There’s nothing quite like coming up with an idea for a product you’d like to see in the world.
You obsess over it, draw it on napkins, and tell your loved ones until they’re exhausted by your verbal onslaught and excited rambling.
Eventually, we all reach the point where we wonder: will anybody buy this, though?
We think people will buy it, but what if we could be sure? Are we willing to risk everything on the chance that somebody other than you wants this?
Odds are, you’re like me and you’re creating a variation of a product that people already spend money on. Inventing an entirely new category of physical products is an entirely separate conversation.
Here are the ways you can figure out whether your physical product will actually sell.
The Noah Kagan Test
“Email 10 people you know who would want your pseudo-product, then ask them to send payment via Paypal.” – Noah Kagan
Too many wantrepreneurs agonize over coming up with an idea for months and months, only then finally seeing if people want it. Why not refuse to waste time and see if they want it right away?
I’m not saying that you need to email your friends every time you come up with a product idea, but talking to real people and getting them to actually pay you let’s you know when you have a great idea and not just a mediocre one.
Physical products are a whole different ball game compared to digital products. With digital products, expenses are pretty limited and predictable, but until you’ve been in the physical product space for a while, you might have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. This guide should save you a lot of trouble.
Here’s a shortlist of things that need to be taken into account when figuring out the profitability of your product:
- Your time (please don’t treat your time as worthless)
- Pre-production materials (samples, shipping, etc.)
- Shipping (to you or to fulfillment)
- Software – store, email, etc.
- Product packaging
- Shipping (to customers)
- Import Duties
- Credit Card Processing Fees
I like to build out a calculator in Google sheets (like the one pictured above) to calculate this automatically. I don’t assess a product’s viability until it’s all filled in. Anything that you can’t calculate now will be more expensive than you think. I promise.
Building a Platform
As ease of production and entry to niche marketplaces become easier, building a platform becomes more and more important.
Even most successful kickstarter campaigns have an existing audience prior to launching their product.
People are buying your product to because they want something from it. You need to give that to them, beyond your product.
Camera companies are notoriously bad at this. They’ll teach you how to use your new DSLR and have you taking photos in under 2 minutes, but when you want to bridge the gap from “these look just like my iPhone photos” to “I can’t believe I just sold a photo for $700,” they’re nowhere to be found.
People want to be badass at something and your product, in their mind, is going to help them get there. If you want a loyal following and a significant brand (i.e. recurring customers), you have to build a platform that gets them the rest of the way there.
This could take many forms:
- Leveraging social media and influencers like Chubbies
- Blogging, storytelling, and guest posting like I did
- Creating a YouTube Channel like Matt Vincent
When I did this (starting back in 2011), I created a blog and video content. People were buying my gis to not only feel cool, but to be better at jiu-jitsu, so I found ways to help them. I created content that taught them:
- Jiu Jitsu techniques
- Wrestling techniques
- How to get stronger
- How to be more flexible
- How to tape their fingers (this was a hidden game-changer for me)
- How to be a great training partner
- How to explain Jiu Jitsu to friends and family
- How to get their spouse to train BJJ
- How to hear from injuries
- Diet and meal prep to make weight
I dug out every single pain point I could find that (seemingly) had nothing to do with the apparel I sold and I gave that to them.
Design & Brand
If you’re a professional designer and that’s a major part of your physical product brand, like Jeff Sheldon of Ugmonk, leave the design work to the professionals.
I’m still amazed that some of my self-created designs got traction when they’re so obviously terrible compared to the professionally designed.
The best designers can take your sketch and turn it into something amazing. They’re worth hiring even when it cuts into your margins. Here’s a sketch I sent my designer along with the finished product:
Creating a product brand that sells has to be something greater than the product. It has to be a movement and say more about who you are and what you stand for (and what you don’t) than the product itself. It has to be different.
I built my brand based solely on advice that I gleaned from Bobby Kim of The Hundreds. Here’s five things I learned from him that helped me build my jiu-jitsu company:
- Have Something To Say – When I started, I was just pulling inspiration from things I love and calling it homage. But let’s be honest: it was wholesale theft. I didn’t have anything unique to say so I was just “retweeting” designs that I loved. Be interesting. Have experiences. Keep exposing yourself to things until you form opinions and start to have something to say with your product.
- Let People Know What You Aren’t – I was furious the day that I saw a big brand in my industry, famous for super limited-edition jiu-jitsu gis, post a picture of them moving their warehouse and 50+ “rare” gis laying in a pile on the ground. I wrote a manifesto letting my fans know that, while I know scarcity sells, we weren’t going to play that game. I also took shots at other brands who insincerely promoted themselves at all costs. I wasn’t them, and I wanted people to know.
- Be Consistent – We published three blog posts per week, every week. It wasn’t easy, but I figured out a system of sponsoring athletes with free gear in exchange for awesome written content. We also put out a newsletter every Friday, without fail.
- Balance Passion and Patience – Most people saw a cool design get posted on Instagram or a new item about to go live in our store. What they never saw was the 30+ samples we had made of a new rashguard before I was happy with the result. I was passionate, but never desperate, to create my products. My brand never released grappling shorts, but that isn’t because we didn’t try. Over three massive design updates and another 30+ samples, we decided to scrap them based on the quality of our current suppliers (a huge lesson that I learned here from Ramit at IWT / GrowthLab).
Finally, on brand and design, Ira Glass has this incredible thought process around why so many of us who make physical products get so frustrated at the beginning. It goes something like this:
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.”
You have to bridge that taste gap, without being derivative, if you want to build a company capable of surpassing six figures in revenue.
Physical Product Rookie Mistakes
When I made some of my first designs, they didn’t sell. And so, I assumed that it would be smarter to use data and feedback from my audience to guide what I made.
I first posted a design on social media, and since it got traction, I followed up shortly after posting it again. People were loving it, tagging their friends, and sharing it.
A few months later, I posted a mockup of it on a shirt and, unsurprisingly, it still did great. I followed up one more time right as we rolled it into production and, again, it did really well.
We sold less than 20 of them. What I failed to realize is that I’d made my shirt a meme: cool to share online, but nobody would wear it across their chest. Likes are vanity metrics. At the end of the day, sales is what matters.
Doing Everything Right Away
When I made my first t-shirts, I wanted everything on them: custom hang-tags, 3 print locations, custom labels, custom packaging, etc. It absolutely destroyed my ability to make money from them when I sold them and every one that sat in my inventory soaked up a large amount of my cashflow.
I’d love to leverage my expertise for you: the physical product maker. I sold my jiu-jitsu gi company, Ok! Kimonos, at the end of 2016 and I’d love to share everything that I learned along the way as it applies to YOU. SO here’s my ask:
- If you already have an idea – How did you figure it out? How were you able to be sure that people would buy what you were making? Let me know by commenting below
- If you’re just getting started – Where are you getting hung up coming up with a product? What is keeping you from pulling the trigger Let me know in the comments below.
I’m looking forward to reading your comments. I’ll answer every single one.
Brendan learned everything he knows about business by putting some skin in the game and starting his own. Currently leading the organic marketing team at a Chicago web design agency, Brendan writes often at Photo MBA and his blog.