The seasoned pros on our panel solve your biggest startup challenges.
The tough part isn’t coming up with a great idea. It’s figuring out how to make that great idea.
Brenda vanDuinkerken of Duinkerken Foods, a creator of gluten-free products in Canada, says her biggest challenge has been product development — specifically, trying to “improve the taste, texture and consistency of gluten-free products.” Jennifer Paige Boonlorn, who makes Soul Carrier handbags, says her biggest challenge is production.
We asked the impressive experts on our “Secrets of Growth” panel (see their full bios here) to share their best advice.
For those who are new to product development, what are a few tips for learning the ropes?
Product development has two vital parts — figuring out what to build and how to build it. When you’re just starting out, focus on the first part by doing exhaustive customer development before you do product development. Even if you aren’t in technology, it can be invaluable to use frameworks like Steve Blank’s customer development methodology to discover what your customer wants and how to build a product that meets those needs. Familiarize yourself with the lean startup principles made popular by Blank and Eric Ries.
Once you know what customers want and have designed a product that reflects what people will buy, focus on how to get it made. For food, research new ingredients and try making them at home and testing them on customers before hiring a test kitchen or making production batches. For handbags, start out with local sewers who might be more expensive but can react quickly to changes. As you scale, use resources like http://makersrow.com to find great factories.
Product development can be very tricky but it is critical to the success of any product-based business. A few tips: Make sure your benchmarks are clear, especially when working with a third party. Provide a color swatch (“purple” can mean a million different things) that you want to match, specify a texture (“creamy” is too broad) that you’re trying to replicate. Make sure you understand all the associated costs that go into a new product; there can be surprises along the way and you want to make sure you’re not overspending. For instance, don’t waste money on custom options if there are good stock options available. When you get samples, make sure multiple people are testing and trying and giving honest feedback. Make sure your testers mirror your actual target customers. And don’t forget to consult a lawyer: Check trademarks and other intellectual property before doing anything that might already exist in the market.
Product development is more about trial and error (and having the budget to experiment) than anything else. People who are gluten-free, like myself, know that food devoid of yeast and wheat tends to taste like sand. So, continue to take your samples to local markets or stores and let consumers do some tasting.
As for handbag production, that’s plain-old research and networking. There is no excuse in this day in age to not be able to find a manufacturer. You might not find the “right” manufacturer, but that is straight-up growing pains for building a brand that is design-related. If you are looking for local sewers, then you need to go to your area garment center and find out who does production. Of course, people share their manufacturers as much as people share babysitter information, which means almost never. Note though, if you are looking for groups of home sewers, you can always check into ethnic communities, who tend to still practice the craft. My first samples were made by an incredible Indian woman out of Queens, N.Y., who had her whole community making my bags. I was desperate and went into her bead shop and asked if she could make recommend local producers and she smiled and said, “Oh yes dear, I can help you.” Apparently, I wasn’t even the only one. Go figure.
Most of my fashion clients who manufacture overseas have had difficulty finding the right factories in the early stages of their business. The distance creates the usual challenges for quality control and oversight. My clients who manufacture clothing or accessories in the U.S. pay a bit more, but have better control of, and seem generally more satisfied with, the outcome. Regarding gluten-free products, all of my clients in the food or cosmetics industries have stories about mixing concoctions in their kitchen and the family and friends who have been their test subjects. Keep working on the taste, consistency, etc. — and keep testing it with your (honest) “family and friends” focus groups. If you’re not happy with the taste or consistency, keep trying! If you don’t absolutely love the product, there is no reason anyone else should. Also, be very careful about ownership of the formula if you engage a facility to assist in formulation. Many such facilities have provisions in their agreement that state that they own the formula. If you can’t negotiate that provision out of the agreement, make sure that they can’t use your formula for anyone other than you.
My product is a curriculum and its development was a process. My first KinderJam classes, while the objective was the same, looked very different from our current classes. As I grew and learned more about my industry and the people I served, I tweaked my product. With each improvement, KinderJam got better and the improvements benefitted my company and our end users. If you have a good solid cake or handbag to begin with, sell that and as you learn and discover better ingredients, materials and processes tweak your product and make your good GREAT! Your clients will notice every little improvement and take comfort in doing business with a company that is growing and evolving.
A few years ago, I did a story for my MSNBC program “Your Business” covering a woman who owned a gluten-free bakery. She said that before opening her shop, she spent months baking cookies, cupcakes and breads — trying different recipes, tasting them and throwing them in the trash until she finally figured out a recipe that worked. For her, it was all trial and error. And, having had a few of her cookies myself now, I can say that the time was well spent.
For the woman who is looking for the right people to hire for her production, I suggest that she find other companies in her category who are not competitive to her and call them to ask where they get their products sewn. Chances are, if she calls owner to owner, she’ll get her question answered.
Google is a girl’s best friend. I found multiple answers to these questions in a matter of minutes. Do your research on your smart phone or a desktop. For the gluten-free products, find out if there is an incubator type kitchen for new businesses or a local college that teaches culinary arts in your city or state. Most likely someone there knows how to help you improve the taste and texture of your gluten-free baked goods. And for making the bags I would recommend going to a Women’s Business Center and also asking other people who make bags where they buy materials and who does their sewing. Keep happily asking questions. You will find the answers.
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Posted: March 25, 2015