Michaud founded Felix, which designs cases and stands for smartphones and tablets. In less than two years, the four-employee startup has gotten its products onto shelves at Staples and the Apple Store, and is en route to $1.5 million in annual sales. Here's the five-step story of how Michaud did it.
1. Identify your passion. Michaud first knew he was a junkie for consumer products when he was in high school (1987-1991). "I was the only kid with a portable CD player," he recalls. (When pressed, he admits he loved listening to Def Leppard's Hysteria.) As an adult, his passion continued unabated. He fondly recalls owning his very first PalmPilot in 1997, when the device debuted with much fanfare.
Of course, an initial passion or inspiration will only get you so far as an entrepreneur. But in Michaud's case, the early self-knowledge of his passion helped him map out a career path that educated him on what it takes to run a consumer products company.
2. Educate yourself about manufacturing and design. Around the time he was first using a PalmPilot, Michaud was in the midst of a four-year stint at GE. For the first two of those years, he participated in GE's well-regarded leadership training program: four six-month rotations in the manufacturing, sourcing, R&D, and new product development units. After these rotations, he spent two years in the plastics division.
Michaud's next career step, in 1999, brought him closer to the process of consumer product design. He joined Continuum, the venerated global design firm headquartered in the Boston area. Continuum had famously designed the Swiffer for Procter & Gamble and the Pump sneaker for Reebok. Today, its client list includes legendary brands like Allsteel, American Express, BMW, Bose, Herman Miller, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, and Samsung. Its work for Preserve, a company whose signature product is a toothbrush made almost entirely out of recycled plastic, was recently on display at Design Museum Boston.
Michaud spent the next 12 years at Continuum. In addition to continuing the all-around manufacturing-and-design education that began for him at GE, he cultivated the skills and built the relationships that would help him launch Felix in 2012.
3. Observe the market with patience until your niche emerges. Find like-minded partners in advance of your launch. During his decade-plus at Continuum, Michaud watched as mobile devices debuted and thrived. What he observed, most of all, was a niche in the accessories market. For one thing, he says, "there was no clear, dominant brand." For another, it seemed to him that none of the products hit the sweet spot designers dream of--the one where fun, functionality, ease-of-use, emotional connection, and elegance all meet in an idyllic fusion that consumers can't resist.
Apple appeared to have found this sweet spot in its devices. Why had no one yet found it for accessories?
Michaud wasn't the only Continuum employee who felt this way. Kevin Young, a principle at Continuum who has worked there for 17 years, was on the same page. This was good news for two reasons: First, when Michaud stepped out on his own, he was able to do so with Continuum's support--and Young's in particular. Continuum took a minority stake in Felix, and Young became a member of Felix's design all-star team. Today, this all-star team functions as a quartet of virtual employees. Every weekday, they communicate via Skype, working from their individual homes, offices, or wherever they lay their laptops.
Second, in creating Felix's initial set of products, Michaud didn't have to explain his vision from scratch to his design collaborators. Young and the Continuum team already grasped the challenge--and the market opportunity--at hand.
4. Trust your eyes and your gut. Recognize that focus groups aren't always a friend to innovation. If Continuum has a single design ethos, it might be that "focus groups kill innovation." Continuum founder Gianfranco Zaccai has often made the case that neither the Swiffer nor the Reebok Pump relied on focus groups or organized quantities of feedback from prospective customers.
Instead, Continuum relied on ethnographic observation of how consumers actually used these products or their less effective predecessors. For example, before designing the Swiffer, Continuum observed the entire floor-cleaning experience. Zaccai writes:
We found that most people spent extra time sweeping the floor before they mopped it. Then, they spent more time cleaning the mop head than they did cleaning the floor. The Swiffer combined sweeping and mopping into a single mess-free act, ending up with a cleaner floor overall.
Likewise, Michaud and Young didn't conduct any focus groups to learn what consumers wanted in their cases and stands. It was obvous to both of them--from watching countless people struggle to prop up their iPads on the seatback trays of planes and trains--that consumers were frustrated by difficulties in setting the tablet at a proper, stable reading angle. "Once you spot a problem, you don't have to keep testing," says Young. In designing Felix's FlipBook, which serves as both a case and a stand, the design brief was simple: "You should be able to set it with no thought, and it has to hold," Young recalls.
5. Remember that the retailers are your customers, too. "The reality is, if you don't have SKUs in the stores, you're not going to have a healthy business," says Michaud. While designing Felix's products for the end users was of obvious importance, the products also needed to appeal to traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. After all, persuading the stores to stock Felix's items was a key step to reaching those end users.
Felix's initial batch of products, which debuted in November, 2012, had a demonstrably playful vibe that practically screamed, "Buy me! I'd make a great gift, especially if your child loves using these devices." For example, the MonkeyDo is an iPad stand that truly resembles a monkey. Likewise, the TwoHands, also a stand for tablets, has two small "hands" that actually hold up the device.
These designs helped Felix get its products onto the shelves at Staples stores in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. And last year, Felix's products debuted in the Apple Store. The FlipBook line of accessories presented themselves as a natural add-on purchase not only for the iPad, but also for the iPad Air and iPad Mini.
All told, Michaud's passion for consumer products has come a long way since the high-school days of his portable CD player. In a way, his mission with Felix resembles something Bob Dylan once said about the song "Tangled Up in Blue"--that it took him 10 years to live it and two years to write it. Felix doesn't turn two years old until November. But you could argue that its products have been a lifetime in the making.