with Laurier Mandin, Andreas Schwabe and Filip Valica
Filip Valica is a mechanical engineer who has worked for large corporations and as founder of The Product Startup has coached numerous product brands through his development and launch process, a comprehensive view of the product lifecycle that begins with an original idea and culminates with sales. In this episode, he describes how product design extends into every stage, and why each is important.
Listen to Filip Valica’s The Product Startup Podcast
Andreas: It’s Product: Knowledge, the podcast about creating and marketing products that improve people’s lives.
Andreas: I’m Andreas Schwabe, director of media services at Graphos product.
Andreas: This episode’s guest is a world-renowned expert in taking inventive products to market. Filip Valica is a mechanical engineer who’s worked for large corporations and coached several product brands through the development and launch process. Recently, he shifted focus from single products to more complex projects with product lines.
Andreas: Filip Valica is also founder of The Product Startup and the host of The Product Startup Podcast. He has a comprehensive view of product design, which begins with the idea and ends at sales. He believes product design extends into every stage of a new product’s life cycle. Today we highlight his ideas on the product development life cycle.
Andreas: Filip Valica joined us on the line from Houston, Texas. Graphos Product’s CEO, Laurier Mandin, kicked off the conversation.
Laurier: How are you?
Filip: Good. How are you?
Laurier: We are fantastic. So Filip, through your work with The Product Startup, you’ve helped inventors take their ideas and turn them into a physical product, manufacture it, and take it to market. How has technology democratized the way all that is done now?
Filip: Yeah, so I think technology just enables the average person now to at least dip their toe into doing some of that stuff. So if you have the inclination and you have the time to go and learn about those things, the world is your oyster, so to speak. Especially now with the internet, I mean, I can’t imagine having a better resource like this. If you imagine what we had, if we had the internet back in the ’70s or ’60s or whatever, where we would be today, with just democratizing information and connecting people together that had the different skill sets needed to launch something.
Laurier: At Graphos Product, we work with our clients on strategy a lot, and we have packages like our Innovative Products Go‑to‑Market Roadmap and others to help clients improve their chances of success. And you’ve developed your own … I think you call it a roadmap process for taking a product to market. Can you give us a quick run-through of the steps for that?
Andreas: I’ll read off the steps, and then we’ll get you to just say a few things about each one.
Andreas: So first is get the idea. Validate the market. Prototype, and really that’s a concept step. File provisional patent application. Validate customer needs. Design. A functional prototype. Validate the design. File a patent application. Design for manufacture, which I’m really curious about because you’ve got prototypes that are functional, and now we have to design for manufacture. I’m curious why that’s different. Funding. Making it. Getting it to market. Marketing. Selling. And then shipping.
Andreas: So let’s start with getting the idea.
Filip: Yeah, so people usually find the idea because they’re trying to solve a problem in their own life or friends’ and family’s lives. Or they’ve seen a gap in the market that no one else sees because you have a unique way of looking at the world and no one else might have that perspective, and so you’re in a good position to come up with something that someone else hasn’t.
Andreas: And there’s a million ways to skin a cat. I mean, there’s just crazy brainstorming. Sometimes-
Andreas: People just get the whole concept in their head and it’s actually right the first time, even.
Laurier: Yeah, we talk about how important it is that you remember what that idea was, because that’s the job to be done that you have, you know, at the heart of that idea. And often inventors kind of go crazy from there, and iterations down the road they’ve already forgotten what that main idea was. They’re kind of lost in all the features.
Andreas: So now next step is validating the market.
Filip: Yeah, and will people actually pay for it? Do people even want what you’re selling? It might be a cool solution for you or for your immediate family and friends. But what about people that don’t know you, that aren’t obligated to tell you what you want to hear?
Andreas: Right. Now, the next one is … There’s actually three steps of designing, and the first one is the concept prototype. So what’s a concept prototype and how’s it different from the later versions?
Filip: The concept prototype is basically like … Think of it as a coffee table book. It’s just pretty on the outside and it gets people to start talking about stuff, about the problem. Most people are visual, or a lot of people are visual, and so if you were to approach them and have this abstract conversation about a physical product, they wouldn’t be able to follow. But if you bring them something and say, “Here’s this wooden PalmPilot with a dial in it. Could you imagine carrying that?”
Filip: “Oh yeah, absolutely.”
Andreas: Okay, next step is filing provisional patent applications.
Filip: So that’s the patent. In the U.S. anyway, that’s a “patent pending” status. So you can file that yourself, or you can go to a lawyer and do that for you. In the U.S. it’s about $60 or so in fees, or about $1,200 or so for a lawyer to do it.
Filip: And basically all that does is it reserves your spot in line with the USPTO, where they will use that date as your filing date. So then it gives you some … It gives you about a year where you can go and talk to people about your idea and say that it’s patent pending. You can even go out and sell it if you wanted to. And then it gives you time to put the application together and formally document and everything.
Andreas: Okay. Now the next step, step five, is the first of a couple of validation steps. This is validating customer needs.
Filip: Yeah. So now you’re getting into more detail. It’s not “Would you buy this wooden Palm Pilot with a dial in it?” It’s “What specifically does it have to do in order for you to pull your wallet out of your back pocket?” Is it a contacts manager? Is it a phone? Is it … What are you … What you as …
Filip: And at this point you’re probably creating user personas, right? And I think my favorite one is … We have Trader Joe’s here in the States, and they have it down to where this person is a professor and drives a station wagon. It’s a woodie, and … I mean, it’s super detailed.
Filip: And you’ll probably have multiple personas, but that’s … I think you need to get to a certain level to where you can get into people’s head to be able to market to them.
Laurier: Yeah, exactly.
Filip: Or make decisions.
Laurier: You want to be able to imagine it’s a real person, right? And that’s what it does when you flesh out and add those extra details that aren’t really necessary. But real people have lots of extra details.
Andreas: When we get-
Filip: Yeah, there’s a—
Andreas: Sorry, go ahead.
Filip: No, I was just going to say, there are a lot of decisions made between the first and the last step, right? And you can’t always go to your client and say, “Do you think the color red or blue? Do you think it should be textured or smooth?” And at some point you’re going to have to make those decisions as the product owner.
Filip: So you need to be able to be in their head or in their thought process 100%. So if that means that you need to take on the role of a househusband, housewife, if you’re marketing to that demographic, then maybe you need to do that for a week and really see how it is to carry a kid on your hip or a load of laundry or to do all the dishes and trying to manage screaming children while you’re on the phone, while you’re doing other things, you know? That market, it’s almost like … You know, I’m a parent and I buy kids’ clothes and some kids’ clothes have buttons that you can’t really open-
Laurier: Yeah, that’s amazing-
Laurier: I’ve been through that. Like we’d buy the ones for our kids with zippers on them because at least you can do those up like with one hand as opposed to these little buttons—-
Filip: Yeah, absolutely.
Laurier: It takes you 20 minutes to button up your kid. By then you have other problems.
Andreas: So I have a question. In validating the customer needs, is that sort of the first place that you have to guard against feature creep?
Filip: Yes, yes. Because you’re going to have people telling you … You’ll talk to 15 people and 15 people will tell you something slightly different.
Filip: And then the flip side is if you go in and say, “You want a PalmPilot, don’t you? You want this thing in your pocket, don’t you?” Of course they’re going to tell you yes. So you can’t ask leading questions either.
Filip: You have to do a very careful prodding session where you go in, you ask open-ended questions, you ask them to validate, you continue asking the five why’s, you dig deep down into the root of the problem but then also stay focused. As you guys were saying, under the original goal, what is the end goal of this product? What’s the MVP? Not the plus one, I guess.
Andreas: Right. So now, step six sounds like it’s been done the whole time, but now it’s the design step. So what’s that all about?
Filip: That’s formalizing the design. So you’ve got all these features. And they’re features and benefits right now. They’re not really specifications, right? The customer has said, “I want to take 2,000 photos and be able to store them in my hip pocket.”.
Filip: Now you’re translating that into X amount of gigabytes, or the transmission speed has to be Y because, you know … Or the clothes are going to go through a hot press cycle and the buttons need to withstand X amount of temperature.
Filip: So you’re basically quantifying those features into a specification and wrapping it into a design. And that’s going to help you create that functional prototype.
Andreas: Right, and that’s the next step, is the functional prototype. So once you got the design, then you actually build the thing and see how … Now, is the functional prototype … What’s really the key function or the key purpose of that step?
Filip: Proving out that it’s possible to get those benefits to the specifications that you’ve called out.
Andreas: So not like the Galaxy Fold where it could fold, but it would break when it did.
Filip: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, basically, so if I … Let’s say, you … So we do this all the time where we do a functional prototype. You de-risk some things because you know that in the past you’ve been able to do these other things before, right? You’ve put buttons on phones and you’ve done antennas and whatever battery packs, all that’s the same. But hey, you know what? The different thing here is the screen. So we’re going to focus on functionally prototyping the screen and make sure that it can … And the next step would be validating the design, make sure that it can fold and unfold a thousand times or whatever that number is.
Filip: Probably 10,000.
Andreas: And they only managed to get about a dozen. And then if a piece of dust got between two layers, it would basically disable the screen. So someone didn’t do their prototype testing properly.
Filip: And that’s sad because I’m sure at some point somewhere they made the decision to do that. And I’m sure people have considered that. It just … And who knows what had happened? Maybe something got changed out during the manufacturing-
Laurier: Or there could have been—
Laurier: Variability in materials somewhere along the line—
Andreas: Yeah, it could’ve even just been a tolerance to just that space exists in the … It didn’t exist in the prototype, but it exists in the final version. You never know.
Andreas: I mean, it’s such a complex thing. I saw a video of the hinge design. I mean, that’s some serious math and geometry going on there.
Filip: Yeah, that’s a good example of something that you do a functional prototype for. So you’ve got something that folds. You don’t have to necessarily make it out of the material you’re going to make it on, because let’s say you know that hey, it’s not the manufacturing part of this that’s difficult for the, let’s say, the steel. It’s the geometry that I’m testing. I’ve got five different geometries on making this fold and unfold. I’m going to go ahead and prototype those really quick, in wood or whatever it is, to get the answer down. And then once I have that answer, you can just kind of iterate that and make it smaller and 3D-printed and all that stuff.
Andreas: It feels like this is the stage where mistakes are really made, like this is where the critical flaws are born.
Laurier: Or where they’re cemented, even, right? Because you’re deciding, okay, this is good, we’re going to run with it. And if you’re missing something, then this is when you’re kind of going more flat-out from this point.
Filip: You know, you could … I mean, I guess it depends on the type of product that you’re doing. I would almost say it’s even before this, where you’re cementing some mistakes. People make a lot of mistakes talking to their target market, I feel. Most of the people that I’ve run into, especially in my consulting side, haven’t validated the market deep enough yet. They feel that there is a market and that’s good enough for them.
Laurier: Well, sometimes it’s a passion thing, right? They feel it in their heart, and that’s why—
Filip: Oh yeah.
Laurier: They ask those leading questions, and that’s why … Very often, they don’t want their heartbroken to find out there’s no market for the thing that they’re dreaming about all the time.
Filip: Well, and I guess, to be fair, there’s no harm if you want to launch a product like that, but not if your goal is to be selling it and making tons of money. You might make a impact in the world by creating something that’s really helpful to people.
Laurier: Yeah. And it kind of doesn’t help when you have people saying, “Well, Steve Jobs said that people don’t know what they want until they see it. And Henry Ford said if we asked people what they wanted, they’d say a faster horse.” And so that type of thing that these entrepreneurs are going out and reading just validates that they know better than anybody they’re asking questions to. It kind of complicates the whole idea of validation when you have a philosophy of ignore the validation.
Andreas: You’re listening to Product Knowledge, the Graphos podcast about marketing products that improve people’s lives.
Filip: Oh, and one thing I forgot about validating design. So let’s say you’re creating a PalmPilot again. That’s also the point where you would do the drop test that drops it off of a five-foot table and does the screen crack?
Filip: Those types of testings. So basically, it’s not just the “Yeah, we can fit a processor in this space.” It’s the mechanical things on the shell. It’s all sorts of little things. And you don’t have to put it all into one unit. You can test them discretely with mock tests and all sorts of other things. But you need to be able to validate that the materials that you’ve chosen, the way that you’ve done it is going to work and fit, I guess, the purpose. So like you said, you don’t get surprised by a hinged screen that doesn’t work out.
Laurier: Yeah. Well, validating the, like you said, the dropping things. And validating UX, making sure that people are going to be able to understand how it works once they’re working with it.
Filip: Yup, absolutely. So yeah, filing a patent application, so hopefully it’s been less than a year since you filed the provisional, if that’s what you did. At this point, if you feel that you want to file a patent, that would probably be the point where you want to do it. Again, it depends on how much of it you’ve shown to potential customers. If you’ve actually been selling it actively, then you can’t do it at this point. But, you know, so if … You want to … This is the basically the last point where you can protect it, is before it goes out for manufacture.
Andreas: And then once you design for manufacture, how’s that different than the other design process?
Filip: So what you can do in 3D printing, for example, is not something that you could, you know, that scales up necessarily to injection molding, for example.
Andreas: Right, yeah.
Filip: In some ways it’s very similar, and you can probably do all sorts of things and there’s workarounds. But in other cases there might not be. There’s tolerances, there’s provisions that you make in design to make it easier for machines to hold the part while they’re assembling it. You know, there’s just a multitude of factors and scaling from building your prototype by hand to automating the manufacture of it or even doing it in batches. You know, let’s say you are carving something out of wood. This is the point where you’d say, “Okay, I’m going to go and look and see that the common sizes of wood are one by four, one by six, one by eight. So I’m going to scale my design to that instead of working with some odd size that now I have to constantly mill down or whatever it is.”
Laurier: There was an important thing that you said in one of your podcasts, and that was that you recommend when people are looking to design for manufacturing at this stage that they go with an independent designer rather than working with a designer at the manufacturer. Can you tell us why you recommend that?
Filip: Well, at least in my experience, if the manufacturer is going to do the design, then they’re going to keep the … Not really the IT, but the design files for that. And they will do it specifically for their machines, with their application as well. So while you might be able to get away with a free design for manufacture there, although I think they’re going to wrap it into their total cost for you, you’re not going to get to shop around for that design.
Filip: So at some point if you feel like “I want to hedge my risk here and use two or three manufacturers because I can’t rely on just one being able to get product out on time,” you’re going to have a hard time shopping around because now you don’t have the design files and other things to be able to present to other people.
Laurier: Yeah, or if you need to move, now you’d be beholden to that manufacturer because they have the design. You have to go and potentially redesign it with another manufacturer and start all over.
Filip: Yeah. And then at that point, good luck making your second version or second run the same as the first run, because the first manufacturer has designed it around their processes and it might come out looking a little bit different.
Filip: And I think there’s … I can’t think of them off the top of my head, but I’ve definitely seen production products where you go to a store and you pick up two that are on the same shelf, and one is not as glossy as the other or the themes don’t quite match up on this one or the grip is not as tacky as the other one. And it’s because there have been some substitutions and maybe they’ve made some changes in their supply chain.
Laurier: Yeah, and as I’ve seen with one of my clients manufacturing in China, after moving from one manufacturer to another, the original product started showing up in some stores in Russia, so—
Laurier: Things like that can happen as well.
Andreas: Step 12 is make.
Filip: Yeah. Go out and make it.
Andreas: Now, why … Is this a hard step? I mean, it sounds relatively easy. Find a manufacturer, boom, off you go.
Filip: Yeah, so I guess … So there’s a couple of things to consider. Are you going to be making it locally? Is it going to be made abroad? When people say abroad, that’s usually in Asia. If you’re going to do that, and because of the costs of, you know …
Filip: And these are hard decisions because if you’re going to try to make it locally, some products don’t lend themselves to that. There’s some economies of scale that just don’t work. Because the costs are four or five times more in the States, for example, because we don’t subsidize the cost of material like China does, with their government. So there’s certain things that just don’t work with that.
Filip: So I think there’s a lot of, you know … And working with a manufacturer, for example, that has experience in that type of products. So they’ve done kitchenware before and know the importance of using 18/8 stainless steel instead of something that they call stainless but is not really and then you’re going to end up with rust spots on your silverware.
Filip: It’s little things like that, making sure that you’re working with somebody that understands a product that you’re trying to make and has done something like that before.
Andreas: How vigilant do you have to be when your product is in fabrication?
Filip: I think it depends on the manufacturer, I think, and your relationship with them. And I’ve used a manufacturer in China actually that works with IKEA, for example. And so they have pretty good quality standards. I’ve also used a third-party quality company to go and run some inspection while they’re doing the manufacturing.
Filip: So what you probably want to do on the first run is inspect some of the first things that are coming out and make sure that they’re okay, because you don’t want them to fill up several containers of your widgets and then you go inspect them and realize that they’re all nonconforming.
Andreas: Step 13 is market.
Laurier: And I could probably tell you about that one—
Andreas: And we could probably do-
Laurier: Yeah, that one could be a pretty long one. Because when it comes down to not just the entry strategy, the strategy you use to decide how you’re going to take this product to a beachhead and how you’re going to enter the market and what markets they’re going to enter and how you’re going to get this into people’s minds and change their behaviors to buy the new product, that’s a pretty deep one, as far as that goes. I don’t know if you can-
Filip: Hopefully you’ve already decided on some of those before you even manufactured, because … So the manufacturing kind of ties together with the marketing because you’re getting your boxes made and all sorts of other things. Is it going to be a brown cardboard box and it gets shipped plain because you’re doing OEM-style packaging to save costs? Or did you come up with some awesome x-ply, full-color, with … You know, the Apple-style packaging that feels nice when you open it, has a friction factor that you’ve calculated into it?
Filip: So I put marketing there as a step, but really it’s just one of those things that you’re continuing to do through the whole process.
Laurier: Yeah, it could be a separate circle that kind of wraps around all this other stuff, right?
Laurier: Well, thank you so much, Filip. This has been a really fun call. It’s been great to have you on the show.
Andreas: That’s it for this episode of Product Knowledge and our conversation with product designer Filip Valica. Visit his podcast and website at theproductstartup.com.
Andreas: Visit graphosproduct.com to find out more about Graphos, our services, our ideas, more podcasts and our blog. All our podcasts are transcribed for the deaf and hard of hearing. Reach out to us on Twitter @GraphosProduct, or email us through the form on graphosproduct.com.
Andreas: Thanks for listening. I’m Andreas Schwabe.