By Henrik Johansson and Kris Hughes

New product development has long been considered a risky, labor-intensive and capital-intensive process. Only large companies with massive research and development budgets and access to highly skilled experts in industrial design and supply chain management could play the game.

As technological advances have made products increasingly complex, the entry barrier has become even steeper for individual inventors and creators. The amount of energy, time and funds required to research a product opportunity, get help with turning an idea into a manufacturing-ready design specification, find the right factory to manufacture the product, and see the product through to market is rarely worth the return. However, technological and system advances are closing the gap for individuals with a transformative product concept.

Product innovation can come from anywhere and should no longer be limited to expensive design agencies or hide behind the closed doors of heavily capitalized companies. Instead, anyone with the drive, desire, and creativity to build something of value should have the opportunity and guidance to succeed.

An Austin-based company is leveraging a Market Network model to change the product creation paradigm. In short, a market network is a business model that combines the primary elements of both social networks and online marketplaces with Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions workflow to deliver business in new ways.

Democratizing Product Innovation

Even though many people and companies have great ideas for new products, the complexities of the product innovation and development process keep most from ever trying. Endless obstacles create significant challenges for those who are brave enough to even make the attempt.

Some of the most common challenges are:

  1. Many would-be innovators get stuck before they get started because they lack the data to justify whether their product idea has any consumer value.
  2. Dependable, data-driven resources for product research are not readily accessible or consolidated.
  3. The product design process, from a back-of-napkin sketch to a validated product design (including computer-aided designs and a bill of materials) ready for a factory prototype can be expensive and time-consuming.
  4. Product design requires varying expertise from industrial, mechanical, and electrical engineers, for instance. Locating, negotiating and partnering with the right resources to coordinate design efforts is labor-intensive and often causes significant delays in product development.
  5. The factory partner plays a critical role in whether the product is a market success or failure. The manufacturing process is technical and complex, especially when creating a new product for the first time, and managing the process remotely makes it even more challenging.

The Managed Marketplace model allows bootstrapping entrepreneurs and small businesses worldwide equal opportunity to innovate. By leveraging a network of deeply experienced product designers, researchers, and manufacturing experts, innovators are more likely to bring their vision to life.

Product Research

Most product ideas die before they even get beyond the concept stage. How do you determine if a product idea is a good product idea? The biggest fear for any innovator is investing a scarce budget into an idea for a product that never sells.

Large companies have entire departments focused on this research. They have access to advanced technology to gather and analyze massive amounts of data as well as big budgets to conduct customer research and focus groups. Small businesses and solopreneurs can now utilize several product research platforms (primarily dedicated to the Amazon space) to discover some helpful and interesting data, but these resources fall short of helping an entrepreneur make that critical “go or no-go” decision about a specific product opportunity.

In our experience, product research has to assess the opportunity in the context of the entrepreneur or company that is considering it. Just like any investment strategy has to be evaluated from the perspective of that investor’s portfolio and goals, a product opportunity must be evaluated through the lens of the customer’s existing product portfolio, expertise, and business objectives.

This is where the managed marketplace model is superior. Yes, you need the data and the software to analyze the data, but most people also want an expert to help make sense of the data for their specific situation. The Gembah platform brings all these elements together—the innovator, the data, and the experts—to help the innovator make the right decision on what product opportunity is ideal for them to pursue.

Not every product will prove to be a good one, but we believe all creators deserve the opportunity to know how high their hill might be to climb. This targeted guidance helps aspiring entrepreneurs develop a realistic view of the viability of their idea, if it is the right one for them, or if, perhaps, another might be better.

Once an entrepreneur or innovator finds the right product opportunity—or has validated their idea—the next step is product design.

Product Design

There is an entire industry constructed around product design that is expensive and insular. The product design service and consulting industry is built to serve large companies with big budgets. Thus, most firms focused on product design are simply not affordable for the small-to-midsize company.

The managed marketplace model effectively eliminates overhead, significantly reducing costs for the innovator. All funds spent go directly to the designers and engineers who work on the project instead of paying for expensive downtown offices, first-class travel, or partner profits at a fancy design firm.

Furthermore, since the managed marketplace model pulls from a network of design expertise from around the world, there are limitless opportunities to find the ideal designer for the project. No longer is an innovator limited to only local designers or the handful of designers at a specific firm. They have options and can choose the designer(s) with the specific skills required for the particular project and one that fits into their budget.

Any reputable design firm will agree that implementing an iterative process is essential. Many will claim they have a “secret sauce,” but most will use some combination of the following common three elements:

  1. Design sketching
  2. Concept refinement
  3. Finalizing design specifications

Much of what a design firm will bring to the table, in addition to talent, is knowledge of process, and they will likely charge handsomely for that “proprietary” know-how. However, with the managed marketplace model, process knowledge is built into the platform, so innovators no longer have to overspend to get access to best-in-practice processes.

Design Sketching

Sketching is the process of creating the first visual representation of the product concept. It can be a fun and exciting part of the design process as the creator works through several product ideas and iterations with a designer to find the right version with which to move forward.

As enjoyable as this phase may be, it is critical for creators to consider the practicality of their designs, not just the creativity of their solutions. A sketch may look exceptionally cool and unique, but if it is too difficult or expensive to manufacture, it may not be economically feasible to bring it to market. Partnering with a designer with specific expertise in the type of product in question is more valuable than finding a designer who can create a beautiful sketch. For example, a successful fashion designer may be skilled in sketching beautiful drawings but may not know much about a product that requires a mechanical or electrical engineering perspective.

In the managed marketplace model, designers are filtered and selected based on a number of detailed, custom criteria to match designer profiles with the type of product being created. Once assigned, an experienced designer guides the innovator through the process, presenting multiple options before choosing a concept from their sketches that can be further refined. The designer will leverage their product experience and knowledge of factory capabilities to provide a better understanding of what is practical from a production standpoint and what will be attractive to the market.

Is it possible to find a good product designer through a transactional marketplace like UpWork or a talent platform like Behance? Absolutely! However, if the designer is not working within a well-established framework, you risk ending up with a beautiful sketch that may be impossible or too costly to manufacture.

Concept Refinement

The refinement process ensures the creator’s vision for the product is aligned with how the product will look and function. When refining a concept, designers are thinking about how easy a product will be to use, its features and functionality, how it will look, its proportions and weight, how safe the product is, and its overall character. There are many decisions that need to be made, each impacting the complexity and cost of the product and development process.

As these decisions are made, the designer(s) start to build increasingly-sophisticated models to visualize the final product. 2D renderings will help early decision-making, and 3D renderings will help the creator finalize product decisions including colors, materials, and finishes that will make up its character.

As in all the other stages of product development, it is essential that this stage is completed in concert with the previous and following stages. Throughout this stage, an experienced designer will have design for manufacturing (DFM) standards in mind to protect the creator from burdensome costs in the manufacturing process.

Finalizing the design

To finalize the product design, a creator needs to have a fully-engineered computer-aided design (CAD) model available with all of the parts and components selected. A managed marketplace model allows a creator to find the right engineering talent anywhere in the world to help with this process. This could include a mechanical and electrical engineer who designs component configurations.

This is a critical part of the design project, as multiple resources have to work in unison to finalize a detailed design spec. The managed marketplace enforces many best practices that innovators would have to know and apply if trying to manage it on their own.

Once the innovator has a completed CAD model and electrical and mechanical engineering design, additional time is dedicated to simplifying the product design, improving the product’s manufacturability, and cutting costs where possible.

The creator should also receive a bill of materials (BOM) and colors, materials and finishes (CMF) document at this point in the design process. With a prototype and digital renderings in hand and product specifications outlined, it is time to find a factory partner that makes sense for the project.

Finding the Right Factory & Monitoring Production

It is possible to evaluate factories from a distance, but it can be risky. An entrepreneur can establish communication with factory owners through a platform like Alibaba and chat about what they offer, but without meeting in person, they’re largely taking the factory owner’s word for who they are and what they can do. The best way to validate a factory is to visit it in person.

Not many people have the ability to make a costly trip overseas to tour facilities and discuss requirements, much less continue to commute to monitor quality. The managed marketplace model provides creators with access to a platform of verified factories that have already been vetted, simplifying decision-making and eliminating unnecessary cost, time, and effort that can be spent elsewhere.

Being able to work with project managers who are on the ground where a factory is located is a competitive advantage as well. These project managers can meet with factory owners in person and see how the factories operate. They can determine if the factory is doing what it says it would do, if their capabilities align with what they promised, and if products are being manufactured as efficiently as possible.

An often-overlooked aspect of factory relations is being able to bridge communication gaps and understand cultural norms. A local partner overseeing the manufacturing process will be able to establish good relationships with the factory for long-term success. The local partner will also be able to obtain production samples to give creators visibility into whether the factory is delivering a quality product. Final checks on design and functionality ensure the final product their customers receive will be a winner.

The Borderless Nature of E-Commerce and Product Development

The beautiful thing about e-commerce and product development is its borderless nature. Workflows can leverage resources internationally, including boots-on-the-ground experts worldwide, to help people turn concepts into workable, market-ready products.

People in countries across the globe can work together in managed marketplaces to see their vision on a piece of paper evolve into physical profit-earning reality. Before the advent of e-commerce and the internet, this capability was restricted to those with substantial resources and the ability to take a massive risk.

In the new world of e-commerce, opportunities are available for anyone to be creative and successful, and barriers to entry are less than they ever have been before. In this borderless, accessible, networked world, what could you create?

Henrik Johansson is CEO of Gembah, a market leader in end-to-end product development. He holds a Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the Linkoping Institute of Technology in Sweden.

Read more from the Journal of Design and Creative Technologies

References

Bergendorff, C.L. (2020, August 20). Market Networks: Dissecting ”The Business Model Of The Decade.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/claralindhbergendorff/2020/08/20/market-net...

Chen, A. (n.d.). What’s next for marketplace startups? Reinventing the $10 trillion service economy, that’s what. https://andrewchen.co/how-marketplaces-will-reinvent-the-service-economy/

Currier, J. (n.d.). The Next 10 Years Will Be About “Market Networks.” NFX. https://www.nfx.com/post/10-years-about-market-networks/

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