New product development can be a risky business, and there are no guarantees that your product will sell. To maximise your chances of success you need to conduct thorough - and objective - product testing
Many entrepreneurs refer to their products as their babies. It's hardly surprising. Like parents, they have devoted much of their time to raising their offspring ready for the day when they leave home (or hit the shelves).
But when it comes to product development, you cannot afford to get too personal. Taking your idea from initial concept to finished product is a difficult journey and requires a good degree of objectivity. To give your product the best chance in the market, you need to test it thoroughly.
Keeping an open mind
"It is absolutely vital that you test," says product development expert Jenny Covey, director of Javelin Marketing Services. "It's easy to invest a lot of time and money in a product only to find that, for some reason, it just does not sell."
Staying open to all possibilities is of paramount importance, stresses Covey. "Your views can easily be clouded by personal opinion. But you have to be objective."
Testing is the best way to get straight answers. And the results can be surprising, she explains. "Once when I was trying to source a component for a car, I went to Eastern Europe to meet a supplier. I saw the makers producing this piece by hand in what was basically a shed. I thought the product was right, and they saw me as a saviour."
Covey's employers were planning to buy a manufacturing licence from the company. But when she tested the component with car-makers in the UK, she found they weren't convinced. "I was in danger of letting my heart rule my head."
Assumptions can work both ways, she adds. "A chap in his 20s came up with a product idea and was prepared to spend money on testing it. I was happy to test it, but felt it wouldn't sell and told him so. But I was completely wrong. The research showed that there was a big market for the product among teenagers."
When to start testing
The timing of product testing is very important. "You need to do quite a lot of work at the idea generation stage," warns Covey. "Most products start as a huge melting pot of ideas before they become fully formed. That's when you should start testing. You have to screen those initial ideas."
There are many factors to consider. You need to research the technical feasibility of manufacturing the product and establish what the costs are. At the same time, you need to talk to customers to find out what they think of the product and how much they'd be willing to pay for it. Also ask yourself, does it fit with the rest of your business? And do you have the right support from third parties such as dealers or suppliers?
"Pre-market testing looks at the product from all sides: business, technical and financial," explains Covey. "This pre-development stage is very important. You have to look at the product from all angles. The specification will be constantly evolving. You might have to sacrifice one thing for another."
Going in blind
Some entrepreneurs, whether driven by dogged self-belief or self-delusion, may not be prepared to invest in product testing. That is a false economy, concludes Covey. "I know some people go to market without testing, and succeed, but I would say it was completely inadvisable.
"It's important to be driven by your head - not your heart."
Written with expert input from Jenny Covey of Javelin Marketing Services.