The various prototypes of the Fortified Defender

The various prototypes of the Fortified Defender

Slava Menn is a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Fortified Bicycle.  He loves biking, building, entrepreneuring, and teaching.  In this monthly series, he shares his team’s hard-learned startup lessons with aspiring entrepreneurs.

Last month we discussed how haters will tell you not to start a company and why you should do it anyway.  Then we covered the first three lessons for launching your business:

  1. Turn your pain into a product idea
  2. Figure out if others need this product
  3. Do so qualitatively first (talk to people) then quantitatively (surveys)

Now that you’ve completed the first three lessons, you’re so confident the world needs your product that you start mass-producing thousands of units, right?  Not so fast…


You’re about to invest upwards of $100K and one year of your life (minimum) into making this product, so you better have every detail in order. For our theft-resistant bike lights, this came down to answering the three F’s:

  • Function: How should the bike light work? Should it have key to unlock it? A security screw?
  • Form: What should it look like?  Aggressive or unintimidating industrial design? Matte black or glossy?
  • Features: How many blinking modes does it need?  Should it have a built-in alarm?

Here are the steps to follow when answering these questions for your business or product idea:

Step 1: Find your MVP

In the book Lean Startup, Eric Ries teaches software entrepreneurs about the minimum viable product (MVP).  For software companies, this means making the simplest version of a product in order to get immediate customer feedback. This way, if your product has any fatal flaws, you won’t have wasted precious time and money progressing down the wrong path.

In our case, we had many grandiose bike product ideas, but our simplest product was the Defender: the world’s first theft-resistant bike light. Because we started with the (relatively) simple Defender, we had the opportunity to learn about the market and our customers, allowing us to create more complex products later on

Key Lesson: Think big and comprehensive, but start small and simple. Your learnings will be worth their weight in gold and prove invaluable when you’re ready to take on more complex products.

Starting with a simple headlight allowed us to make more complex products like the Afterburner

Starting with a simple allowed us to make more complex products like the Afterburner

Step 2: Hack a cheap prototype

Whatever you build first will suck. The key is to acknowledge that it will suck and not invest too much time, money or pride into the first prototype. Instead, your goal is to iterate and only invest significant time and money once you’ve received sufficient customer feedback.

Our first two prototypes were built of wood and cost $0.30.  Once we were certain they fit all handlebar sizes we produced a second prototype with a cheap 3D printer for $30.  Next, we used a high precision 3D printer and built a $200 prototype.  After a few final tweaks, we spent $1,000 to machine a prototype out of aluminum that we would later use for our Kickstarter project.

On our first prototype, we got a lot wrong. Had we started with machined aluminum, we would have wasted a lot of time and money.

Key Lesson: Start with a simple prototype and iterate. Then iterate, iterate and iterate some more.  By rapidly iterating, we saved thousands of dollars and months of development time.

Step 3: You’re not a fighter jet, so quit being “stealth”

I’ll never forget what HubSpot Co-founder Dharmesh Shah taught when he guest-lectured at a 2010 MIT entrepreneurship class:  Stealth is for fighter jets. Share your startup with anyone who will listen.”

With each prototype you build, your goal should be get feedback from as many customers as possible.  We talked to hundreds of bike shop employees, college students, and commuters about each of our prototypes and incorporated their feedback into each new model.

Now, the key to soliciting good feedback is to make it clear that you want genuine opinions, not approval, and to frame your questions accordingly. This is because many respondents will subconsciously want to please you and others will fall victim to acquiescence-bias, resulting in invalid positive feedback. If we walked up to a cyclist standing at a bike rack and said, “Don’t you hate when your light is stolen?  Look what we built? Isn’t it awesome?”  She may acquiesce and try to make us feel good by approving of what we were making, even if she really thought our idea sucked.  Instead, ask unloaded, unbiased questions and be ready to learn from harsh feedback.

Key Lesson: Don’t go stealth with your new product. Solicit feedback from customers, but be sure to frame your questions appropriately. 

Next month we’ll talk about finding awesome manufacturers who will hit the price and quality you need.  In the meantime, leave your questions in the comments below or tweet at us with the #BikeStartup tag. We’ll answer every last one of them.

12 comments

  1. John Rahm on

    We’re a startup, SweatHawg, and we followed this process just making it up as we went along. Fabric, not metal, but still this is a logical and useful sequence worth knowing. Looking forward to the next post in the sequence.

    Reply
  2. neil at Bowman Cycles on

    Thanks for sharing all this folks.
    The whole start up process is seriously daunting and no doubt everyone who’s been through something similar has felt the dread, woken up with night sweats and questioned themselves daily.
    But, as a company who’s first production frame has just landed to some pretty awesome reviews, the Psychological payback is worth every second invested.
    To anyone who’s considering a project, the advice here is golden. Ignore at your peril.

    now, onward.

    Ride With spirit.

    Reply
  3. Dave B on

    Not really germane to this discussion but that term “haters” has been wildly abused. Everyone who isn’t crazy about your concept doesn’t “hate” it. Come up with something less polarizing.

    Reply
  4. Cousin Mosquito on

    My take on that is, not people “hating the product” but people hating that you have the balls to do something rather than just talk about doing stuff. Its easy to come up with reasons why you shouldn’t do something, most of them being based on fear of failure. Quite often I see things surface that I’ve thought about doing but never had the balls to try.

    Reply
  5. Ken HC on

    Perhaps you’re too mired deep in common bicycle componentry, but aren’t you overlooking the biggest issue ever with new product ideas? PATENT PROTECTION! Honest brutal feedback is good, but as soon as you reveal a bit, your patentability is shod. Anybody who has the slightest secondhand or even thirdhand knowledge of your innovation can file first then sue you later (for stealing THEIR innovation). If they so desire, that is. In legal terms it’s called ownership. Talk to any patent attorney.

    And yes, iterative development is correct, but you’re talking only from the perspective of an established team who can quickly climb all the steps to full production before any competitor. First to market wins. In other words, you already know beforehand that you can beat anybody else getting your so-called new product into the market. The true entreprenuer with a real innovation would, instead, be very careful NOT to advertise until ready to sell.

    That guy talking about “stealth” was only talking about strategies, software and business plans — not innovative physical products. And you’re only talking about new designs — not true innovations.

    Reply
  6. Slava of Fortified Bicycle on

    @Dave B, @Cousin Mosquito is absolutely right. Whether you call them haters, backseat drivers, or Monday morning quarterbacks – people will always tell you that your startup sucks. You need to filter those while seeking out advisors who look to give you constructive criticism to help you improve as an entrepreneur.

    Reply
  7. Slava of Fortified Bicycle on

    @Ken HC: you bring up a great point of debate but there’s a bit more the stealth versus intellectual property (IP) conversation. If you have something patentable and you reveal it publicly (i.e. on Facebook/Twitter, in front of an audience, etc.) you can no longer patent it. If you have a conversation with someone and get their feedback, that’s not considered public disclosure. Now in terms of someone ripping off your idea, that’s where the Stealth point comes in. In our past 4 startups, we’ve revealed secret sauce to hundreds of customers, friends, and advisors before having any IP. Zero of them stole our idea while all of them helped us learn and improve our products. The likelihood that they’re going to rip you off is very low. The likelihood that they’ll help is very high.

    Reply
  8. Ken HC on

    @reply:
    “Likelihood” won’t have much value in a patent challenge. You’re rolling the dice.

    But the general problem here, in this article and most everywhere, is the overuse of the word “prototype.” Do readers really know what’s a prototype?

    We can say that young architects helping home owners wanting to add a bathroom would meet with them to present their prototype. They want to get good honest feedback on the prototype. Then they iterate, iterate, iterate.

    Same for graphic artists working up some fancy company logo. They hate to but want to get honest feedback from their clients for their prototype. Then they iterate, iterate, iterate.

    That’s the kind of prototypes you’re talking about, even if you call it a secret sauce.

    Reply
  9. Rico on

    That is a great point Dave B, and polarizing is perfect to describe haters in this context. I think a lot of what drives criticism is a genuine passion for the sport and these products. of course, people can be nasty, but i think that gets magnified in text communication as well.

    Good article series!

    Reply
  10. Kent Carlsen on

    These are very good points.. I work with machininsts. Many have thought up ideas , bring them to market,then somebody sends them overseas to have them knocked off. People that have never R&D a product and screwed up a dozen times do not have a appreciation of a finished product. Talk to a Italian and told him about Pinnarello’s from china….

    Reply

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