Never before in the history of invention has it been so easy to turn an idea into a reality. The Maker Movement has proven that there are still plenty of great products to be built and companies to grow. Many folks who are not classically trained in any technical field are becoming empowered to design, build, and create in ways that until recently were just simply not possible. Some makers are making the move into what some have dubbed the “professional maker” or “Maker Pros” with the goal of turning their creative passion into full-time employment. It is an intoxicating notion, this dream of creating the next “big thing” in your garage. For some it’s about fame and fortune. For others it’s about that warm fuzzy feeling of being an inventor. Whatever the motivation, shooting for the stars is a natural inclination of a budding entrepreneur.
However, building for broad appeal is hard. Very hard. Competing for market share against entrenched companies in many product categories is costly at best and just plain impossible at worst. Thus if you do find yourself having the inventor’s itch, consider servicing a niche market instead of aiming for a product that garners mass adoption. Especially if you are developing a product for the first time. Products with broad appeal face compromise. Aiming for mass adoption means accounting for a large spectrum of user and user behaviors. While not necessarily a bad thing, compromising too much on design might leave you less excited about your product. It may even drive you to abandon your idea before it launches. But when you build a product to serve a niche, especially one you are personally passionate about, you can instead build a product that you would want to buy. That is very motivating, which means you are much more likely to see it through.
A first product is about learning tools, workflows, and building customer and supplier relationships, on top of actually designing and building a product. Adding the weight of an expectation that your product will be on Target shelves in six-months can be too much. But aiming for a product that has an initial production run of 100 units and is sold via your website allows you to spend both resources and energy on building a product, not a business. And while you should aim to do both, you can’t build a business without having a product or a service first. Unless of course you're aiming for some Silicon Valley venture capital, but again, we’re not aiming for mass appeal, we’re aiming for building a product without sacrifice. Be sure if you take VC money, you’ll be sacrificing your dream at least a bit.
Building a successful product requires time and some amount of failure. Starting with a goal of 100 units sold is very realistic and achievable for most well-conceived and executed products.
Ordering the necessary components for 100 units may help you garner better per unit prices as well as getting better support from manufacturing companies. In addition, having 100 people using your product will also give you a pretty good amount of user feedback that you can rapidly incorporate into a version 2.0 of your product. Use-cases or features that you never dreamt of, yet add significant value can be teased out from actual users. Then if all the math checks out and you are assured that you have a product and a business plan that works, you can think about taking over the world by reaching out to entities like Kickstarter, state and local small business support, or venture capital. Even if you don’t become the next Jony Ive, there is still good money (and prestige) to be made in building a product that garners a small, but zealous fan base.
Michael Parks, P.E. is the owner of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and technology consultancy located in Southern Maryland. He produces the S.T.E.A.M. Power podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
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