Adam Tavin of ‘Rabbit Product Design’: “Don’t try and do it alone”

Don’t try and do it alone — nobody can be great at everything as we all have strengths and weaknesses. I have started other businesses in the past by myself, and it was often stressful being responsible for everything and having nobody to bounce ideas off of during my brainstorming sessions. Finding a business partner with complementary […]

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Don’t try and do it alone — nobody can be great at everything as we all have strengths and weaknesses. I have started other businesses in the past by myself, and it was often stressful being responsible for everything and having nobody to bounce ideas off of during my brainstorming sessions. Finding a business partner with complementary skill sets will make running a successful company so much easier.

As a part of our series called “How To Go From Idea To Store Shelf”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Tavin. As a product designer, mechanical engineer, and high-intensity competitor all his life, Adam designed products for years, but also saw the limitations of “design for design’s sake.” As an entrepreneur, he knew there had to be a more strategic approach to product design, one that encompassed the entire product design lifecycle and focused on the end result: a successful product. He looks at product design holistically and worked with Apple, Cisco, Speck, Lunar and others

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I had bad allergies as a child, and therefore was a mouth breather. I was loud and must have annoyed everyone in my junior and senior high school. Everyone in the class would literally mimic me and make loud breathing sounds. In short, I got picked on a lot and did not have many friends. At the age of 13, I started messing around with weights and got serious by age 15. I entered my first bodybuilding contest by age 17. Having big muscles boosted my self-esteem. By the time I got to college, I was no longer getting picked on by my classmates, as I grew into the person that everyone wanted to befriend.

Since I did not have many friends growing up, I started taking college classes during my high school summers. I knew that I wanted to be a mechanical engineer, so I began taking classes at the local community college. I did very well and proceeded to attend Penn State University after high school, where I graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Then, a few years later, I received my MBA from Pepperdine University.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I’ll Be Back.”

Throughout my 30’s, I worked 100+ hours per week. Although I was still working out, I did not look anything like I did when I was younger. Two years before my 40th birthday, I decided to get back into competition shape. Then, one month before I turned 40, I entered a bodybuilding contest and placed second — I was in the best shape of my life.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Pumping Iron. I was obsessed with working out and perfecting my physique. I loved how Arnold would explain how you could sculpt your body depending upon which exercises you performed and the frequency at which you did them.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How can a potential inventor overcome this challenge?

Ideally, the main goal is finding one company to take you from a napkin sketch to a product launch. All products require many different skill sets to get to the finish line, and as we all know, no one person can be great at everything. It is critical to first do a patent search before designing your product, as this minimizes the chance of infringement. Most mechanical products require both an Industrial Designer (a crossover between an artist and an engineer) as well as a Mechanical Engineer. The industrial designer will make the product attractive, ergonomic, and will pay detailed attention to human factors and user experience. Alternatively, the mechanical engineer will make sure that the individual parts are designed for the most cost-effective manufacturing processes and assembly methods. From there, one must create all of the detailed engineering drawings needed by a manufacturer to produce the product.

If your product includes electronics, you may also need an electronic and firmware engineer, and/or software developer to finish everything (at a bare minimum), not to mention strong prototyping skills across all of the engineering disciplines. You will need to find a quality manufacturer that is a good fit for your product type and aligned for target manufacturing volumes. Finally, every inventor must have a sound go-to-market strategy that is not merely an afterthought. Marketing should be started early in the process in order to be entirely ready come launch time. Trying to do this by piecing together multiple freelancers or companies rarely ever works out. If one person or company fails to do their job, it all falls apart. I regularly speak to entrepreneurs that have tried hiring a bunch of freelancers, and they usually need to start over at some point and end up paying for the project twice.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

Most likely someone has, but did they act? I once read a statistic somewhere that there are up to 10,000 people thinking about any particular idea at a time (not sure how someone figured that out, but… oh well). Ideas come and go in our mind all the time. But every once in a while, one sticks. In business, it does not matter if someone has already developed an idea into a product or not. These are commodity products and you can make a lot of money selling commodity products. You just need to find key areas of differentiation and position the product’s feature set and price point. The only real initial requirement is to minimize the chances of patent infringement by doing a patent search first.

For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps that one should go through, from when one thinks of the idea, until it finally lands on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

  1. Conduct patent research, then look for workarounds if an exact idea has been taken.
  2. Conduct technology research if a product includes electronic components to find the best solution.
  3. During concept development, look at all possible solutions, then finalize feature set and appearance.
  4. File a provisional patent.
  5. Build a proof-of-concept prototype to remove risk and validate key functionality.
  6. Go through a full engineering process including industrial design, mechanical, and electronics engineering before building a pre-production prototype.
  7. File a non-provisional patent.
  8. Conduct factory sourcing processes to find the right fit for the product and expected production volumes.
  9. Create marketing campaigns by determining the best channels to sell your product, and build out a strategy that will resonate with your target audience.

The list above is our recommended order of steps to minimize costs and chances of major iterations. But to be honest, less than 15% of my clients file patents. Most are bootstrapping and trying to self-fund the development of their product ideas. Patents are expensive, and take a long time to get approved — if they ever get to that stage (believe it or not, only 48% get approved). Then, if someone infringes said patent, a lawsuit could cost 100k dollars or more. Entrepreneurs trying to make money by selling products online would be better off spending profits on advertising and building their brand rather than on various legal expenses. For example, what would be a better investment: 100k dollars on advertising and making another 1M dollars in revenue or 100k dollars on a lawsuit? For every dollar you are investing in your business, you need to see what will give you the greatest return.

Most consumer products are made in China, so the challenge for many new inventors quickly becomes finding a reputable factory — especially when you are first starting off with smaller initial production runs. The larger factories with staff members that speak fluent English and good quality control won’t even respond to a request for a quote on a 5k or 10k piece order. The smaller mom-and-pop factories that will quote these volumes often have a limited understanding of the English language and typically have poor quality control. You will most likely have communication issues, and may never receive your product at the standard of quality you desire. Finding a partner who has connections with a quality smaller factory will be a major key to your success. We have a number of fully vetted and qualified partner factories that are willing to work with lower volumes. One in particular is located in Shenzhen China; this factory is American-owned and managed, and I have been working with them personally for over 10 years with very few issues in that span of time.

When inventors are first starting out, most will be much better off selling directly to consumers online rather than trying to go to retail. If you are a new company with an unknown brand and a single product, you will need to go through a distributor who will then sell to the retailer. That will not leave much profit margin for you as everyone takes a cut! Not to mention if you are starting off with smaller volumes, your prices will not be high enough to make any money at all through retail. My recommendation is to start online, build your brand and reputation through online product reviews, turn the inventory to build up a cash reserve so you can place larger orders over time, get the cost down, and then go to retail (if it even makes sense to do so at that point). But with the right go-to-market strategy, you will still make more money selling online through a flat website with multiple landing pages with upsells.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Reach out to Rabbit Product Design and schedule a free consultation with one of our product design experts.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

It depends on the complexity of the product or business, how much money you need, your financial situation, as well as your network. I personally would recommend bootstrapping whenever possible for most low-tech products. But if you have an expensive technology product you may have no choice but to look for venture capital.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Don’t try and do it alone — nobody can be great at everything as we all have strengths and weaknesses. I have started other businesses in the past by myself, and it was often stressful being responsible for everything and having nobody to bounce ideas off of during my brainstorming sessions. Finding a business partner with complementary skill sets will make running a successful company so much easier.
  2. Keep it lean — I am an automation freak nowadays; I use a piece of software called Zapier to connect over 10 SaaS products together to run my sales and marketing department and automate over 50,000 tasks per month. I can get the same amount of work done with 3–4 people that used to require 9 people to do in the past.
  3. Only hire the best — at previous companies I would hire many smart, but junior level designers and engineers. My thought was with lower salaries I would make more money. Well it did not work that well. Although their salaries were half of that of a senior engineer, they would need to spend twice the time to get the same job done, and the end result was not as good. Now I only hire senior level designers and engineers and get exceptional results for my clients.
  4. Work remotely — Our company was set up on day one with all staff working remotely, and not just because of COVID. Not having the overhead cost of an office allows us to be able to afford the higher salaries of ALL senior level staff.
  5. Add more value — find ways to differentiate, whether you are offering a product or service. To put it simply, offer more value than your competitors. The customers you want are the ones willing to pay a premium for a better solution, not the ones trying to negotiate the lowest price.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We help people start successful product companies.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Become a product launcher — take a product idea or category you are passionate about and start a business selling products online.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was my teenage and adult idol. Arnolds quote, “Through discipline, and determination one can change anything and everything about him — his habits, his outlook on life,” was and still is one of my absolute favorites.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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