From Idea to Mass Production: For Startups, the Proof is in the Plant

By Mariel van Tatenhove, VP Products

One of the most common misconceptions about startups is where the heavy lifting is. Most people think it’s the beginning: the great idea and building the first prototypes and demos. There’s no doubt this takes an extraordinary amount of energy and focus, but I’d argue the last mile – manufacturing and making sure the product gives users a great user experience – is as critical for success. In the end, an idea doesn’t matter if you cannot produce product in mass volume with 99.99% reliability – as well as make people understand why they would want it. From my perspective, it’s the final phases that make the difference between success and obscurity.

Creativity, innovation and execution

Startup mentality is centered on the creation of something new and groundbreaking. Innovation is an obsession, and necessarily so. Without an uncompromising commitment to seeing an idea manifest in the here and now, many startups couldn’t even command an A round, let alone sign a distribution partner. But by the time they create the first prototypes, a lot of companies fall victim to two occupational predators: they underestimate the logistical pressures of the supply chain and they think customers will be as excited about the product as they are.

The production line is where it all comes together. It’s also where things fall apart. You’re dealing with faraway factories with significant language barriers and people who don’t understand new technologies and are programmed to assemble commodity products, like phones and tablets.  This takes an enormous amount of coordination, both strategically and tactically. Let’s say engineers want the product tested at the point of insertion, which not only  could easily take a couple minutes, it also does not fit into the existing production line  So this is just not going to happen. It’s at this point where many of the most brilliant technologies come to a crushing end. If it doesn’t fit into an existing manufacturing supply chain, chances are next to zero it’ll ever find its way into a device and into Best Buy.

End-user experience

So assume we get through the manufacturing challenge. The next challenge is making sure the experience users have with this new feature is a great one, from the first time they use it. We can’t expect customers to share our passion for something without taking the effort to show them what it is and making it easy for them to use. I once tangentially worked with a company that specialized in fingerprint technology. Their first customer made the mistake of shipping the first products to customers without thoroughly considering the user experience. They simply assumed the feature was so cool that the mere mention of it would compel users to figure out how to use it on their own.

In fact, customers couldn’t use the fingerprint technology unless they first downloaded the software to run it. At this point it didn’t matter how phenomenal it was. Paradise was just a few too many clicks down the road. This kind of thing can spell demise for even the most jaw-dropping invention. If it’s not within easy reach, users will be blinded by everything else that is.

Find the right first partners

So looking at these two challenges, for new technologies it’s extremely important to find a first set of customers who understand these challenges and are willing to work with you as a partner.  Startups have to help these partners along the way. They have to review lines of production to see if the technology is likely to fit in. After that it’s a matter of committing support to the partner for the entirety of the process. This can feel tedious, but it’s essential. There will be potential partners you’ll have to turn down, which is excruciating, but if you don’t start slowly and dedicate yourself to a few ‘teacher-customers,’ partners who will stick by you as you figure things out,  you can forget about long-term success. Finally, you have to work with these partners to make sure the first user experience with a new product feature is a positive one – and walk end users hand-in-hand through the field of flowers.  It’s one thing to shift thinking. Shifting an end-user paradigm is another thing altogether.

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