Rules for Success I Learned Bringing My Own Hardware Product to Market

Rules for Success I Learned Bringing My Own Hardware Product to Market

It may feel like a Herculean task to get a new hardware product to market. But don’t let it overwhelm you.

It’s definitely not easy, but I assure you it is possible, regardless of your skills, education, or location.

Like any really complex goal it is essential that you break it down into small steps. All journeys, no matter how long or how difficult, consist of one small step after the other.

Be sure you have a solid understanding of the long-term “big picture”, but on a day to day basis you should focus on taking one small step after another.

These small steps begin to eventually add up, and over time you will be able to leverage your small, early successes into bigger successes.

This is what I did with my own hardware product that I brought to market.

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My Journey to Market for My Own Hardware Product

My product was a miniature consumer lighting device that attached to any surface. When pressed, it would pop-up and direct light downward to illuminate the surface it was attached to.

I started off very simple by building clay models of my product. Then I made a sales flyer showcasing a 3D model of my product in use.

Using primarily online surveys, I shared this sales flyer with hundreds of strangers asking for feedback on my product.

Next, I focused on getting a big retailer to express interest in my product.

I decided to target my efforts specifically on Blockbuster Video (they were huge back then) since my product could be used to illuminate remote controls while watching movies in the dark.

I found the contact information for a few different top executives at Blockbuster. Then I emailed them my product flyer asking for feedback.

One VP at Blockbuster replied fairly quickly with a short message that simply said “looks interesting, tell me more”.

This gave me the confidence and the validation to finish developing my prototype.

Several months later, I had an appointment to present my product to a top executive at Blockbuster.

Needless to say I’m very much an introvert, so I was terrified of going there to present my product.

Honestly, I didn’t sleep a single minute the night before my presentation, and I had a bad upset stomach from nerves for most of my trip.

It didn’t help to calm my nerves that Blockbuster headquarters was located on a top floor of an intimidatingly tall skyscraper in downtown Dallas, Texas.

But, I did it, and I guess I wasn’t too horrible because I got what I wanted from them which was a written letter expressing their interest in my product.

Next, I was able to leverage that letter to convince a manufacturer to invest quite significantly in my product.

This manufacturer ended up investing over $100,000 in my product! They funded the remainder of the development, they paid for my expensive injection molds, and they allowed me to pay for my inventory after I sold it.

If it wasn’t for my prior success with Blockbuster, they would have never done this.

Next, I leveraged my successes with Blockbuster and my manufacturer to convince over 20 independent sales representatives to pitch my product to big retailers, including Home Depot, Ace Hardware, and even Wal-Mart.

These sales people would probably not have agreed to pitch my product if I didn’t already have the prior success with Blockbuster and my manufacturer.

The process I followed was taking one step at a time, leveraging each small success into the next one.

If I can do it, so can you!

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Critical Rules for Success

Let’s now take a closer look at the most important rules for success that I learned bringing my own product to market, and from helping other entrepreneurs do the same.

Rule #1 – Always minimize your financial risk

Your first goal should be to get your product to market as cheap as possible, as fast as possible, all while minimizing your financial risk. Be confident in your product, but always try to keep your risk low, just in case your product isn’t the big success that you thought it would be.

Always strive to lower your upfront costs, and the investment of your time, until you have proven that your product will be a success.

Don’t worry about your profit margins in the very beginning (although you need to estimate what they will be in the future). Sure, you can get a much lower per unit production cost with a large order. But this increases your upfront financial investment.

What if they don’t sell? What if you realize post production that you need to make crucial changes? Start small, and work up from there, by always taking small incremental steps.

Rule #2 – Don’t rush past product validation

Are you overly confident in your product idea (like most entrepreneurs you probably are)? If so, you may have rushed through one vital step – validating that your product idea is a good one.

Your first step should be confirming that there is an actual market for your product idea. Next, validate that people will pay money for your product.

Rule #3 – Prioritize marketing and networking from day one

Many entrepreneurs focus exclusively on the development of the product, leaving marketing and networking for later.

However, you should strive to market and develop your product at the same time. Unless you have thousands of dollars to waste on paid advertising, marketing is a slow and long term process.

Marketing from day one will ensure that you have customers or investors who are ready to buy once you finish development. Also, if you plan on running a crowdsourcing campaign you absolutely must have an existing audience or would be customers.

Rule #4 – Don’t be overly secretive. Always get help and feedback from others.

Are you afraid that someone is going to steal your product idea?

Don’t be, and here’s why.

Having a product idea stolen is very, very rare. It hardly ever occurs. Also, no one will consider stealing a product that may or may not be successful. An unproven product idea is just too risky.

And I hate to break it to you, but your product idea has no real value, yet. As I say over and over again, the value is in the execution of the idea not the idea itself.

Chances are you are not the first person to even have your product idea. But, you absolutely can be the first person to turn your idea into a successful product and company. But you have to execute.

Start sharing your product idea with as many potential customers as possible. You want people to give you honest feedback, so be sure to get feedback from people who are not friends and family.

Customer feedback is how you will make the best version of your product idea. Every successful startup continually utilizes customer feedback.

If you are still worried about your idea being stolen, then you can pursue a provisional patent. This will give your idea protection for one year. Also, provisional patents only cost a few hundred dollars.

Rule #5 – Focus more on your customers than on your product

Your number one priority should always be your customer, not your product. If you over focus on your product you will find yourself ignoring your customers.

You always want to develop your product while incorporating input from your customers. Otherwise you will be making assumptions about what you think your customers want.

But most of these assumptions are probably wrong. You have to get your product out of your own head. The easiest way to do this is by communicating with customers.

This can be scary for lots of entrepreneurs, especially if you are introverted. Try to remind yourself that you have to know your customer in order to build the best version of your product.

Get your customers involved as early in the process as possible. You don’t need to have a finished product, or even a prototype, to start communicating with customers.

Rule #6 – Simplify your product

Bringing even a simple product to market is challenging, but bringing a complex product to market is exceptionally challenging. To avoid being stuck in development for years, you need to spend considerable effort upfront on simplifying your product.

This commonly means limiting your list of product features to the bare minimum required to solve the core problem your product is trying to solve. This is essentially the concept of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Rule #7 – Sell it before you make it (as much as possible)

If your product isn’t ready yet, you can do what is called pre-selling. This just means selling it before you can ship out the product to customers. You of course have to be upfront with them about how long it will take to get their purchase.

Selling your product is the single best way to validate your product. When money exchanges hands, you can trust that it is valuable feedback about your product.

Rule #8 – Have a long-term vision, but focus on taking small, consistent steps

You need to have goals beyond just building a product. Your real goal is to build a successful, profitable company. This starts with your first product idea and ends, hopefully, with selling your company for lots of money years in the future.

Take a moment to ask yourself, what do you really want for your company? Is your end goal to sell your company in 5 to 10 years for millions? Or do you want a family run company to pass down to your children?

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Get an Advisor and Begin Networking

Regardless of where you are in the journey, the most important thing for you to do right now is to connect with others for advice, guidance, and feedback.

Not only do you need connections with advisors, experts, customers, and investors, you also should surround yourself with other like-minded hardware entrepreneurs.

No one understands the challenges you face better than other hardware entrepreneurs. You can learn so much by talking with founders of other hardware startups.

Great things can happen by networking and connecting with others.

For example, an entrepreneur named Fraser recently joined my Hardware Academy platform and shared his product in the community for feedback. This was his first product and he was still in the pre-prototype stage. Fraser’s past experience was in marketing not engineering.

Not only did Fraser get lots of tremendously helpful feedback but he also caught the attention of another member named Elliot who already had a successful hardware company.

He liked Fraser’s product and felt it would be a good addition to his current product line.

After connecting, they struck a mutually beneficial deal. Elliot agreed to manage and fund the development, while Fraser would focus on the marketing. Needless to say Fraser was thrilled!

These type of connections are not typical or easy, but they are possible if you put yourself and your product out there.

Never stop networking yourself and marketing your product!

Most importantly, you need advisors and experts you trust to guide you along the path to market.

You specifically need at least one good advisor (although the more the better) that has actually brought a hardware product to market and built a company around it.

There is no shortage of fantastic engineers, and experts on every topic imaginable. But very few people have ever taken a hardware product all the way from idea to market.

Here are some of the ways to find and connect with advisors, experts, and other hardware entrepreneurs:

You can always hire experts as needed. But private experts are expensive with many charging $100 to $250 per hour. I personally used to charge up to $200 an hour.

You should also be careful because a lot of the advice you get may be biased due to conflicts of interest.

For instance, if you hire an engineer, they will make more money if they convince you to design a more complex product. Or, if you a hire a patent attorney they will encourage you to get a full patent, otherwise they won’t make any money.

Their financial interests don’t align with yours, and aren’t tied to your success. Always be careful of following the advice of people who have a conflict of interest with your own goals.

There are free forums and online groups you can join, but since they are open to anyone the quality is low, and you don’t know who to trust. Some social media platforms can be good ways to network, especially LinkedIn.

There are non-profit organizations such as SCORE in the United States with retired business executives who want mentor new entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find anyone with actual hardware startup experience.

Local meetups can be another great way to connect with other hardware entrepreneurs and experts. These are normally only an option for those living in larger cities, and with the pandemic local meetups may not even be an option.

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John Hornung
John Hornung

Hi John,

I love your articles on bringing hardware products to market, as I hope to do someday as well. Above you write “Using primarily online surveys, I shared this sales flyer with hundreds of strangers asking for feedback on my product.”

Can you provide more details or a whole article about using online surveys?


Michael P Graham
Reply to  John Teel

Just chiming in to add that my experience with surveys is that they have limited value. As you say John, there is a difference between what people say and what they do. One way I’ve considered introducing my product is by selling coupons to early adopters before the product was available. Literally selling a $20 bill for $10, considering it as a marketing/research expense. What this does is ensure that you ONLY get responses from serious buyers and they are incentivized to participate/share. Plus you can always refund them if you fail to bring it to market. What do you think about that John? (PS my hardware product was just announced on my website page)

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