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Designing and Prototyping A Product

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So you've got an idea for a product, but no idea where to start?

Turning that idea into a reality can feel like a daunting task - you may be wondering questions like:

  • Should I find a manufacturer in China?
  • Should I start with 3D printing?
  • Can I just do this myself?
  • What tools should I use?

We've outlined 7 commonly used practices and tips for this process and show you exactly how dozens of other successful founders got started:

Draw Your Initial Design on Paper

Sketching is one of the most simple ways to get started on the design phase.

What's great about sketching is that you can practically do this anytime, anywhere - even on the back of napkin.

To get started, all you need to do is pick up a pen and paper and start drawing - or if you are working on a virtual/software product this can be a diagram that outlines the user interface or experience.

Although it sounds too simple to be true, Billy Westbrook, founder of Scrubblade built a $2M/year business that all started from a simple sketch. He thought of his idea driving home late at night, and sketched it out on paper the next morning:

I thought of the Scrubblade idea when I was driving home late one night. A large bug hit my windshield and being the clean freak I am, I tried wiping it off with the wiper blades and washer fluid but all that happened was a massive smear directly in my line of sight.

I thought, ‘why can’t wiper blades remove more than just water from the windshield?.’ That’s when the idea of Scrubblade was born. In the morning I sketched out the first design.

Oncoming lights at night would enhance the smear causing bad vision. I thought, “why can’t wiper blades remove more than just water from the windshield?.” That’s when the idea of Scrubblade was born. In the morning I sketched out the first design that still hangs in our offices today.

how-i-invented-a-better-windshield-wiper-and-a-2m-year-business

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Billy westbrook, on starting Scrubblade Inc. ($178,000 revenue/mo) full story

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There are other creative methods of "sketching" out your design, and it doesn't always have to be with a pen and paper.

A great example of this is when Krystian Frencel, founder of Two Bunch Animals created a paper form of two pieces of fabric that made up his product:

I started by deconstructing, AKA pulling out the stitches from a pair of the Stonemen briefs. Created a paper form of the two pieces that made up the brief, and had it digitized.

I also connected with a graphic designer who helped set artwork into the digitized template and made it match at the edges for a beautiful seamless print.

how-we-built-a-boxer-briefs-brand-to-5k-month-with-zero-experience

I searched for local sewing classes first, thinking I was going to learn to sew myself. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was eventually recommended a sewing shop by one of the sewing classes/workshop places I contacted. This is where I met the owner of the shop, a masterful older German lady. She reminded me of my father a bit, an old soul with an immense amount of knowledge and experience. She was an expert at her craft. She talked me through the manufacturing process and taught me a lot about it. She connected me with a fabric supplier, a waistband supplier and set out a timeline to create prototypes. All I had to do was provide the printed templates of the underwear on a roll of fabric.

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Krystian Frencel, on starting Bunch of Animals ($5,000 revenue/mo) full story

Consider Taking A Generic Product And Putting Your Own Brand On It

Another common method is to find a generic product and put your own unique spin on it.

Although this may sound like copying or cheating, it is actually more common than you think. As consumers, many of the products we buy we'd get the same value if we purchased the generic versions.

If creating your own concept and product seems unattainable (both in time and money) right now, this may be a great option for you.

And manufacturing your own product can always happen down the road, even years later.

There are various ways to buy generic or products in bulk. To name a few:

Here's an example - Michael O'Donnell, founder of Cave Tools, started with a generic product. He is now making $200k/month:

When I first started out, my first product was as generic as they come. I literally found a supplier on Alibaba, wired a couple of thousand dollars to China, and crossed my fingers. Back then the market on Amazon was not as sophisticated so I was able to get away with this and still sell ok. There was definitely an element of good timing on my side because nowadays it would be very difficult to start this way.

When I first started out, my first product was as generic as they come. I literally found a supplier on Alibaba, wired a couple of thousand dollars to China, and crossed my fingers.

how-we-built-a-2m-year-business-selling-barbecue-tools

As the company grew, we obviously got much more sophisticated and started developing custom products. I now have a team in China and regularly visit my primary manufacturing partners. If I had any advice for someone just starting out today, it would be that you truly need to differentiate your products.

If you’re selling a product that looks the same as everybody else, you will eventually be forced to compete on price. There are very low barriers to entry for private label, so putting in the extra work up front of creating a unique product will pay off in the long run and allow you to build a sustainable business.

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Michael “Medium Rare” O’Donnell, on starting Cave Tools ($200,000 revenue/mo) full story

Ensure quality when you go wholesale

Once you are able to find suppliers that can manufacture your own product, you may want to order a few different samples and test them for quality.

Check out Ahmad Iqbal's experience finding the perfect supplier to manufacture his hand-held bidets:

First things first, I searched through Alibaba’s directory to find any suppliers that manufactured hand-held bidets. I found some suppliers who I thought were good and ordered a sample from about 5 of them. Once the samples arrived, I installed each one over the course of a couple of weeks and tested it on a daily basis for quality. After about four months, I found one design which I thought was really good and the had the best quality. When it comes to plumbing type products, you don’t want to risk anything because leaks can be very costly to a homeowner. Quality was a huge concern.

After I figured out which supplier I liked, I created my store on Shopify, and went live with sales. I knew a little about Facebook advertising, so I just published an ad targeting immigrants in my suburb. I didn’t have any inventory because I couldn’t afford it. I just wanted to know if people would buy. And it turned out a lot did.

I placed my first inventory order after I made about 20 sales. By the time I received that shipment of 100 units, I had already sold the 80 that were left over. nadeef-product

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Ahmad Iqbal, on starting Nadeef Bidet ($10,000 revenue/mo) full story

Make Sure You Get The Package Design Right

The way you package your product is often the first impression your customer has- so it's important to get it right.

You may want to ask yourself these questions:

If my product is on a shelf next to hundreds of other similar products:

  • Will my product stand out?
  • Will the branding/packaging create a connection with my customer, and hence, lead them to buy?

For example, Spyq Sklar, founder of Cat Sushi talks about the importance of packaging and how this led to their success:

We already had a product, so we needed to figure out how to brand it. We thought a lot about what we were really making. It's fish, it's gourmet, it's healthy, and it's special. We also wanted it to feel boutique and hip.

Packaging is what sells, so coming up with beautiful packaging was our #1 goal. We came up with the idea to package it in a metal tin. We went online and bought empty tins and started playing around with what the product might look like.

We designed a sticker to go on the tin, that would have our design on it. One of our customers was a designer, and she helped design the logo for a really generous rate. We wanted the design to be beautiful, and we went through at least a dozen revisions. We got a lot of feedback on it from other pet stores, family, and friends.

We strove for perfection and looked to our own retail expertise - would we be excited to sell this in our store? Would we showcase this product and put it on our prime shelf space?

When we locked the final design, we felt it was one of the best looking packages that we had seen in the industry. It was striking. We had something that we thought was special - it set itself apart from other cat treats. article

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Spyq Sklar, on starting Cat Sushi ($30,000 revenue/mo) full story

Packaging and design tools

There are hundreds of tools you can use to help with packaging and design.

Vivian Chan, Founder of East Meets Dress, gives us some insight on the best tools to get you started:

  • Canva - Allows non-designers to create beautiful Instagram/Pinterest posts, flyers, business cards, etc. Their founder’s story is even more impressive and you can read that here.
  • Stickermule - We use Stickermule to print all of the custom stickers that we include in our packaging. The stickers are super high quality and they have great customer service.
  • Noissue - This is where we get our custom tissue paper and compostable mailers from.
  • Rollo Label Printer - We print all of our shipping labels at home and this printer is a life-saver.
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Vivian Chan, on starting East Meets Dress ($25,000 revenue/mo) full story

Try Making the Product Yourself

One great way to design and test your product is to simply make it yourself.

The food industry is a perfect example of this - you may find yourself wanting to explore different methods and recipes until you land on the perfect one.

For example, Ashley Drummonds walks us through her journey launching ABS Protein Pancakes ($25K/month) from her very own kitchen:

I started marketing ABS on social media. Every day, I would post on Instagram or Facebook telling my followers to send me a direct message if they wanted to order.

I did everything manually at first. When I received an order, I would send the customer an invoice via PayPal (I didn’t have an online store at the time) and go to the grocery store and buy the ingredients in bulk. I bought a cheap scale to measure out all of the ingredients for one serving and used mylar bags I bought on Amazon to put the mix inside. I also purchased a heat food sealer (used for tight sealing freezer bags for meats and frozen goods), so I could heat seal each bag.

Once the customer made their payment, I went to my local post office, grabbed loads of priority mailers (because these are free and flat rate shipping costs) and would print off a shipping label using Microsoft Word, then go back to the post office to mail out the orders. I did this every day, and during some busy times I was showing up to the post office with a moving box full of priority mailers for orders to go out. I became very familiar with the employees at the post office!

I started all of this in my apartment kitchen averaging probably 8-20 orders each week. I was definitely grinding. I was exhausted every day running to the post office, the grocery store, mixing up bags, sealing them, printing labels, then back to the post office to ship them out. I usually had to do all of this in the evenings after I finished up with my private personal training sessions. This was often as late as 11 PM, and then having to wake up at 5:30 AM the next day for more personal training sessions! abs-protein-pancakes-main

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Ashley Drummonds, on starting ABS Protein Pancakes ($25,000 revenue/mo) full story

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You may be thinking to yourself, "I don't know the first thing about making my own product."

Funny enough, some of our founders have found themselves in that exact same place, but explored and experimented with this anyways.

So how can you learn these skills on your own?

  • Watch YouTube videos
  • Read blog posts
  • Read books on the topic
  • Talk to other founders in the same industry

You'll love this example of one couple that launched a sustainable robe company and created the first prototype on their own, with no prior experience sewing:

Evan knew from his experience in the shoe industry that dealing with sizing was typically a huge challenge, so one of our rules was “no sizing.”

Jackie knew a bit about sewing and downloaded a pattern online. After a few attempts, she realized that this was a super inefficient way to do things and we started considering other options for production.

how-this-couple-launched-a-premium-robe-business Jackie in our first (failed) attempt at a prototype.

Luckily, Evan had an old friend who owned a sewing house in Los Angeles, so we started working with her to develop a proper prototype. She also introduced us to a fabric wholesaler that could provide us the types of prints and fabrics that we had in our minds.

how-this-couple-launched-a-premium-robe-business 3 fabric swatches that became part of our initial collection.

After about a month, Evan’s friend completed the first actual prototype.

how-this-couple-launched-a-premium-robe-business Our first real prototype. We liked it, but decided that it needed pockets. You’ve gotta put your snacks somewhere!

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Evan and Jackie Streusand, on starting Highway Robery ($10,000 revenue/mo) full story

Consider Building A Prototype With A 3D Printer

If you're looking to move away from the more "traditional methods" of prototyping, 3D printing can be a great and innovative way to design your product.

There are a number of different software tools you can use to create simple 3D Models:

Industry Specific Advice

If you're in any of the following industries, we'd recommend you explore and research for your specific industry.

Home Goods

If you're unsure on how to start the manufacturing process, it may be more simple than you think.

Youtube can actually be a great resource to walk you through the step by step process.

For example, DShawn Russell tells us about how she created her first candle with just two pots and a stove with no prior experience in the space:

I live in a small town (approximately 5000 people) so the manufacturing space wasn't available. My first space was a small restaurant. We stored fragrance in the former freezers and wax in the former deep fryers. At the end of that lease, we moved into a slightly larger retail space. But, we covered the windows with paper and a coming soon sign because the area wasn’t zoned for manufacturing and we didn't want anyone to know what we were doing. We had supplies delivered to the back door and prayed no one would check to see what we were doing. After about a year of stress, a real warehouse space became available and we moved into it.

Unfortunately, I had no idea how to set up a real candle business because everything up until this point had been ad-hoc. So I went back to the school of Youtube and watched every video I could find on manufacturing candles. I would stop the video and study them frame by frame. I used this information to set up my current space. We have 4 zones; An office area, a production area for each product, shipping and receiving area and finally an area for storage of supplies. how-i-started-a-20-month-southern-inspired-candle-business

With very limited resources, (basically no money) I went to the school of Google and Youtube. I took some online classes on Branding and Wholesaling. I hired a business coach and I literally hit the streets selling. For the first year, I would sell my candles at any Church function, fair, festival, school bazaar… I did not care. I sold candles outside in the middle of the summer and the dead of winter. I also sold on any and every online platform that would accept me. Etsy, Amazon, Faire, Modalyst, Houzz, etc. All the money I made went back into building the brand, I was lucky to have a husband to pay the bills but it was tight financially. When I finally felt comfortable I approached stores to carry my products. And we slowly built a base of stores to sustain the company.

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DShawn Russell, on starting Southern Elegance Candle Company ($20,000 revenue/mo) full story

Clothing

There are a couple steps that you may want to take when designing your first apparel product.

The idea is that you really want to fully establish the design of the product prior to getting to the printing stage

Brian Wyson, founder of TexStyles walks us through the process:

  • Sketch a few different designs in a sketchbook first.
  • Find a Printer (We really did not know what we were doing, so we found a small t-shire printer based in Texas made up of some college students working out of their garage).
  • They showed us various garment types, colors and options and educated us on the process
  • From that meeting, we took the next steps. Jeb took the sketchbook and gave it to my wife to digitize and save in the correct file need to send to print
  • Launched the process of printing our small run of size S through 2XL shirts in Denton how-two-teachers-started-a-t-shirt-business-doing-1-2m-year
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Brian Wysong, on starting Tumbleweed TexStyles ($93,000 revenue/mo) full story

Food

If you're launching a food business, it's key to know how to source the best ingredients and conduct a proper taste test

There's no better way to "test your product" than to have actual customers taste your product and provide you with constructive feedback.

Theo Lee, launched KPOP Foods and provides us with his #1 Piece of Advice: Get the Ingredients Right

The reason we started with KPOP Sauce was because one of the key ingredients, gochujang (Korean chili paste), is a staple ingredient in Korean cuisine.

Additionally, my grandma used to send me bottles of her gochujang sauce and my friends absolutely loved it, putting it on their eggs, grilled chicken, burgers, hot dogs, noodles, rice, and more.

Given the versatility, we thought it was the right product to start with – a flavorful sauce that people could incorporate onto foods they already eat. Along with that, gochujang can be difficult to use given its thicker texture (think peanut butter), so the sauce made it much easier to use or cook with.

We used my grandma’s recipe as a base and began tweaking things based on feedback. The most controversial ingredient turned out to be sesame oil – some people really liked it, others didn’t. When we removed the sesame oil, people still liked the sauce, so we took it out.
image 5

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Theo Lee, on starting KPOP Foods ($6,500 revenue/mo) full story

Jewelry

When finding a manufacturer to design your products, it's important to be as descriptive as possible with what you want before committing your final design.

Ronnie Teja, Founder of Branzio ($25K/Per month) selling watches, walks us through his journey:

  • Sourcing products/vendors with zero experience
  • His pro tip with meeting your suppliers in person
  • Tips on being as descriptive and granular as possible with designers
  • Some exclusive photos that showcase their first prototype designs

At that time I had 0 ideas on how to source products, how to design watches or even find out how and where watches are made, what is swiss vs Japanese movement and how they’re assembled.

Pro-tip: Anyone who is a guru is looking to make themselves rich because they have 0 skin in the game and they’re just good at selling themselves, so if you ever receive these random gurus approved proposals - read them and toss them in the garbage and go and meet your suppliers in person - why? I negotiated really great credit terms because, I went to meet my suppliers, convince them of my vision and what I had in mind. I wined and dined them and I was able to get letters from some creditors to convince them about a favourable payment schedule.

Our first prototypes were supposed to be minimalist, but they never came out the way we envisioned them and like I said we have zero experience in how to source and actually give specification to our Chinese factories so it was massive trial and errors exercise, my words of experience to you is as granular as possible - if you want xyz grade of leather, say it - don’t say generic brown leather because you’ll get really shit pleather.

Be as descriptive as possible, try and make the whole experience as visual, double check the designers work from your suppliers before you make the final leap. Always get a run of samples 2-3 times before you actually commit your final design it’s really important to make sure you have all this nailed out.

Our first prototype designs: how-i-built-a-booming-watch-brand-from-nothing how-i-built-a-booming-watch-brand-from-nothing

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Ronnie Teja, on starting Branzio ($25,000 revenue/mo) full story

Conclusion

As you can see, the goal is not to be a perfectionist when it comes to creating your first prototype.

The goal is to just get started and experiment with a few ideas until you feel that you have something tangible in front of you that you can test.

We hope you keep enjoying our guides - join our community to learn even more!

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Starter Story,   Founder of Starter Story