Saturday, February 21, 2009

"Bring Your Product to Life" Workshop — 2/21

It's not easy to bring a new product to life. As a college student himself at the time, Frankenstein may have been able to give life to his spare-parts human monster, but did he think about what it would take to successfully commercialize the monster? What to outsource to manufacturers? The personnel needed? How to conduct helpful team-building exercises? Whether his product would be copied and sold by the Chinese (or other groups who aren't too bothered by intellectual property considerations), only under a new logo (FrunkelstainTM)? No, he did not.

The "Bring Your Product to Life" Workshop aimed to address all the various challenges, stages and issues involved in really bringing a product to life — getting it off the ground, out of the factory and into the world and consumers' lives.

On this cloudy afternoon, a crowd of around 100 people from various departments, universities and professions squeezed themselves into a room meant for probably half that number in Stanford's School of Earth Sciences building.

"How many people are trying to bring a product right now out into the market?" Logitech Director Performance Projects Spencer Johnson asked.

Half of those in the room raised their hands.

This was a crowd eager to absorb the collective wisdom of the eight panelists, which, in addition to Johnson, included Stanford Consulting Associate Professor Dariush Rafinejad, Schox Patent Law Group Founder Jeffrey Schox, VP of Flextronics Dongkai Shangguan, Senior Product Development Executive Malcolm Smith, Product Realization Network Mentor Richard Toepfer, President and CEO of Protopulsion Phillip Trinidad, and Global Sourcing Specialists Partner Ashton Udall.

While the panelists each had valuable insights to contribute, eight speakers took a lot of time to get through, causing the moderator to cut short the Q&A session, to the disappointment of the audience.

Some highlights from each section of the event follow:

Rapid Protyping
"I've seen people who have taken a napkin sketch, modeled it up [on the computer], printed it out on a 3D printer, sanded it, finished it, painted it, and took it to a trade show, and literally have gotten orders from that straight off of a trade show floor," Philip Trinidad said, speaking about the ease and power of "rapid prototyping" in this day and age.

Going / Working Overseas
"There's a lot of websites out there now you can go on and see the factory, send them off an email and set it up," Ashton Udall said. He cautioned against that, saying that the conventional methods — on-site visits and using personal and professional networks — were still important. "The truth is you don't know if that factory is a room the size of this room with three machines and 10 guys and an office you can't stand all the way up in — and I've seen that. In order to connect with factories that are good, if you can find some network to dip into, I think you're going to get a supplier to suit your needs."

Protecting Intellectual Property
Jeffrey Schox advised entrepreneurs to find a good patent attorney, not only with legal and technical knowledge, but a good "business sense".

He also said that respecting the IP of others was important, regardless of whether one believed in it or not.

"We are all invited to the game of patents, patent litigation and patent infringement," he said.

But unlike a round of Monopoly or Bingo, this is not the sort of an invitation you can refuse.

Contract Manufacturing
"So as an entrepreneur, you come up with a new idea, you go and patent your idea, you build your prototype, you turn it on, and it works, 'hallelujah' right?" Dongkai Shangguan said. "Everyone is excited and rejoices, you go have a beer, and next morning you wake up and all of a sudden you realize you have not made any money yet. How do you make the money?"

Shangguan went on to discuss the important questions each entrepreneur needs to ask when it comes to manufacturing: Do it internally or outsource? What parts to outsource? Go local or offshore? Who do you partner with? When in the process do you outsource? And how do you manage and optimize the relationship and process?

Design Process
Malcolm Smith described the need for all the parties involved in the process of designing, manufacturing and managing the design to understand their respective roles and responsibilities. He also said conflict was an inevitable part of the process.

"What's important is how quickly you resolve those conflicts and how quickly you learn from whatever the problem is, correct the situation, and move back into the manufacturing environment," Smith said.

"The sustainable world is not a world of not doing things a certain way, it's the space of innovation that's the space entrepreneurship focuses on," Dariush Rafinejad said. "You can focus on making the world a little better, or you can focus on making the world a lot better."

Managing Teams
"I guess this is the touchy-feely portion of the panel," joked Richard Toepfer, who spoke about team-building. Toepfer explained that the most common mistakes in team management were poor communication, insufficient resources, and unrealistic goals and schedules.

"Setting measures of expectation is extremely important," Toepfer said. "To me the biggest example of a lack of measures is the war we're in. Everybody talks about victory, no one can define what 'victory' means. You have that same problem in companies."

Bringing Your Product to the Market
Spencer Johnson emphasized the need to build on solid processes in getting your product ready for primetime. Efficiency, sustainability and consistency seemed to be the main themes.

"If you have a 95 percent yield, for every 100 babies born in Stanford Hospital, five of them have been dropped, that's not a good thing," Johnson said, and after a brief pause added, "You were supposed to laugh at that."

At which point, the audience did indeed crack up.

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