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The Shoestring Budget Guide: Turning Your Product Idea into a Prototype and Preparing for Sourcing


I have been reviewing product ideas and getting them prepared for manufacturing for the past six years. When a client comes to me with visions of having their designs on cocktail napkins manufactured and turned into the next viral product, my responses are almost always something that inevitably lets the inventrepreneur down.

I don’t consider myself a harsh guy, and while I often roll my eyes at the ridiculous products I watch load containers destine for America, I never tell my clients their products may be successful, but will most likely be stuffed in a closet, only to make a reappearance years later at garage sales across the nation.When a prospective client shares a product idea, 99% of the time the client is not ready. The 99% usually fall into two categories, some of them need to spend more time working with product developers to get their ideas turned into something a factory can work with, while others are having a difficult time realizing their anticipated budget needs at least another zero added to the end.

I have turned away a lot of would-be failure product developers. Most manufacturing consultants will tell someone if their product idea is not design for manufacturing ready, their best bet is to work with a product development team first, and then return for manufacturing services. This advice, while accurate, is not helpful to the bootstrapped entrepreneur willing to break a sweat, or two, to save thousands of dollars and forego the expensive Swiss design company, in favor of learning along the way.

I’d like to teach you the step by step process every entrepreneur wants to hear, but few manufacturing consultants provide. How to take your product idea, get it designed, prototyped, and prepared for you to begin working with factories, entirely on your own.

There are a couple of prerequisites, which I will go over. Your product idea needs to be simple. If you can’t explain how the product works to your mother, and if step one is something along the lines of sourcing the materials that made Iron Man’s Arc Reactor, then this guide is not for you. However, if you have a seemingly simple product idea, that does not require a chemist, nuclear physicist, or an nanoparticle engineer, then these tips should help you get started. This guide is going to be explaining the way to do things as cheap as humanly possible, but, it will still require a bit of capital to bring your product to market.

If you follow these steps, and your product is on the simple side, you should be able to be fully prepared with prototypes, and have designed for manufacturing ready specifications for under 1,000 dollars, and most certainly under 3,000 dollars.

Since this is the shoestring budget guide, you are going to need to be creative, patient and willing to fail.

How To Unlock the Secret to Product Compliance

Step 1. Define your Product

Using whatever tools you have at your disposal, define your product. Prepare a file with examples, diagrams, instruction manuals of similar products, definitions of perceived materials and play-doh models of your product.

The goal here is not only for you to fully understand your idea, but also to become the expert in explaining it. Your examples and diagrams should look like a third-grade science fair exhibit, and your instructions should be comprehensible for a third grader.

Take this time to share your ideas with friends, family and loved ones. Write down all of their critical feedback, and review it multiple times. If you can’t answer one of their questions, your project will become more expensive, so do your best to use your own Google-fu capabilities, so you don’t need to pay a high priced consultant to do the same.

Step 2. Objectify your baby and squash any emotional bonding

In the ensuing steps, you are going to be sharing your product with people outside of your immediate circle. If this product is a genuine passion piece, you may place a certain level of emotional attachment towards it that will ultimately persuade you to pay more to turn it into reality. Since you are reading this shoestring budget guide, we are going to assume you opted not to go with the high priced development team, and therefore lack the capabilities to dump a bunch of money into this project and hope for the best.

While we’re on the emotionless topic now is not the time to be worrying about NDA’s and stolen ideas. Your idea is worth as much as the bag boy at your local supermarket will pay you for it. It will continue to be worthless until you have done all the hard work investing all the time and money in tooling, production, and marketing costs. As long as you don’t share your ideas with every FBA seller who likes your Facebook comments, you should be fine. One thing to remember, if you are selling mainly in the US, you have one year to file a patent from the time you begin marketing your product.

There are more qualified people in the Private Label Insider to share tips on intellectual property, but my suggestion is to place your focus on actually following through, and not making every freelancing applicant from the Philippines sign a non-disclosure agreement that you have zero intention of enforcing.

Step 3. Find a freelance product designer

I am a fan of Upwork, I’ve been using them for over a decade and believe you can find qualified freelancers if you are willing to put in the time and effort. If you prefer any of the other freelance worker databases, feel free to use them, as these steps are rather straightforward.

You are going to want to find a product designer, not a design engineer or a product development firm. You are looking for a product designer who has experience with the type of product or material that is similar to your idea. Make a job posting explaining the general concept of your product. If you are not comfortable going into full detail in the listing, and you are confident you have not formed an emotional bond, keep things broad, but be sure to be as detailed as possible.

You are hiring this product designer to produce CAD drawings. Their job is not to help get the product made; it is not to introduce you to suppliers, their only job is to provide you with a finished 3D designed product that you can use to begin prototyping and have meaningful technical conversations in the further steps.

As you are interviewing candidates, keep your options open. You want to look for people who have a good portfolio and demonstrate excellent communication. The better you two can understand each other, and the more you like the work they’ve done, the better your chances will be with finding success in your first designer.

Step 4. Revise until you are satisfied

Your product designer does not need to be a design engineer, however, I do suggest listening to their suggestions. If they object to your request because they believe it will be impossible in the real world, work to find a balance between what you are satisfied with, and what you understand to be manufacturable.

I understand revisions can cost money, primarily if you are being billed hourly, as opposed to a fixed rate, but get your design right the first time, so you don’t need to hire them again after the fact.

Step 5. Hire a design engineer to review your drawings

This step can be omitted, since it is a non-integral step that does cost money, but it is one I strongly recommend, as it can save you from much headache. I also promise this is the only non-integral step I’ve added.

The difference between a product designer and a design engineer, is the product designer is the artist, and the design engineer determines if the product is usable and manufacturable. While there are not nearly as many design engineers on Upwork, as there are product designers, you should be able to find enough to get some interviews going.

The reason you are going to want to hire one to review your product is so you don’t need to rely on Chinese factory engineers. You can screw up your entire production, or run the risk of qualified factories refusing to work with you because your designs are not ready.

The biggest question you want to ask the design engineer is if your product is design for manufacturing ready. Is the CAD drawing done correctly enough that you will be able to take it to a factory for them to produce a mold? The primary job of this engineer is to help you understand if your product is ready for tooling and production. While you could hire a design engineer and forego the product designer, the same reasons apply as to why you wouldn’t hire an engineer to remodel your kitchen.

If your product is not ready, try to grasp whether or not minor revisions can be made. If a lot of work needs to be done, you may want your product designer and design engineer to work with one another.

Step 6. Prototype

Local maker spaces and 3D printing on demand make it is easier than ever to get your prototypes made. Armed with your CAD drawings, begin reaching out to both local 3D print and CNC shops, as well as the larger online 3D print on demand companies.

Here are three to get you started:

Step 7. Test and share your prototypes

Remember your friends and family who were your greatest critics? Show them the prototype and see what they have to say. You are looking for critical feedback, and if the old lady down the street who gets excited about everything you do is the only person you show your prototypes, then you are setting yourself up for failure.

Depending on the product and if the prototype is functioning or non functioning, begin to investigate if you believe it is ready for the production stage. Be prepared to speak with your product designer to make revisions after the first prototype. Now is the time to spend money on alterations, and not after you spend thousands of dollars on tooling.

Once you are satisfied, have multiple prototypes produced so you can share them with suppliers in the ensuing weeks.

Step 8. Put together your specification sheet

Product specification sheets are an integral aspect of any successful production. As you are on your way to producing an item that does not exist, you’re going to need to be an expert in this process.

If you are not familiar with creating a rock solid specification sheet, check out the June, 2018 issue of the Private Label Insider, on page 6, I wrote an article called “The Quality of Your Specification Sheet Dictates Your Success,” and is a must read! In the article, I provide all the nitty-gritty details on adequately producing your spec sheet.

Step 9. Begin sourcing suppliers

With a prototype in hand, 3D drawings, and a solid specification sheet, you are the most prepared you can be to start communicating with suppliers. As you search for suppliers, ensure the factories you speak with are capable of producing all necessary molds on the premise. While I have had success with factories who outsource mold production, it is safe to say a factory who has invested in tooling facilities has put enough money into their own business to prove they are serious. Combine that with your robust sourcing strategies and narrowing down suppliers who lack adequate conversation skills, and you should be able to find at least five that are worthy of you presenting your prototypes to.

Quick sourcing tip: Speak with at least 50 suppliers; ideally you will want to speak with 100 and narrow them down to five.  

Don’t be afraid to share your prototypes with factories. If you are afraid of them stealing the prototypes, wait until you have an expensive tool made, sitting on their shelf, while you are thousands of miles away. As that is the time to be scared. (Don’t worry, I’ll explain how to protect your product and mold without expensive lawyers in my August article.)

Step 10. Don’t forget to run quality control

This last step is a bonus step since quality control usually comes after you’ve committed to a factory. I see many makers look for ways to save money when it comes to working with factories, and QC should never be one of them!

I once saw a guy negotiate a 100% production payment upfront so he would not have to pay two international wire fees. The factory was telling him to pay 70% two months after the first payment, and he was more interested in saving the $75 fee than having access to capital.

While I am sure everyone reading this has much stronger business acumen, I don’t want to leave you without explaining how crucial quality control is.

At the very least, hire a third party inspector to visit your production, but ideally, have an inspector visit multiple times, or find a consulting company, like mine, to talk to and see if they can offer suggestions on ensuring your production is produced according to your quality control standards. Order pre-production samples often, and place quality gates requiring you to sign off at every stage, before moving forward.

There you have it!

Every product is different, and while this is a comprehensive guide to making a product as inexpensively as possible, you are going to need to roll with the punches and adapt to what you encounter. If you follow this guide, you will get a product made, but just because it is a shoestring budget guide, does not mean your entire production will be cheap.

If you get stuck along the way, reach out to your community and ask for help. If you are still stuck, shoot me a text 215-207-0109 and I’ll do my best to help you out.

How To Unlock the Secret to Product Compliance

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