Ep. 015: 8 “Must Do” Tips on How to Launch a Physical Product — With John Benzick

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Are you thinking about launching a consumer product business?  Then get the inside scoop on how to boost your chances for success.  Listen to John’s 8 insider tips on how to launch a product, even if you’re feeling frustrated, confused and uncertain.

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Episode Transcript:

Greetings Product Launch Rebels, and welcome to the Product Launch Rebel podcast, I am your host, John Benzick, the founder of VentureSuperfly.com, the website that helps you double your entrepreneurial courage, even if you’re in a sea of self doubt.

Today, I am offering my own advice on how to launch a physical consumer product.  In fact, I’ll be revealing my top 8 “must do” tips to help launch your product.

Obviously, I interview a lot of entrepreneurs on this podcast, to get answers to questions about how to launch a business.  But I thought I’d boil down the many strategies, down to the essentials, and summarize the major over-arching themes regarding successful product launches.

The 8 tips that I’ve distilled down in this episode are based on several things:

First, they are based on the things I learned over the years by launching, or helping to launch, several consumer product businesses.  I’ve been involved in launching my own a snowboard and ski outerwear brand, where I manufactured product in China and distributed to ski, snowboard and outdoor retailer shops across the country; and I’ve also been an owner in an energy supplement brand where we manufactured and distributed a small energy inhaler to hotels, spas, drug stores, grocery stores, and sporting goods stores across the U.S. and internationally.

Additionally, these 8 tips are the result of my mentoring many entrepreneurs in my roles as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and CEO-in-Residence at the University of Minnesota, as well as being a mentor with the Techstars Retail Startup Accelerator in Minneapolis.

There are many things that an entrepreneur needs to do well, both strategically and tactically, but the 8 tips that I’ll talk about today are – I believe – the essentials to giving yourself the best chance to make it work.

So, the Eight Must-Do Tips for Launching a Physical Consumer Product are as follows:

1.  Be passionate about your product, industry and customers.

Well, this might seem obvious to many of you, but beware.  Sometimes, if we’re not careful, we can get enticed, temporarily, by the shiny, glittery, trendy-oriented industries or product categories that we see in the magazines, in online articles, or what our peers seem to be excited about.

When you peel back a layer, however, and over time, you might discover that the product, or the category, or the customers that are served, ultimately, deplete your energy.

I experienced this personally, before I started my first business, which was a snowboard and ski clothing brand.  Just prior to that business, I was planning to launch a gourmet fast-food retail concept called FreshWorks.  I put a lot of time into designing the business plan, looking at retail locations, working with chefs to develop the menu, among other things.  But, slowly, over time, I discerned that even though I thought the concept was cool, I had to be honest with myself – the restaurant business was just not for me.  I learned that I just wasn’t passionate enough about any of the key aspects of the business; for example, the food, the customers, and just the nature of managing perishable products.

And if you need anything to start and succeed at a business, it’s energy.  You cannot “fake it ‘til you make it” when it comes to being motivated and committed.  You can “fake it ‘til you make it” when it comes to learning the tactical aspects of the business, and if you’re deeply passionate about it.  But you cannot fake high energy, or being highly motivated, over time, and as a result, your business will suffer.

Many entrepreneurs fail, in large part, because they discover that they’re not passionate enough about their product, industry or customers. Therefore, they don’t have the stamina to power through the startup challenges that they’re bound to face. Entrepreneurs encounter a lot of rejection, and passion can help overpower the obstacles.

So, tip #1 is to be deeply and sustainable passionate about your product, your industry and your customers.

Now, on to tip #2 that will help you launch a physical product.

2.  Make sure your product solves a real problem.

This is so, so essential.  Even if you’re passionate, your product needs to solve a real problem.

And this tip, too, might seem super obvious.  But, believe me, what many aspiring entrepreneurs “feel” or sense as an opportunity, or as a problem to be solved, isn’t nearly strong enough of a customer’s problem, to quickly generate sales, or to switch buying habits from brand A to your new brand B.

And it’s so, so difficult, to get people to switch or to buy something new, especially when it comes to creating consumer-oriented physical products and building a brand, which is very, very expensive.

For example, if you want to start a clothing company (of which there are many clothing brands), or a new energy drink (of which there are also many), how would you differentiate your product or product line from competitors?

You might see an opportunity for a unique variation of your product within the clothing or energy drink category, but the vast majority of new brands can’t change the in-bred habits of consumers, unless that new clothing line or new energy drink is solving a REAL and significant problem, as perceived by the potential customer.

Many aspiring entrepreneurs think they can change the buying habits, but they can’t.  It is very, very difficult, and very, very costly.

So what do you do to see if you’re solving a real problem with your product idea?

My advice is to quickly create a “minimal viable product” (or a prototype) and get feedback on it from key sources (i.e. potential customers, retail buyers, industry sales reps, etc.). Even if the prototype isn’t perfect, you still benefit by hearing possible objections and suggestions for improvement. You’ll get a good feel for the customer dynamic.

You’ll quickly learn if people are clamoring for your product.  And they do need to clamor for it.  And you cannot get feedback from just friends and family, because they might not want to hurt your feelings, and they may just tell you good things about your idea, even though their feedback may not be reliable.

If people are not clearly clamoring for your product idea, it will take a lot of money, time and effort to convince them to change their buying habits.

So, take an unemotional and unbiased look to see if your product solves a real problem.

Okay, so onto tip #3 on how to successfully launch a physical product.

3.  Test your top assumptions about your product-based business.

In addition to testing the assumption that your product solves a real customer problem, create a list of 20 or 30 other assumptions about your business, and then test the top 5 that will have the biggest effect on your business.  These top 5 assumptions have been referred to by other startup authorities as your top “leap-of-faith” assumptions.  You can test these assumptions by talking to prospective customers, retailers, industry sales representatives or other industry experts.  Other ways to test include running test ads on FB or Google Adwords, emailing people, writing a blog post and getting feedback, asking open questions on Quora or Reddit, or in some cases, going as far as doing a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign.

The types of assumptions you test will depend on the type of product you plan to launch, but know that there are always ways to cheaply and quickly test your key assumptions.

To help brainstorm and test assumptions, you can use questions or fill-in-the-blanks to questions, such as:

  • I believe customers will pay ____ for this product
  • I believe my customers will have a need to ______
  • I believe these needs can be solved with  ______
  • I believe the #1 value a customer wants to get out of my product is  ______
  • I believe I will acquire a majority of my customers through  ______
  • I believe that the customer can be described as  ______
  • I believe that my product solves the problem of  ______
  • I believe that the customers will find these features important  ______
  • Additionally, there can be assumptions about competitors, or even industry technology, such as
  • I believe there is no significant new competition in the market
  • I believe there is no significant new technology to fear

So, what other assumptions do you have that, if proven false, will cause our product launch to fail?  That is the question that you need to ask yourself.

So, to repeat, tip #3 on how to launch a physical product is to test your top assumptions.

Regarding point #4 . . .

4.  Get off your butt (and out of the office).

Sitting around and just thinking about your product, or even planning your product launch, can be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  It really can be.

So you need to get off your butt and seek input fast on all angles of your business, from product development, to marketing, to operations, to product sourcing, to legal and financing.

Get up, get out, and go meet with experts to improve your product idea and launch plan.

There’s a real true benefit to getting out and meeting people.  It makes what you’re doing more real.  It helps manifest an actual product launch.

You learn the things you need to learn to succeed, at quadruple the speed.  You become smarter, better, faster, wiser.

So you’ll need to regularly email people, call people on the phone, and approach people in person at events, conferences, trade shows, in stores or wherever and however you need to reach them.

If you’re not super motivated to do these things, then I question whether or not you have the drive, or true desire, to succeed.  Many aspiring entrepreneurs enjoy pursuing and thinking about possibilities more than pursuing getting things done, and making things happen.

If you need help with getting out, getting your courage up and reaching people, refer to my podcast episode #12, “how to conquer rejection.”

So that’s tip #4, which is get off your butt and out of the office.

For tip #5 on how to launch a physical product . . .

5.  Create a one-page business plan so people take you seriously.

You’ll need to keep it simple and don’t get overwhelmed by it.  In fact, if you need a simple template, I’ll offer it on a link at the website along with this episode number 15.

Speed is important when launching a business because you’re behind from the get-go.

Chances are, you lack the industry relationships, the respect among peers and the knowledge for a smooth and effective launch. To double your relationships, learning and traction in half the time, write a simple one page business plan – even a well presented draft – and use it to raise your credibility among manufacturers, investors, marketing experts and other key partnerships. And when you get feedback on the plan, update it quickly to get smarter (and demonstrate your smarts) on all aspects of your business including operations, financing, manufacturing and marketing.

One of the great things that I learned in launching my first business was to create little hand-held, sort of 5” tall, business plans, highly summarized, and with cool graphics, which I could pass out to important people when I met with them.

I had a regular normal-sized business plan, too, but the small ones were pretty cool and made a good impression.

Passing these out to people that could help me with my business, really legitimized me in their eyes.  It made them take me very, very seriously (even when I didn’t have much experience), it made me appear more knowledgeable than I actually was, which led to lots of free and valuable advice and contacts.

It gave people the impression that I was a person that was going somewhere, someone to be watched and highly considered.

And for those of you that get frightened by writing business plans, don’t get too concerned about not having all of the best answers or solutions or strategies in your business plan.  You’ll be amazed at how a good rough draft, presented well, can advance you quickly.

So that’s tip #5, which is to draft a one-page business plan so people take you seriously

Regarding point #6 on how to launch a physical product, that point is . . .

6.  If you don’t know how to do something, directly contact those that do.

Now, this might seem obvious, but in my experience, many aspiring entrepreneurs do not get out and meet people.

As I mentioned previously, you can get free advice fast if you are clear about what you need to know, but don’t know.

For example, if you’re wondering how to get a new product into Whole Foods Market, go talk to the store manager or find a manufacturer’s sales rep walking the retail floor at Whole Foods. It’s amazing what you can quickly and easily learn by just asking.

If you’re not sure how to manufacture your product, attend an industry trade show to find one or visit Alibaba.com. If you’re not sure what type of legal entity is best for you, call a small business law firm and schedule an introductory meeting.  Most of them meet for free for the first 30 or 60 minutes, and you can learn a lot from those meetings.

Back when I started my outerwear company, I didn’t know how to find a good manufacturer, I had no idea, really, but I was highly motivated to get a good face-to-face meeting with a manufacturer (Without traveling to China or Vietnam or wherever).  So I learned about a major snowsports trade show, which was in Las Vegas at the time.

I went to that show and looked for a manufacturer, because I had a feeling that china-based manufacturers would be walking the floor, and looking to drum-up new business from other outerwear manufacturer brands such as The North Face, Columbia and Burton Snowboarding.

In fact, as I was thinking about starting my first company, the outerwear brand, my whole entrepreneurial journey started by walking into a local ski and snowboard shop and talking with the guy, the retailer, who bought snowboard clothing from sales reps and the major brands.

That led to me meeting with a sales rep for a major outerwear brand, who led me to knowing about the snowsports trade show in las vegas, which led me to meeting my Chinese manufacturer, which led me to getting all sorts of hugely valuable contacts, very quickly, in the outdoor and snowsports industry, people that could help me in marketing, manufacturing, selling, raising capital, etc.  Going to that trade show was a gold-mine for me, which saved me thousands and thousands of dollars.

But I went to that show with a very specific plan, with a set of concrete goals, about who I needed to talk to, and what I needed to learn.

So that’s tip #6 on how to launch a physical product, “If you don’t know how to do something, directly contact those that do.”

Now, for tip #7, you need to . . .

7.  Understand the invisible forces that threaten your business.

You could be the smartest and most committed entrepreneur around. And one that knows the obvious obstacles that threaten your business; things like the competition, customer rejection and poor cash flow.

The hidden forces, however, are just as likely to sink you.

These are things driven by your industry maturity or life cycle; things like the bargaining power of suppliers and buyers, the threat of substitutes and new entrants (often referred to as Porter’s Five Forces model – you can google it).   Or even the weather.

And never underestimate your competitors, no matter how unsophisticated they may appear. They understand these forces better than newcomers, and they navigate these obstacles with much better efficiency.

In my first business, the outerwear company, despite seeing a growth opportunity in a sub-segment of that market that I planned to enter, I made the mistake of not knowing that the overall snowsports industry was consolidating and maturing, on both the retailer side, as well as the manufacturing side.  So there was a huge, huge growing obstacle that limited me on getting into stores.

Big clothing brands were buying smaller established brands, which gave me less power in working with retailers since those brands were essentially “locked in” to the retailers purchase before I even showed up.  And big retailers were buying smaller retailers, which had the same negative effect, because they would buy more of the large brands, and less from up-starts like mine.  It was an enormous downward pressure on the potential growth of my business, and something I really didn’t see clear enough before going in.

Additionally, I learned that the retailer buying season was very short, much shorter than I expected, in the snowsports industry, where I had only one or two months – a very small window – of selling, and delivering product.

Nor did I understand that the yearly performance of the snowsports industry overall, which included me, was much more driven on the weather than I anticipated.  For example, if it didn’t snow in November in key markets, or before Christmas, huge inventories piled up within retailers, and therefore they would have an even smaller budget to buy from me the following year.

So it’s important to know the seasonality of your product category, too. And many product categories have seasonal ebbs and flows, even if they seem like year-round products.

And now, finally, onto the final tip, tip #8 on how to launch a physical product, which is

8.  Embrace your feelings of stupidity and uncertainty.

Along the entrepreneurial journey, things can be messy, uncertain and very murky.

As a result, all business owners – even successful ones – experience feelings of insecurity and stupidity, especially as they try new things.

So if you’re feeling imperfect, uncertain or scared, move forward anyway.

Flip this challenge on its head by taking the time to ask the “dumb” questions that will point you in the right direction.

Have courage, be bold and ignore naysayer criticism.

To finish this episode, I’ll summarize the 8 tips to successfully launch a physical consumer product:

  1. Be passionate about your product, industry and customers – you’ll need it to overcome the barrage of challenges.
  2. Make sure your product solves a real problem – take a hard and unemotional look to ensure that.
  3. Test your top assumptions about the product – to see where you’re off, and to successfully change course where necessary.
  4. Get off your duff and out of the office – you’ll learn at quadruple the speed.
  5. Create a one-page business plan, even if it’s a draft, so people take you seriously.
  6. If you don’t know something, directly contact those that do.
  7. Understand the invisible forces that threaten your business – it’s the invisible forces that will sink you.
  8. Embrace feelings of stupidity and self-doubt – because you will experience them, and you have to embrace that fact.

Finally, if you want a short guide that summarizes these 8 tips, go to VentureSuperfly.com and find this episode #15, and look for the download of the guide, and you’ll find the free business plan template download there, too.

And if you have any questions or comments, please let me know by going to the VentureSuperfly.com contact page.

Thank you for listening, and I’ll see you in the next episode!

About the author, John

John Benzick is an entrepreneurship coach and the founder of Venture Superfly. He is a Tech Partner at the venture-capital fund of Matchstick Ventures, a Mentor with Techstars Retail accelerator, an Entrepreneur-In-Residence and (former CEO-in-Residence) at the University of Minnesota, and founder and owner in two consumer product businesses. Click the button below to learn more.

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