The Viability Crevasse

February 07, 2017

Have you noticed how many crowdsourcing hits fail to bridge the chasm between viral video and sellable product? 

I’m going to pick on one that really intrigued me when I saw the video two years ago – Panono. They made a ball that held 36 cameras and could be tossed into the air to take a panoramic picture at the top of flight. Their YouTube video was viewed 3.5 million times and their Indiegogo campaign raised $1.25 million dollars. 

Their software, sensors and cameras worked, but the hardware was a bunch of cameras wired into a Styrofoam ball. People were curious about the ball and probably a bunch of them would want one. The campaign put a theoretical price tag on it just north of $500. Pricey, but if you squint, this seems like a price a bunch of people would pay. 

I think this idea is brilliant, so all of the mean things I’m about to say are to illustrate a point, not to pick on Panono.

One of the most powerful Venn diagrams we use to evaluate the chances that a product will succeed overlaps desirability, viability and feasibility. If you haven’t figured out one of the three, you have work to do. Our researchers, business strategists and industrial designers take the first two in isolation – desirability and viability – when making a business case. Or to say it another way, someone has to want your product but they also have to be willing to pay for it. Crowdsourcing platforms and Lean experiments are great ways to understand what people want and what they are willing to pay for something.

And then you send in the engineers. Our first task is the fun one – figure out how to make your baby work. That’s the feasibility pillar of the Venn diagram. Can we come up with the right mechanism, the right system integration, a clever arrangement of parts or a unique material to turn that idea into a proof of concept? This challenge is why most of us became engineers. That and we get to make really awesome rainbow-colored FEA pictures. 

Then the fun ends. That’s because to this point we have only pegged the theoretical viability, not the practical viability. Your business model identified a price that people are willing to pay. Now the engineers and

When we succeed and a product hits the shelves, it’s this work that gives the deepest satisfaction.

manufacturers have to figure out how to get it made for that price.  Those peppy trumpets that went along with the responses to your crowdsourcing video are replaced by the waaaaa waaaaa of trombones as weeks turn into months … or years of detailed development.

This is not why many of us became engineers, but it’s really the meat of the job. When we succeed and a product hits the shelves, it’s this work that gives the deepest satisfaction. We take that proof of concept and eliminate parts, find replacements for others that are too expensive and work with the rest of your team to refine the design requirements if you run into roadblocks. Then we find the right manufacturers that can provide design recommendations and produce the tooling and parts to the finish level you need.

Unfortunately, hardware is hard. That’s apparently what Panono figured out two years ago when they took people’s money on Indiegogo. With that money they hired people, got the attention of a camera company, and developed a ready-for-primetime product. They made it, but they’re selling it for $1,900. Desirable. Check. Feasible. Check. Viable?

Another thing happened about two years ago. Design Concepts met Dragon Innovation, a cool company based in Cambridge, MA and mainland China. They try to solve the Kickstarter viability chasm. Their network of manufacturing engineers, qualified factories and boots on the ground overseas can take a dialed-in design and take it over the finish line. I love their tag line: “You’re either nervous because you have no idea how to manufacture, or terrified because you know how hard it is.”

We are proud to collaborate with Dragon on products looking for overseas manufacturing. Design Concepts can take your idea and turn it into a proof of concept and then intelligently engineer it into a manufacturing-ready product. Then Dragon can introduce you to the right suppliers, work on a quality system and supply chain.  Let’s help you avoid the viability crevasse.