Hard Lessons Learned Launching Consumer Products

Hard Lessons Learned Launching Consumer Products

Charles Kettering famously said, “if you have always done it that way, it is probably wrong.” Although that was over 70 years ago, it couldn’t be truer today.

We are creatures of our upbringings, our educations, and our environments. It’s what makes us who we are. Many times, these collective experiences are the very things that have led to our successes. However, success is a funny thing, it can make us blind to our lack of experience in certain areas or it can give us the confidence to go bolder to create the next big thing.

If we’ve successfully transitioned an idea into a new product in the past, it’s what could cause hubris during our next launch. Simply put, consumer products are becoming ever more challenging to launch for established brands, let alone smaller companies or upstarts.

Increased product complexity, omnichannel delivery, end-to-end customer experience, and instant product availability considerations are daunting launch challenges. As such, launching a new consumer product today is best accomplished with a team of all-stars that knows which potholes to avoid along the road to success.

Our Road Here

A tectonic shift is underway in how consumers buy products, brought on by a consistent drumbeat of more and more online purchases. Consumer behavior has altered our expectations for interacting with brands; we expect to seamlessly order online, by phone, or even go to a physical store; we expect to have low- to no-cost shipping (thanks Amazon); and we expect to have instant availability and ease of returns.

Intelligence is also being baked into our evolving smart devices, which has complicated our product technical requirements and grown our bill of materials. Ecosystem development, the creation of a product’s surrounding services, accessories, refills – e.g., Keurig – are critical to margin and building barriers to entry. But the hurtles to create physical products have been lowered across three main fronts, which has reduced the costs to develop products.

First, the cloud has dramatically lowered the costs of engineering software to power IoT devices. Manufacturing advancements, specifically 3-D printing, have lowered the cost of product development and prototypes. And lastly, newer business models have enabled companies to form “virtual product teams” by focusing on a select core value add around their unique skill sets and outsourcing the rest. Smart leaders are using these capital-efficient business models to reduce the required funding needed for new products, enabling them to expedite innovation. These leaders are often outsourcing part or all their design, engineering, supply chain, and manufacturing operations to trusted partners to speed up their time to market.

The Road to Smoother Launches

All the above fluid new stuff requires that consumer products companies do things drastically different. Status quo wouldn’t work. I recently connected with Tim Hayes, CEO & Founder of Cardboard Helicopter to share consumer product war stories and best practices for successful launches. Below are some of the hard lessons learned that what we came up with.

Hard Lessons Learned Launching Consumer Products

Never Lose Sight of the Customer

Easier said than done, as a product migrates from idea to launch. During our eagerness to quickly advance our products forward we can lose sight of why we’re building the product in the first place. “We try to think of the ideal end user or demographic from the beginning to the end, and never lose focus on that specific user to ensure that we’re making the product for them,” says Hayes.

Everything from the design to the supporting supply chain and manufacturing should relate back to the ideal target customer. There can be different supply chains for different customer types. If your product is direct to consumer then you might not need a warehouse. If returns are common – e.g., different color options in apparel and furniture – then you might want to ship a prepaid return label with each order to improve the customer experience. If customers plan to buy from a physical store or online, then it could mean the difference of make to stock or make to order.

Every decision during product commercialization can, and should, be tied back to what the customer values. If they don’t value it, you shouldn’t be doing it.

Focus with Small Creative Teams

Small, focused cross-functional product teams can often accomplish more than larger teams, especially for innovative technologies. Smaller teams decrease time to market by focusing on critical path needs and making faster decisions. To this end, it’s vital to avoid inflating the product development process with unnecessary research that only adds to costs and slows you down.

“A simple imagine, develop, launch process allows us to initially search and ideate all possible solutions so we don’t get half way through the process and think, ‘why didn’t we just consider doing it this simple way?’ A process that‘s basic, limitless, and consistent is key,” adds Hayes.   

Product launch speeds need to be faster, specifically in some categories that really need to start selling at a certain time because their product life may only be a few years. New products not only need to be developed swiftly, but also designed purposefully so they connect with end users emotionally.

“Creating a variety of sketched concepts during exploration is the most important part of the process – then development happens to make the product usable, marketable, and cost effective,” says Hayes.  

A blend of focus and creativity is usually best when bringing a brand new idea to life.

Be Flexible

Today, companies don’t have to hire full-time employees or build a manufacturing plant to bring a new product to market. In many cases, it’s faster, cheaper, and easier to simply hire a supplier to manage all or part of your new product development, launch, and ongoing supply efforts.

“Nimble focused firms reduce the time and risk involved with bringing your new product to market by leveraging their deep experience to efficiently execute many considerations from safety to quality to marketability,” says Hayes.

There are now suppliers that service every step in the product development life cycle, from design to engineering, to supply chain, to manufacturing. Leaders can tap into these firms’ resources to support part or all their new product development, launch, and supply needs.

Select companies have invested heavily in bringing new products to market, so their economies of scale, relationships, and processes can often provide an invaluable edge, enabling them to realize a variable on-demand cost structure for select new product lines.

Get Upfront Cost Picture

On day one, it’s important to consider the customer buying experience. Part of that experience is how customers will purchase your product and what price they’ll pay for it.

Involving supply chain and manufacturing early is a must – during development we start to look at viability, processes, costs, and materials. We then start to think of how many parts, how they’ll be assembled, and what the supply chain aspect will do to add to the overall cost of goods for the product to make sure we’re giving our customer enough margins to work with for retail or wholesale costs,” says Hayes.

Omnichannel considerations – will a customer buy online, in a physical store, or by phone – have a big impact on the cost and underlying supply chain of your product. Further, product mix, what SKU to launch first, and order fulfillment plans are essential questions that should be considered during development.

The point in time when supply chain and manufacturing have the biggest impact on cost, time, and risk is during development, as opposed to trying to optimize a product after it’s already complete.

Balance Cost, Time, & Risk

There’s a delicate balance between product development and launch cost, time, and risk. Oftentimes, you can advance a product much faster if it’s just white labeling an off-the-shelf product. However, when developing something totally new that requires new technologies or materials, a testing process is needed to ensure that the product has no possible chance of failing in a user’s hands.

“When things are rushed in the area of technologies and materials you’ll always compromise quality,” says Hayes.

A great way to visualize this is a triangle with cost, time, and risk at each point. You can optimize one by expanding one point, say cost, but it’ll pull in the other two points: time and risk.

“I’ve seen companies try to move way too fast because they’re in growth mode and want to get products on shelves as fast as possible,” adds Hayes.

If an experienced team has done the proper upfront planning, timeline delays in the shape of surprises should be rare and limited to new technology validation.

Go for Launch

Hardware development and launches are well… Hard, but they can also be extremely rewarding by enabling you to positively impact customers’ lives. Product launch success starts with getting the right team on board early to avoid common mistakes by deploying proven best practices. “Technologies don’t have to move at a turtle’s pace but moving at hare speed with blinders on can create problems,” concludes Hayes.

Hopefully these hardware hard lessons learned will aid your efforts for your next product launch.

-William