Product Development 101: Turn Your Brilliant Idea Into a Reality

  •    A freelance reporter and writer based in Philadelphia, Pa., Dinah previously worked as a staff reporter for The Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires.

You've had that eureka moment and dreamed up a great invention — or perhaps enough brilliant ideas are swimming in your creative mind to develop an entire line of goods.

You have the inspiration, imagination and entrepreneurial drive, but how exactly do you transform that concept into a physical product?

Follow these nine steps to get there:

  1. Ideation
  2. Prototyping
  3. Choosing a Manufacuter
  4. Legally Starting Your Business
  5. Financing
  6. Build Your Brand
  7. Product Photography
  8. Create an Online Store
  9. Packaging

1. Ideation


Creating the concept of your product takes vision — and planning. Start out by conducting research to see if similar products are already on the market. Try Googling search terms which are related to your product idea. Explore online and offline retailers where items like the one you have in mind would likely be sold.

If there is something along the same lines, honestly ask yourself if your concept is different enough to warrant the effort to bring it to market? Remember, even if there are similar products on the market, you can take a unique branding angle to differentiate your business (which we'll cover in this guide).

It's a good idea to check with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to ensure your product will not infringe on another inventor's patent.

Perform market research — it could be surveys, interviews with potential customers or other methods — to see what kind of demand there may be for your product.

Once you've done your due diligence to understand the competitive landscape and are still enthusiastic, it's time to literally make the idea take shape.

Unless you're an engineer or designer with sophisticated software and knowledge, keep the process simple when first developing your idea. Sketch the basic elements of your product on paper or using a computer software like Rhinoceros. Make the design clear enough that someone else will easily understand the fundamentals.

Key takeaways: Conduct research and market analysis and sketch out the fundamentals of your idea.

2. Prototyping


In the early stages, use a 3D printer, sculpting plastic or other materials on hand to craft a no-frills, DIY prototype.

Online services like sculpteo and shapeways help makers produce professional 3D models and even finished products in a variety of materials. Sculpteo can turn out a prototype in two to three days.

A local fabrication shop is another option. Thomas can help you find rapid prototyping services in your region.

Depending on product complexity, you may need to work with an engineer or a designer to creative technical sketches to prepare your concept for production.

Cycling enthusiast Ely Rodriguez, founder of San Francisco-based RuthWorks, a custom bicycle bags business, mocked up his first prototype on his own nearly a decade ago and personally sews each high-end bag to this day.

After drawing the pattern on a piece of paper, he says, "I cut the pattern out with a paper grocery bag and then taped it together and said, 'Yeah, that should be good,' and that was it."

He continues to do the prototyping himself and uses three bike enthusiasts as his main testers: an industrial designer, an urban planning professor and a mechanic for pro cycling teams. Two other riders, both competitive cyclists, test specific products and features for him. "They're just all my friends," Rodriguez says.

Joel Simon of Portland, Ore., invented the Growler Pal, a contraption that allows a glass to rest at "the perfect pint pouring angle and target to ensure you pour a beer with ideal head," after becoming frustrated with the challenges surrounding the proper pouring of craft beer from growler jugs.

Working on the problem with a friend, he says, "we realized the glass had to be held hands-free so you could have two hands for the growler."

Simon Googled pouring angles and found a "beer geek scientist gentleman in the U.K." who pegged 15 degrees as the "precise angle to create the proper ratio of head to beer."

He then went to work on a prototype, employing sturdy contractor cardboard to build a contraption that "looked horrible" but held the glass at a 15-degree angle. Simon later found a local craftsman to provide samples of his design.

Similar to these Weebly entrepreneurs, your first prototype will likely be scrappy and that's okay. The important part is to create a physical model of your idea, so you can make any necessary changes before putting it into production.

Key takeaways: Experiment with a 3D printer or 3D printing service, sculpting plastic or other materials to build a basic DIY prototype, if possible, or work with engineers, designers or fabrication shops for more complex products.

3. Choosing a Manufacturer


Consider quality, cost and location when selecting a manufacturer or supplier for your product. Request price quotes, get a sense of the service level suppliers will provide and ask if they'll produce a sample.

Manufacturers often will create samples based on your design if you meet minimum-order requirements.

3D printing firms are also a manufacturing option for certain products.

One Weebly-based entrepreneur — the inventor of the Whiskey Ball ice ball maker — used eCommercial giant Alibaba to research Chinese manufacturers and got his successful business off the ground in two months. Alibaba offers a number of sourcing tools and insights to help businesses research, winnow and select suppliers.

Makers Row can help you find U.S.-based factories, including offering means to message and obtain bids from manufacturers. The firm also provides consultation services and online courses for makers, and information on sourcing, packaging, quality control and prototyping.

Explore lead times, payment terms, quality, product safety compliance and your ability to review samples, among other manufacturer contract specifics.

Not every business, of course, requires working with a large manufacturer.

RuthWorks' Rodriguez, who started his business as a hobby using a thrift-store sewing machine he'd received for Christmas, does the prep work for his canvas and leather cycling bags at home and assembles them on industrial sewing machines in a shared workspace, where he also teaches free classes.

“I got a pair of scissors and a sewing machine," he says. Rodriguez makes the bags as orders arrive, doing some sub-assembly in advance, producing about 80 bags a month. His hobby has turned into a full-time business that allows him to pursue his favorite activities — spending time with his wife, son and friends.

“I don't want to be famous and I don't want to make a million bags ... I just want to make stuff that I think is beautiful and that hopefully other people think is beautiful and they use it," he says. "My goal isn't to scale."

If he does get a mass order that he can't produce himself, Rodriguez says he would work only with a manufacturer he knows personally, and will require that the factory workers are well-paid.

Growler Pal's Simon, moving beyond his cardboard mockup, found his prototype maker and manufacturer by placing an ad on Craigslist for a craftsman who could build a widget with locally sourced woods. He didn't disclose the nature of the project, and when the guy walked in wearing a T-shirt that said "beer," he knew he'd found his manufacturer.

They drew up a diagram and the craftsman/carpenter produced six samples. Simon, who works in the wine and beer industry and started Growler Pal as a side business in October 2016, pays the man by the piece, keeping an inventory of 100 to 200 in his garage. If he needs to scale up someday, Simon may turn to a large-scale producer of handcrafted items located about 50 miles away.

Key takeaways: Your search for a manufacturer will depend on your product. You may look locally for craftspeople, carpenters or factories, or your goods may be more suitable to overseas manufacturers. Consider Makers Row and Alibaba as resources to help you find a supplier.

4. Legally Starting Your Business


You're serious about your enterprise, so you'll want to take the steps necessary to do it right and cover your legal bases.

If you have a name in mind, do a domain search to see if it's available for your online store. See whether anyone else has a company with the same moniker. Also check with your state's Secretary of State's office to find out if the name is already registered, and with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to see if it's been trademarked.

Explore and decide on a business structure, such as sole proprietorship, LLC or another option, and register with your state if required. A lawyer, or online services like LegalZoom, can help you prepare articles or a certificate of incorporation. A lawyer can also help you comply with local laws and obtain any business license, permits or certificates you may need.

The Small Business Administration, which offers information on how and whether you need to register your business, notes you may need to file for a federal tax identification number.

The SBA also notes that if you structure your business as an LLC, corporation, partnership or nonprofit, you'll likely need a registered agent in your state to receive official paperwork on your company's behalf.

Consider filing to obtain a patent or trademark to protect your product, name or brand.

Simon, who now has other product ideas in the pipeline, has obtained patent pending status for Growler Pal, which he sells on his Weebly site and through gift stores and bars with growler stations. He also completed the trademark process.

The patent protects his device at angles ranging from 10 to 20 degrees, to prevent someone from producing an easy copycat. Simon hired a patent attorney to help with the application — an expensive proposition that he considers an investment in his future. To protect his idea, he also had any craftsman he talk to about it sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Rodriguez, on the other hand, whose products are well-known in the cycling world, hasn't sought a patent on his bicycle bags.

“Anybody who wants to rip me off can do it," he says. “I'm not really doing anything new. It's a bag." A couple of individuals have copied his style, he says, but the products' uniqueness may be a deterrent to factory imitators. “No one can copy my bags and make a profit. I know that for a fact," Rodriguez says. "It's too complicated."

Key takeaways: Explore the different aspects of your business that need official attention, whether it's registering with your state's secretary of state, obtaining a local business license, registering an Internet domain name, applying for patent or trademark protection, or other steps. Make sure you're not infringing on anyone else's patent or trademark, and consult a lawyer or online legal service if necessary.

5. Financing


A variety of potential financing sources can help fund your business. Depending on the product, you may be able to bootstrap the idea.

Traditional bank loans, SBA-guaranteed bank loans, and peer-to-peer lenders like Lending Club, Prosper, Upstart and Kabbage are worth exploring. Check your credit score and gather the financial statements, business plan and other paperwork you'll need for a loan application.

You may also put your personal finances on the line and use a credit card or home equity line of credit.

Other options include winning the backing of an angel investor or venture capitalist, loans geared specifically for startups, and crowdfunding through Kickstarter, Indiegogo or GoFundMe.

As a first financing step many startup businesses secure investments or loans from family and friends. Formalize such arrangements with loan documents or financing agreements so your dear family and friends can better remain dear family and friends. A word of caution: check with a pro to make sure any friends and family investing round doesn't run afoul of Securities and Exchange Commission regulations.

Key takeaways: If you can't bootstrap your idea, explore personal, startup, SBA-backed and traditional banks loans, as well as crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lenders. Make sure you have proper documentation and know your credit score.

6. Build Your Brand


Your brand may be the very thing that differentiates your business from your competition. Your brand communicates to your website's visitors what they can expect from your products and services.

Consider the image and qualities you want your business to convey and incorporate that into your logo, messaging and website. Your brand announces who or what your company is, and can comprise your fonts, logo, backstory, motto, packaging culture and ads.

Branding often embraces a promise to potential customers of the quality or enjoyment they'll service from your product or services.

Growler Pal, with a website that includes a video demonstration and a photo of a cold brew resting in the product, calls itself "an innovative solution to hapless pouring from heavy, cumbersome growlers."

RuthWorks describes its product as "canvas, leather, and brass for equipment that will perform for a lifetime."

Consider your company's distinctive qualities, how to share it with customers, and make sure your promise is more than words and pictures, but the very definition of your business.

Key takeaways: Think about the qualities and messages you want your company to convey, and develop the look and feel to convey them through your website, logo, advertising and packaging.

7. Product Photography


It's difficult to overestimate the value of high-quality images of your products. In fact, research shows that 94% of potential customers are more likely to shop at a site with quality product photos and well-designed visuals.

You'll want to capture high resolution photos for your online store's product pages. Consider using a professional photographer or you can shoot the pictures yourself using good equipment and following some pro practices.

RuthWorks' posed cycling bags on bikes in appealing outdoor settings might tempt even a non-cyclist to take up the past-time.

Among the pro tips for taking great product eCommerce photos:

Place your products in front of a white backdrop, using natural lighting if possible and removing background items. Use a reflector or white card or poster to even the lighting in your photo. Weebly's DIY product photo guide can help.

Using a white backdrop isn't a hard-and-fast rule. Shooting your products in your workshop or another natural setting, like this Weebly-based guitar maker does in his slide show, can enable you to tell a compelling story about your product and process.

For organic, on-the-scene photos, show your product in colorful, beautiful settings in keeping with your brand.

Key takeaways: Take time to use good equipment and settings to showcase your products, people and company. Your goods, advertising and website need great photos to look professional.

8. Create an Online Store


In the Internet age, your website is your shop window. When you've put so much effort into developing your product, you want an eCommerce site that looks great and operates smoothly and simply.

Weebly's customizable themes, eCommerce elements, drag-&-drop design features and marketing options, like promo codes, enable you to get up and running with a DIY, user-friendly site — for you and your customers.

Use videos, photos, slideshows, colors, words, typeface and layouts to tell your story in your way. Your wares and content, combined with Weebly's eCommerce engine, can make for a fresh, polished and shopper-friendly online store.

Key takeaways: Use Weebly's rich, user-friendly tools to maximize your website, giving it the professional look and functions necessary for your business to compete as an eCommerce retailer.

9. Packaging


Besides your online store, packaging is the main point of contact and physical expression of your brand. Packaging is typically a customer's first physical impression of your product, so consider taking advantage of it as another marketing and branding opportunity. Think about times you received an item in an elegantly packed or designed box and the impression it made on you!

If you're focused on organic goods, simple packaging using recycled materials can extend your theme. A velvet pouch or box may be just right for jewelry.

You might hire a designer to help you develop your packaging, or use an online service like Pakible to help you design a custom product package.

Key takeaways: Don't overlook packaging, which may represent your customer's first hands-on experience with your company. Consider it an extension of your branding, and consider hiring a designer or an online packaging service.

Final Thoughts

Just as GPS offers different paths that can take you from point A to point B, this guide suggests various options for going from idea to physical product. You may find even more ways to get there.

Whether you do it all yourself, hire designers, use local craftspeople or contract with an overseas factory, there are numerous tools available to make your vision a reality. Whatever path you choose, do your research, plan well, be willing to take the first step and enjoy the journey.

As Growler Pal's Simon says: “If you have an idea and you're passionate about it, don't be gun shy."