Live Case Study: Designing, Manufacturing, & Launching a New Product (Part I)

Documenting the product lifecycle from the start

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Aman Mehta in the past. We worked on a few freelance projects together and when he was the marketing lead for a luxury womenswear brand called RVN.

Aman’s background is in marketing and advertising but in the last two years he’s been building a recycling company with his father, called Grow Materials.

“We supply high performance, recycled, engineering resins and compounds that are tailored to your specific product and process requirements.
Our materials provide consistent properties along with significant cost savings.”

Grow Materials was founded upon two principles: Quality and Performance.

Products made of recycled materials are very common nowadays from plastic packaging to coffee cups and cardboard boxes. Recycled materials are present in the day to day of almost all consumers.

Plastic isn’t biodegradable, if it isn’t reused then it’ll end up in a landfill or in bodies of water for decades leaking chemicals and other pollutants into our environment. Many of these pollutants cause negative effects in the health of people, animals, and ecosystems.

Because of the move towards a ‘greener’ world, there has been a push in the plastics industry towards manufacturing products with recycled resins and materials.

There’s one issue that manufacturers face though: it’s tough to find quality plastic waste that’s suitable in the manufacturing of high performing plastics.

It’s one thing to use recycled plastic waste to make simpler products like water bottles. It’s another to make a transparent plastic roof for a football stadium that’s manufactured with recycled plastic that can also withstand adverse weather conditions.

Grow Materials is looking to change that by prioritizing plastics innovation, and high quality waste sourcing. They’ve done it already by working with manufacturers of high performance commercial plastics goods (think roofs, car parts, etc.) and by formulating their own recycled plastics that exceed the performance and cost-savings of even virgin plastic.

They currently work with a roster of customers and scrap sources across the USA, India, and China by providing high quality recycled materials and industry leading materials analysis.

Entering the U.S. Market & Addressing the Extremes and Mainstreams

Outside of providing recycled materials, Grow has a partnership with an Indian plastics manufacturer that designs and produces a variety of products: tarps, pond liners, pool covers, and more for both commercial and consumer use. They currently have a large presence in both India and Europe.

When the company decided to target the U.S. market, Aman came to me with the proposition of tackling the market entry with the first product in the U.S. line: tarps.

Tarps can be made in a multitude of different ways but in the simplest terms there’s a two step process: the creation of the fabric, and then the application of the protective barrier that gives the tarp it’s functionality like UV resistance, or weather-proofing for example.

It’s my job to survey, learn, and understand the needs of American consumers (commercial and individual) so we can launch a tarp product that addresses a key pain point that a specific, and sizable, audience suffers from.

You might be thinking, “‘Specific and sizable’ seems a little contradictory…” and somewhat to an extent you are correct. On one hand we want a large addressable market size to be able to achieve financial success. But on the other hand, by using empathy as a tool to understand the addressable pain points of a larger audience, we develop a product that alleviates problems in both extreme and mainstream customer scenarios.

Extremes and Mainstreams is a product design concept popularized by human-centered design firm IDEO, whereby the inspiration behind new products come from the entire spectrum of users or consumers. When you’re capable of fulfilling the needs of the customers on both extreme ends of a normal curve, you simultaneously fulfill the needs of the mainstream in the center of the normal curve.

A diagram of Extremes & Mainstreams from IDEO’s HCD Field Guide.

A live case study in the design and launch of a new product

In my career I’ve fallen under a lot of different labels: entrepreneur, designer, marketer, product manager, growth hacker, etc. just to name a few.

A lot of the skillsets in each of these disciplines overlap with one another. The one unifying factor for me in all of these roles is solving a core pain point for a large audience.

The more detailed nuances of those skillsets are just different phases of the lifecycle of solving a problem:

  1. Formulating an audience and understanding their problem. (User Experience design)
  2. Creating a product for an addressable audience in a sizable market. (UX design, marketing, product management)
  3. Launching the product and refining the offering. (UX design, marketing, product management, entrepreneur)
  4. Scaling the offering and bringing it to more people. (Entrepreneur, product management, growth hacking)

So of course while beating to the drum of my habit formation obsession, and my new July 2016 habit of writing every day, I’ll be documenting the entire product design and launch process, specifically numbers 1, 2, and part of 3.

Pre-Launch Prep (Week 0 — July 16th to July 23rd)

On two calls with Aman and his father (one of the leading plastics engineers in the country), here’s what I learned:

Popular Commercial & Consumer Uses in the U.S.

  1. Agriculture
  2. Construction
  3. General Home Use
  4. Transportation

Materials Used to Make the Tarps

  • Two step manufacturing process: (1) making the fabric, and (2) coating the fabric to provide added properties.
  • Many different methods and materials from polyethylene, PVC, nylon, and more.
  • Added properties can be UV resistance, weather proofing, water-proofing, etc.

Product Variations

  • One product focus for now, but with almost unlimited range in sizes. Actual product launch size variations will be based on our research.
  • The goal of our initial customer research phase is to pinpoint a product variation that can solve a wide-ranging problem, first for a commercial application and then second for a consumer use (explained below).
  • Two primary competitor products in order of popularity:
  • (1) Double-sided tarp, blue/green (2) Double sided tarp, dark brown/redwood brown
  • Material weight ranges from 100 gsm (grams per square meter) to 220 gsm, the higher the measure the heavier/thicker the tarp.

Proposed Product Design

With decades of plastics engineering experience, Aman’s father Naresh Mehta, has the technical understanding to know what product design will alleviate U.S. consumer/commercial needs.

Here’s what he proposed:

  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) fabric with low-density polyethylene (LDPE) extrusion coating in Carbon Black with no additional additives.
  • Carbon Black is very good at blocking UV rays without the need for UV stabilizing additives which reduces costs but also increases effectiveness.
  • Ideally the tarp will be double-sided with another color but the drawback is the opaque quality of Carbon Black makes it tough to mix other colors.

Commercial Distribution first, Consumer Sales second

There are a few reasons why we want to address commercial customers before consumers: (1) they represent the extremes, (2) financial success, and (3) manufacturing and shipping logistics.

Commercial customers represent the extremes because their use and need for tarps are much more specific and typically directly associated with a business function, which in turn is indirectly associated with financial success.

Let’s say for example a construction company orders 150 tarps to protect sensitive building materials worth cumulatively, $10 million. If their tarps are low quality and end up fraying and exposing the materials to rain, their $10 million worth of materials is damaged at an x dollar cost to the company. This extreme example is worth, let’s say 20% of materials value, or a $2 million incurred cost as a result of damaged materials.

Commercial customers represent the extremes because your average homeowner protecting their pool from tree leaves during the fall, will likely not incur $2 million in damages nor will they have a team of accountants and analysts to assess the financial impact of each product purchase. They’ll likely read Amazon product reviews or get a word-of-mouth referral from their contractor friend who didn’t incur $2 million of costs to their buildings materials — they represent the mainstream.

If we can solve commercial extreme problems, these solutions will also provide value to consumer mainstream problems.

Financial success and logistics are closely related; when manufacturing and shipping largely quantities of products internationally, it’s understandable that there are a few variables you have to juggle.

One of them is freight container sizes, one shipping container can hold approximately 18 tons. Another variable is transport time which in our case would be approximately 6 weeks for one 18-ton container. And a third variable (but definitely not last) is manufacturing turnaround time, which for us is approximately 3 months from an order placement to the receiving end.

All of these variables have their own unique cost and we haven’t even taken into consideration the transportation from ports to warehouses or shipping to customers, etc.

Material, shipping, and other costs are currently still being calculated on the so I’ll save a more comprehensive economic breakdown for a later post but basically when it comes to dealing with large volumes, large costs, and long turnaround times it’s more sensible to target and work with commercial customers who will purchase at higher volumes, higher budgets, and with (ideally) a forecasted timeline for their needs.

Once distribution channels are set up and we’ve built a roster of commercial clients with a relatively stable ordering schedule resulting in lower-margin/higher-volume sales, we would be more well equipped to direct attention and resources to higher-margin/lower-volume direct-to-consumer sales.

So at the end of the day product design is super important when solving a customer problem but financial success is just as important so we can continue to solve that problem.

Next Steps & Moving Forward

Now that we’ve framed the design challenge:

“…Survey, learn, and understand the needs of American consumers (commercial and individual) so we can launch a tarp product that addresses a key pain point that a specific, and sizable, audience suffers from.”

The next step is defining the audiences that we’ll start our inspiration phase with. The goal behind the inspiration phase is to speak to different audiences to understand their experience whether they’re in agriculture, construction, or are new homeowners. We’ll learn about their experiences, their pain points, moments of pleasure in a variety of their day-to-day activities and their purchase and use experience relative to tarps. It’s the part of our research where we get into the minds of the target audience.

The inspiration phase involves a variety of different surveys, interviews, and exercises that both involve potential customers and happen internally amongst our team. It’s an extremely collaborative phase of the research and opens up a lot of doors for creative ideas that will make an impact on everything from product design, to marketing and sales copy, and more.

Stay tuned for the next article where I’ll share the preliminary hunches for audiences to survey and interview, and a list of different exercises and tactics that’ll be used in that process.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments or through email.

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