting the simplest version of your product to market as fast as absolutely possible. Then use the feedback from users to fine-tune the product to include the features that buyers really want.

#3 – Money

Although you and your product are the most critical factors impacting the time to market, of course money is important.

That being said, the careless use of money may actually increase the time to market. This is especially true for first time product entrepreneurs. Don’t make the mistake of throwing lots of money at a problem you don’t fully understand.

It’s unrealistic to think you can do everything yourself, but the more you do yourself the better off you will be.

Okay, everything I’ve said so far is rather abstract. You want some concrete numbers on how long it will take to get your product to market, right?

If you have an experienced product developer on your founder team, and you have a product of moderate complexity, then you should be able to get your first prototype within about 3 months, and a final works-like-looks-like prototype within about 6-9 months.

If you have little product development experience on your team, then it will likely take longer. In this scenario the amount of money you have to spend is an important factor since you will need to outsource product development.

In order to pay to outsource your product’s development you may need to take it a bit slower to give you enough time to spread out the costs. If you run out of money then you may be forced to put a hold on development while you save more money. But that’s okay, and you should never spend more than you can afford to lose.

A final works-like-looks-like prototype doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ready to be manufactured. Typically, additional time will be required to fully optimize the design for manufacturing.

For example, although you may have a plastic enclosure that can be prototyped, you’ll now need to prepare that enclosure design for injection molding.

I would suggest you allocate an additional 6-9 months after having a final prototype to get your product ready for mass manufacturing. During this time you should also take care of additional steps such as obtaining the necessary electrical certifications.

To summarize, if you can get your product from concept to market in the fastest way possible, it will take about one year. That time frame applies to the ideal situation, meaning you have lots of development and manufacturing experience on your team, you have a good amount of capital to spend, and your product is moderately simple.

But to be honest this is a very rare situation. You really need the stars to align in order to take a concept to market in only one year.

For most founders and products, two years is more realistic. Taking one year for development plus one year to scale to manufacturing is an achievable goal for most hardware startups.

This is why you really need to have a long-term mindset. Bringing a new hardware product to market is always slow, even for experienced tech companies. Although time to market can be critical, don’t rush. Most likely you will be working on bringing your product to market for years.

Do you have a question you’d like me to answer as part of my new FAQ series? If so, please post your question below in the comment section.

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