This article originally appeared on our Forbes blog
Most people who come up with a product idea or invention are incredibly passionate. They’ve seen a need in the marketplace – most often inspired by their own day-to-day frustrations with existing products (or a lack-thereof) – and are excited to fill the gap.
This period of excitement is what I call the “idea bubble”. During which, entrepreneurs are enthusiastically planning out their product design guided by their own unique preferences, life experiences, and gut instincts. They may share their concept with friends and family to get “objective” feedback, but loved ones are likely to be encouraging rather than brutally honest. As a result, ideas in this stage exist primarily in a bubble of subjectivity.
Bubbles are only a problem if you never leave them. As difficult as it can be to hear someone say they wouldn’t buy your product, or that your price is way too high, or the design not attractive enough, this is exactly the kind of feedback makers need to collect at the beginning stage of their business. People who get too far into product development and manufacturing without thoroughly testing their concept run the risk of investing time and money into an item that few people actually want. It might sound like common sense, but after working with hundreds of start-up brands and designers I see the idea bubble trip people up again and again!
On the flip side, sometimes feedback is irrelevant and needs to be tossed aside. A few negative reactions are not enough to shift the course of a business! So how do entrepreneurs know what’s what? The answer is volume. Makers need to poll a lot of people about their product concept in order to separate one-off opinions from the general consensus of their target market.
An NYC-based business accelerator I once interviewed requires all incoming start-ups to talk to 100 prospective customers about their business concept before receiving any further support. After carrying out this work, nearly everyone makes modifications to their original business model. Whether the change is small, like adjusting the price of a product or service, or large, like deciding to target an entirely new demographic, the effect is the same: feedback forces a positive change.
Independent makers and inventors can benefit from the same approach. Set a goal to seek out between 50 and 100 ideal customers and ask them for direct feedback about a product’s design, price, branding, etc. Connecting with this many people requires getting creative! For example, a recent client making a medical garment for chronically-ill kids posted questions in various online parent support groups, spoke to her child’s doctors and nurses, and attended a conference so she could talk directly with families and care providers familiar with her customer’s needs. The response rate was fantastic.
Methods of collecting feedback vary, and can include one-on-one phone calls or in-person discussions, online surveys and polls and focus groups. Hiring a market research company can be a pricey investment for most bootstrappers, but it’s definitely an option. Remember: the goal is to leave the bubble and listen to customers, not conduct an airtight scientific research study. Questions about a product’s overall appeal, the necessity of certain features and benefits, and the target price are important, but so is allowing for open-ended conversation. In fact, off-hand comments can yield powerful insights that may fundamentally alter the design of a product, as well as inspire ideas for new products.
In order to be useful, feedback has to be measured. Inquiries like “What would you pay for this product?” or “Do you feel there is a significant need for this product in the marketplace?” are easy to track, but evaluating more nuanced intel, like the tone of a conversation or the overall level of enthusiasm from the feedback group, requires something different. In order to harvest this type of non-data, entrepreneurs must consciously avoid the trap of “hearing what they want to hear.” Giving yourself a little mental reminder to be open and clear-eyed can be helpful before each conversation!
Collecting an adequate amount of feedback will certainly require elbow grease, and in some cases, a bit of cash too. A virtual assistant to manage the project might be helpful for people juggling a day job or a family, while participation incentives such as a $50 gift card to one lucky survey winner work well too. Whatever the investment, it’s wise to spend a little money up front, before a product design has been made in bulk. The process of developing, testing, manufacturing, packaging and shipping a physical item isn’t cheap, and once it’s done, it’s done!
A maker may wholeheartedly believe there is a need for their product exactly as they’ve designed it and hopefully, that’s the case. But exposing ideas to the outside world before too many startup investments have been made can prevent wasted time and energy. Stepping out of the idea bubble as early as possible is the best way to launch a physical product.