Want to Design an Amazing Product? Here’s How

When you’re starting a business, at the end of the day it’s all about the product: developing that unique good, service, or skill that will propel your company to the top of its market.

But it’s not easy to get it right. According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, every year about 30,000 new consumer products are launched, and only about 5 percent of those products succeed.

So how can you make sure that your product development goes smoothly? We talked to five entrepreneurs who are experts in the product development process about the best and worst advice they’ve gotten, and what advice they’d give other entrepreneurs:

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Matt Caywood

Matt Caywood

Matt Caywood is the CEO and co-founder of TransitScreen, a company that aims to make cities easier to navigate by providing real-time information on train times, bus arrivals and more.

Jillian Bridgette Cohen

Jillian Bridgette Cohen is the CEO and co-founder of Virtual Health Partners, Inc., a virtual wellness platform that offers nutrition appointments, fitness classes and other lifestyle coaching from a team of wellness specialists.

Pamela Jones

Pamela Jones is a war veteran who used her family’s 70-year-old family barbecue sauce recipe to create CharBoy’s Sauces, a line of low-sodium, low-sugar and low-calorie sauces. Her goal was to create delicious sauces for people at risk for high blood pressure and diabetes—including many African Americans.

Jamie Diamonstein

Jamie Diamonstein is the co-founder and chief product officer of Leesa Sleep, a direct-to-consumer mattress company that offers what the company calls a “universal adaptive feel” for each individual sleeper.

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Nailah Ellis-Brown. Photo by Justin Milhouse.

Nailah Ellis-Brown

Nailah Ellis-Brown is the founder and CEO of Ellis Island Tea, a bottled tea business based on a recipe that comes from Ellis-Brown’s great-grandfather, a Garveyite Jamaican who emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s and worked for Black Star Line and Manhattan hotels before starting his own catering company.

(These interviews have been edited for length.)

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs about product development?

Matt Caywood: Listen hard to your customers’ problems, but take their proposed solutions with a big grain of salt. Generally, people are much better at knowing something isn’t working than knowing how to fix it. That’s our job as product designers.

Jillian Bridgette Cohen: My biggest piece of advice would be to involve everyone on the team in brainstorming for new features, no matter their role or title. Another piece of advice would be to never be happy with the status quo. Always strive to be better, to better yourself and your company, and don’t be scared to pivot if you believe that you’re headed in the wrong direction. It’s okay to take a step back and reassess your situation, even if things aren’t going “as planned.”

Pamela Jones: Identify what will make your products unique to the market and consider what you will need to do to expand on your product development.  Most of all, develop a product that you love and inspires you to succeed.

Nailah Ellis-Brown: Find a mentor in your industry, or someone who is successful in business that you respect. Having someone to help with answers is vital. For me that was the (Michigan State University) Product Center. They have resources and provide advisors with a ton of information to speed up the process and shorten your learning curve.

Can you walk us through a time when you made a mistake in product development? What did you learn?

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Pamela Jones

PJ: There was a time when I was in the initial stages of developing the barbecue sauce and the sample production was great.  However, after the second production, I discovered the sauce becoming extremely thick and unable to pour out of the bottle.  I found that, during the production, xanthan gum was used as an ingredient to thicken the sauce and it reacted differently to the larger production run.  The barbecue sauce became thick over time on the grocery store shelves.  I had to replace all the barbecue sauces with a new batch of sauces that contain no xanthan gum or preservatives.  It was an expensive lesson to learn, but I was grateful that it happened earlier during the developing stages of the company’s growth.

NEB: I needed to commercialize my recipe for hibiscus tea to make it easy to produce in large batches and make it cost-effective. “Commercialization” was an intimidating word and I wasn’t sure how to accomplish it. Everyone told me I should hire a chemist, so I hired a chemist. I spent thousands of dollars and what I got for my money was a “formula” that was science, not food. It didn’t taste real.

I brew tea inspired by my great-grandfather’s recipe and that is what I want my tea to taste like—real tea, his tea. I learned from that experience that I could do that work myself. I figured out how to break down the ingredients and what the ratios of each herb were so that I could brew large batches.

I must say the product has been very successful since. I learned how important your gut is when you are knowledgeable and passionate about what you do. Experience helps as well. The main thing is to not let your ego get in the way of what your gut is telling you.

What is some of the best advice you’ve gotten about product development?

MC: “Build solutions, not features” helps everyone on our team understand that reducing the number of features is often a win.

JBC: Some of the best advice I have received is to not become too emotionally involved with your product. When someone gives you negative feedback, they are not calling your child ugly, they are helping you to make your product and user experience even better.

Feedback is like a gift from your grandmother—you do not always love it, but take it and cherish it.

NEB: The biggest challenge for me when developing Ellis Island Tea for market was getting my product to be shelf-stable. When I started, my tea was shelf-stable for a week. Matt Birbeck, director of MSU’s Food Processing and Innovation Center, and his team taught me how to make it shelf-stable for a year. That is critical to being able to sell a product commercially.

What is some of the worst advice you’ve gotten about product development?

MC: In my previous life as an academic researcher, there was a pervasive sense you have to do user research to justify design choices. You don’t—we only use research methods a tiny fraction of the time. Empathy and listening to users gets you most of the way.

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Jillian Bridgette Cohen

JBC: The worst advice I ever received was to wait to go live. As soon as you have a secure interface and product, you need to go live. Development of a product is constant—it is never going to be perfect. It’s imperative to get your product out as soon as possible, with safety and security being the two key drivers to ensure are present prior to rolling it out.

PJ: The worst advice I have gotten about product development is that it doesn’t matter where you buy the ingredients and try to keep your cost down by purchasing the cheapest ingredients.  I learned that buying ingredients based on who sells it the cheapest can cause inconsistency in the taste and texture of your products.  Customers buy certain sauce products based on taste preferences and when the product is inconsistent, it could damage your brand credibility and sales productivity.

What are some common misconceptions about the product development process?

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Jamie Diamonstein

JD: That one person has an “aha” moment and all things fall into place. Typically, one person is inspired and others weigh in to create what finally ends up on shelves. It takes many iterations and a lot of time from inception to sale. In the end, it’s not just about getting a product to market but about delivering a product of highest quality that meets customer needs.

MC: A common public misconception is that a product has to be perfect to launch. But the perfect is the enemy of the good. Set high standards, and plan to improve over time, but don’t aim for perfection.

NEB: One caution I would give people is that while it is important to seek out mentors and listen to experts, it is most important to trust your own instincts. You may make mistakes, but that’s okay. The real mistake is listening to someone who tries to take you away from your true mission, your true purpose. I could easily have listened to everyone who told me that I could make my tea much cheaper and faster, but I would not have the product I have today.

This article is part of America’s Entrepreneurs: Making it Work, a Rewire initiative made possible by the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and EIX, the Entrepreneur and Innovation Exchange.  

Stephanie M. Bucklin

Stephanie Bucklin is a freelance writer whose work has been published by New York Magazine, TODAY.com, Vice and other outlets. She has also written a children’s book, “Jack Death,” published in 2016 under a pen name. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in the history of science.