As a product artist, one side of the licensing business model I have always loved learning about is what goes on behind the scenes. How are new product idea submissions evaluated? What are companies practicing open innovation really looking for? This insight is key. It has helped me refine my ideas for the market and make better choices with my time and resources.
It's also why I was excited to interview a former product development manager with 15 years of experience mostly related to the automotive industry, including at a leading Fortune 500 company where he was responsible for hundreds of products. First Atul Patel was a mechanical engineer; then he migrated over to marketing, sales, and product management.
Recently -- after leaving the product management field -- he reached out to shed some light on the process from his perspective. He's now attempting to license his own ideas for products, as well as pursuing other entrepreneurial endeavors.
Even when an invention really is great, things can and do go wrong -- or painfully slowly.
What is the role of a product development manager?
The part of marketing no one knows about! It varies widely and can include everything from making sure a shipment has reached its destination, hounding the manufacturing team to get stuff built, doing market research, working trade shows, pricing, to advertising budgets. It's all over the place, basically. And it's one of the more stressful positions, because responsibility for a product has to end somewhere, but there's only so much you can personally do.
How often did new product ideas land on your desk? How did they get there?
On average, I'd see something about once a month. Sometimes inventors found my email from business cards I gave out at trade shows. Product specialists reviewed idea submissions from our online portal and brought good leads to product development managers.
How many products were you responsible for at a time?
It really varied. In one role, I was responsible for one product line of residential riding mowers. At a global company that embraces open innovation, I oversaw about 1,000 SKUs. (That number includes products that came in two different sizes.) About 150 of those products were responsible for 80 percent of revenue, so those got a lot of attention. In the insurance industry, I had just two products.
When you liked a new product idea, what happened next?
If I believed in an idea, I'd run it by our salespeople, other product managers, and engineers. Their feedback would help me determine whether to pitch a project on it or not. Then I'd begin building a business case around it, including prototyping and pricing. I'd also run it by some of our big customers as a sneak peek in presentations.
How much of an investment we would have to make was a big consideration. If I could operate under the radar, especially with testing, that helped. The design process is iterative: Redesign and repeat. Some prototypes can be made for hundreds of dollars by bending steel and making use of existing materials. If a new product idea required new tools to be made, that could cost tens of thousands of dollars. So, the amount of engineering time needed was part of the equation.
Product development managers constantly have to put out fires with production or quality issues and are often forced by management to prioritize other projects. That takes time away from inventions.
How did you analyze a new product idea submission?
If the invention was risky and different, it was a more difficult sell. We probably wouldn't invest early. An improvement to an existing product was a no-brainer. If you're already selling 300,000 units a year of this product, and the improvement could boost that number boost by 30 percent, well -- that's worth spending another $50,000.
What do you look for in a new product idea?
Some companies might have formal checklist. For me, the consideration was, does it solve a problem? And is it worth that much to buy the product to solve the problem? Making lives less annoying and more pleasurable are part of my strategy and philosophy. If the idea addressed those two things, it was worth considering. Another important factor was safety.
Why do large companies move so slowly, even when they're interested?
There are lots of times when you're stuck waiting on someone else or some other part of the product development process. You may want to give all your attention to this great idea, but in the meantime you don't know what to tell the inventor. Even an inventor you like and respect.
Depending on who leaves and who is hired to replace them, reviewing and supporting outside submissions can fall by the wayside.
In your experience, what mistakes do inventors make when submitting their inventions?
Some don't even do basic research. Nowadays it is so easy to search for prior art. If I can find the exact same thing in a patent quickly, that doesn't show well.
How should inventors showcase their concepts? Prototype? Patent?
No. Make sure you convey the idea to the point that anyone can understand it. It's not about how fancy your sell sheet looks. Does it convey the idea? That's the biggest thing.
How can inventors help their chances of success?
By being reasonable. Try to understand what it takes to develop the product you're pitching -- then you'll understand more of what is going on. For example, make sure you have some basic knowledge of how to make the product and your competition.
Inventors should also pay attention to costs. There are hidden costs of doing business at large companies, which is one reason why they are so risk averse. Learn more about their cost structure and cost structures in the industry at large. It could be the best product in the world, but it will be canceled if everyone involved cannot make enough money.
Do a really good job of building up a case for your product. For example, an inventor I worked with supplied me with quotes and testimonials about how useful and needed his invention was. I used those in my presentation to management. Consider how the product development manager will sell your invention. If you can make their job easier, that's going to make a big difference. If the inventor hadn't had such good marketing materials, I most likely would not have moved forward.
Thank you for sharing your insight, Atul.