I made the jump from engineer to designer/maker/inventor 4 years ago now, encouraged by an article written by a designer at Frog called ‘From Engineer to Design Engineer: 8 Steps to Transform Your Career.’ But it didn’t cover the idea of becoming a freelance designer making and selling your own ideas, or coming from a non-engineering background. So I wanted to have a go at writing my own take on the article with the aim of encouraging you to move forward on that idea you’ve had for way too long and do something with it. You never know, it could end up changing your life.
What to make?
When coming up with your original idea, try and play to your strengths. What do you know? What’s your background? How can the skills you have help solve a problem in a unique way?
If you’ve noticed a problem, chances are others have too, and they’re looking for a product to fill that need.
Try not to think too big. It can be hard to resist the thought of something that would go in every home in America, but it can be hard to break into an already saturated market. I believe there is a huge amount of power in niche markets. The owners of smaller independent stores, blog writers and online influencers can be more approachable and willing to give feedback back than larger publications and retailers. And that feedback will be invaluable to your product.
But you have to have a product before you can market it. The following are a few essential steps in the product creation process I went though coming up with the Modern Fuel pencil.
Make a rough prototype with things from your garage, or that you can by from a hardware store. Don’t worry about how big it is or how it looks, just go for it and see where it takes you. Think of it like a sketch, where you can get the overall feel of your product and start shaping it to match what’s in your head. This will tell you a lot about what will work for your product, what won’t, and what else you may need that you didn’t think of before. A good resource for this phase is Prototyping and Modelmaking for Product Design by Bjarki Hallgrimsson.
CAD? What's that?
If you’ve never used it before, don’t be put off by CAD (computer aided design). It is simply the tool that will help you turn your idea into a physical product. CAD is now more accessible than ever, and the days of expensive licencing are close to being over. You can subscribe to great options like Fusion 360 on a monthly basis and, after hitting Youtube for a few tutorials, be sending a .STL file to a service like 3Dhubs to have a protptype 3D printed in a matter of hours.
There are differing opinions on when and why you should file for a patent to protect your idea. I’m not a lawyer, and I can only speak to what’s worked for me, but I can tell you that if you have some ideas you want to legally protect, and you’re worried about the cost of a patent or not sure if you want to fully invest in them yet, a provisional patent might be the way to go. You’ll have a degree of legal protection, and time to see if your idea is worth investing the resources to fully realize.
Putting your idea out into the world.
There are a million channels to get your idea out there, but for the most part we can break them down into three categories: old school, new school and Partnership
In this approach, you refine your prototype enough to show it to the public, then take it to the people that might buy it to demonstrate it in person.
At this phase, don’t worry too much about making money. What you’re trying to find out is whether people believe in your product enough to pay for it. My first product I made was a compression kit for kiteboarding kites. I wanted to market it to kitesurfers traveling abroad, a perfect example of a niche market. I made six samples, went down to my local kitesurfing spot, and tried to sell them. I sold all six for £20 each. They probably cost me £100 each to make, including my time, but I sold all six in an hour at a cold, wet kite spot in England. Imagine what I could do if the sun was out! I knew my target market found value in my product.
The power of the internet and crowdfunding in getting a product made these days is undeniable. Take for example the birthplace of crowdfunding: Kickstarter. Kickstarter opened its internet doors nearly a decade ago now and is still an incredibly easy way to launch a product.
That said, it can be hard nowadays to make your campaign stand out on sites like Kickstarter. Some campaigns bring a huge production budget they can pour into on-location filming, actors, and paid advertising, and their projects can eclipse those trying to reach smaller goals. Launching and maintaining a crowdfunding campaign also takes time. My first campaign took 8 months to create, and I worked on it while working part time and at school full time. My second took a year to put together while working part time.
The good news is that Kickstarter are encouraging its creators to get back to what is most important - launching an idea into the world - with the launch of Kickstarter Quickstarter.
This brainchild of London-based designer Oscar Lhermitte is brilliant. It outlines nine rules to help you keep your campaign beautifully simple, and save you time and money. Looking back, these guidelines show me that I drastically overspent on things during my second campaign that I was completely oblivious to during my first. Both campaigns were shockingly successful, but I know that I would’ve enjoyed the second campaign much more if I’d kept it as simple as the first. I’ll be taking it back to basics the next time round.
This is a great option for anyone without the desire or the resources to go solo developing their product. There are many companies out there that are eager to collect on your innovation and creativity, and in this approach, you find one of them to be your backer. If they like your idea and think they can sell it, they purchase the idea and handle manufacturing, fulfillment, branding, and marketing.
With this approach you don’t necessarily have to create a prototype, you just need an idea that you can convince people will work. A concept you can reasonably prove. If a deal is made, you are paid a royalty fee on each units sold, leaving you free to move on to your next big idea.
If you’re concerned about your intellectual property, you can file a provisional patent to protect your idea, like we discussed earlier. If you want to keep the rights to your idea and decide to work with a large company to get it into people’s hands, make sure you specify that in any subsequent contracts.
I can’t encourage you enough to give it a go. Don’t worry about failure. It will happen, but when it does, you’ll learn from those mistakes.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” - Thomas Edison.
Up next, if you didn’t take that licensing deal is manufacturing your idea!