Not everyone is lucky enough to have an engineer in their life. If you do, sometimes those engineers are just the wrong type of engineer or sometimes your engineer friend is too busy to help you with your kooky pet-project. The same goes for all the marketers, graphic designers, etc that you may know. Sometimes you don't want to overload your friends and families with requests and help can be hard to find... so what do you do?
With my background of being a product manager, I had a good understanding of the tasks and milestones for developing a new product. Somethings I could definitely do myself and for other tasks, I knew that I would need some help. For this project, I ended up outsourcing the advanced engineering work (3D part design and plastic-injection mold design), logo creation, packaging design, video graphics, and some social marketing support. Just looking at that list, it seems like there really isn't much left to do... right? Right.
Before you start recruiting for help, you should have your ducks in a row and have a preliminary timeline and budget. Don't worry about this being super accurate at this point, it's going to change as you learn more and things progress - but you need to start somewhere and be able to tell someone a target completion date (asap doesn't fly here) and how much you are willing to spend.
At this point, I've spent about 30% more than when I first estimated (which is pretty good for me, I'm a little bit of a spender ;) and as this project has progressed and I've learned a bit more, my budget estimation is getting a lot more accurate. But without an initial budget to follow, it's hard to make decisions about costly re-work, extra marketing support, etc.
After you've got your budget and timeline, the next most important tool for making that perfect product is a great project brief. You want to make sure that you will be setting up your hired help for the most efficient and best outcome possible. I spent soooo many hours searching for images on google, browsing design websites and watching stupid info-graphics all so I could clearly define and show what I wanted. There definitely is a specific vocabulary when communicating with designers or engineers, be sure to look into it before you casually start throwing descriptive words or technical sounding terms around. Here's a reference for graphic design and one for mechanical engineering.
How I was able to get help - beyond that of friends and family - was using an online freelancer finder. There are quite a few out there, but the one that I chose to use was Upwork*. I was able to post a job description and receive work offers from freelancers from all over the world. It was easy to use and seemed very safe & secure. It's free to browse and post a job offer but there is a small fee once you hire someone (I think just a couple dollars). I found a great graphic designer from Armenia that made my lovely logo (with a few alterations) in a week for less than $100. I used this service for packaging design and video graphics as well; engineering and all other kinds of services are also available. Being able to get these tasks done for a reasonable budget really inspired and helped me to try and make this product be the best it could be.
[Side note] Having experienced how these freelance/job websites work, it is inspiring as an option for a little income later down the road. For those who are working hard/saving hard for early financial independence, this could be a nice retirement gig. Being able to work when you want, for however long you want, and only on the projects that you're interested in sounds pretty amazing, right?
Ok, back on topic...
The last bit of work to do is a little scary and intimidating but I can't stress enough how important it is to do! It's SUPER important to get outside feedback on major decisions - like the look & design of the product, the name of your company, and who is your target demographic - who's buying it. It's a great reality check and can help you focus and get back on track if you feel lost or when things get tough. Being a company of one, makes it challenging to collaborate and get quick feedback. Find yourself a mentor and a group of trusted peers that will give you honest feedback. Be open to suggestions and take all feedback as good intentions... but in the end, you're the boss and you get to choose what's right.
*note, I am not getting paid for mentioning them. It is my own opinion :)
Working as a product manager in a bike company, product testing was definitely one of the most fun parts of the job. Taking an extended afternoon ride to log some miles on a new bike frame, saddle, wheels, tires, etc was a great perk, unless it was winter in Connecticut and it's raining and 35 degrees F which was typically the time when new products were developed! Weather aside, I came to love the process of developing and testing a new product and found that it is extremely exciting and rewarding.
Being a good product tester takes a lot of attention to detail as you can imagine but also a lot of compassion and understanding of who the end user is. After every bit of information or detail that you notice, you have to put it in perspective of the user - would they notice this? Is it important to them? Would they think this was a good thing or bad thing? How would it make them feel? You can't assume that you are the ideal user and that everyone will think and feel exactly the way you do - so not having an inflated ego is a good quality to have as a product tester!!
After I received my first 3D printed samples of the Living Coaster, I spent a lot of time and care in testing. For weeks I didn't plant anything in the plant pots and simply used it like a regular coaster. I did this so I could see exactly how much water would pool in the plant pot. Using different glasses, mugs, cans, I could compare how much condensation would form and make its way into the pot. Watching to see where water would get stuck and how well it would transfer from the glass to the coaster. After throughly exploring the water side, I added a small variety of plants to the coasters.
The plants were planted on Nov. 26, 2016 and six months later, they are doing well and are starting to outgrow their pots! I even had a few blooms along the way! I've been leaving them out on my window sill for days at a time and the 3D print material isn't holding up so well. The real version will have a UV protectant mixed in with the plastic.
I would say that most of the time these plants were watered as intended - using them like a coaster with a cold drink. But other times, I was either too busy to make a cold drink or I would forget to use them and would water them once a week with about a tablespoon of water from my water bottle. So this is good news if you're not a fan of ice-cold drinks or live in a cold dry place, you can simply water them like a house plant and enjoy the cute aesthetic of a tiny plant in your coaster.
Next time: finding an engineer and taking this to the next level...
After living in California through one of the worst draughts in history, I started appreciating water a lot more. I lived in a house with 7 other roommates and everyone agreed that with small changes our house could have an impact. Five-gallon buckets were placed in every shower to collect water while it warmed up to use for watering the garden. Toilet flushing was kept to the minimum, and rainwater was collected from the roof.
Yep, it was a bit of a hippy co-op but it was all for really good reason... California was running out of water. Streams and rivers were disappearing, farmers' wells were drying up and couldn't supply water for their crops and livestock. Not to mention that it's just irresponsible and embarrassing to waste so much clean water. I came to scoff at green lawns and drove my dirty, dusty car with pride.
This is why when Marshall and I were enjoying fruit smoothies at a little cafe in Ho Chi Minh, we were amused by how the glasses were just swimming in pools of condensation. Obviously, we've all probably noticed this before but for some reason - maybe it was because we were living somewhere new - we really thought about it and brainstormed on how we could put that free and effortless water to use. At first, it was just a cute idea that we chuckled at... but after a few more times of watching that puddle appear, we decided that we should really test an idea out.
Just a quick side note: when we came up with this idea, I was working part-time and had just moved to a new city so I tended to have a lot of extra time. If I had a full-time job, this project probably never would have happened. Being able to have the freedom to pursue a cool and fun idea is life changing, I hope everyone has the chance to do so if you want to. Now spoiled, I'm not sure if I'll be able to go back to that corporate 8-6 lifestyle again and hopefully I won't have to.
The first step in making this idea happen: I decided to make a model and get it 3D printed. Most DIY and makers forums recommended a free software called SketchUp. I watched some tutorials and played around for a while but I was quickly frustrated with it and realized that I could probably never be an engineer... but there had to be an easier way! Engineers are few and far between, so there must be more options geared at people with a more basic understanding of things like this. I found tinkercad.com which is free and it was prefect for my skill set... I was able to quickly model something up that seemed like it could work!
After I had my model, I checked out all the big 3D printing companies and with getting it shipped to Vietnam, it was going to cost a fortune! Instead, I looked on Facebook to find people who were offering to print things on their 3D printers. After a few messages, I found a nice surgeon who makes custom hand braces for children that agreed to print my coasters for a small fee. One week later, I had a set of coasters and bought some tiny succulents and a cactus to plant.
Next was the fun part... product testing :) read the next entry to find out more about it!
Before going any further with this crazy idea, I needed to have a reality check. Should I really be spending my time developing this? How much is it going to cost and am I OK with fronting the bill? And the bill would probably be pretty serious: hiring a professional engineer, buying injection-molding tooling, lawyer fees, and all the little expenses of starting a new business... it's going to add up quickly! As you can guess, I decided yes. This is going to be a great learning experience that I can use for my career later in life... and if I treat it like a long-term investment I'll be more likely to see it through. Even if it doesn't pay out financially, it will pay out in knowledge and as a cute blurb on my resume. Let's do it!