• Newlane

From idea to reality - the hard yards of hardware

Have you ever had a brainwave for a new product? You know, the thing that'll make your life just that little bit simpler. I’m not talking about a digital innovation, but something physical you can touch and feel.

Well a couple of years ago my friend Josh (a salesman) and I (an ex-journalist) set out to do just that. We wanted to create a bike helmet that would fit in a bag.

I mean how hard could it be? Loads of people apparently no smarter than us have successfully launched new bits of hardware onto the market. So, after agreeing we could survive on savings for a month or two, we applied for and won a small grant from Innovate UK. Our quest for entrepreneurial glory was up and running. That was back in 2018.

The good news is that we remain firmly on track to launch a product, the appetite for which has continued to grow. Even before Covid, demand for things that promote cleaner, healthier and less frustrating ways to get around town was on the rise. The pandemic has only accelerated this.

There is however no doubt that it’s taking way longer to bring our helmet to market than we’d anticipated. A quick google search suggests an established business should set aside around 18 months to develop something from scratch and that doesn't take into account the safety certifications required for a protective product like ours.

So what exactly have we been doing? Well it turns out that taking an idea from inside someone's head to become a real thing that fits on top of it, is a pretty involved process, particularly when the people in charge aren't designers or engineers.

We started in late 2018 by running discussion groups to understand if people thought a foldable helmet was a good idea and something that they'd buy. The responses we got were hugely positive and we used these insights to create a number of rapid prototypes, 3-D printed mock-ups that allowed us to test the feasibility of a few different concepts. We then chose one of these, our now patented flip-clip system, and developed a version to show to more potential punters at the 2019 London Bike Show. Further consumer endorsement put fresh wind in our sails and we spent the remainder of the year iterating and tuning our product.

This involved getting to grips with the requirements of EU and US safety standards, understanding the performance of different kinds of recycled and virgin plastics as well as the ins-and-outs of something called injection moulding, the process by which the parts of our helmet would be produced. It was at this point we became fully aware of the hefty cost of building mass production mould tools, the bespoke steel blocks that we'd need for manufacturing.

Having enough money is clearly a key part of building a start-up so we have of course had to factor in the raising of investment. This has taken up a huge amount of our energy and over a long period of time. Before closing our seed funding round in April this year, Josh and I were both spending at least half our working week on generating the cash to bring the business to life. At the end of last year we brought in specialist help to enable us to finish the job.

At the same time as fundraising we’ve also been creating (and re-creating!) a brand, building out a marketing plan, securing intellectual property rights (a patent, trademarks and design rights) and keeping across a host of other legal considerations. It’s safe to say that we’ve learned a hell of a lot about aspects of business and manufacturing that we didn’t even know existed.

Here are some of the headlines of our journey so far:

Along the way we’ve been lucky to work with lots of great people, and a handful who’ve turned out to be not so great. Family, friends, ex-colleagues, freelance designers, crowdfunding backers, manufacturers, fundraisers and investors have for the most part shown great belief in our endeavours and offered us inspiration along the way.

Now that we're at last closing in on a public launch it's getting pretty scary. Have we spent three years of our lives developing a product that people won't buy? No amount of prototyping, consumer research and brand building can guarantee sales. So even after everything we've done to reduce the risks, we're still having to take a leap of faith. Watch this space to find our how we get on.

In the meantime if you've got a product itch that you simply have to scratch I suggest you do it - our ride so far has been a rollercoaster with way more ups than downs. Based on my experience here are a few tips that might be helpful along the way.

  • Enjoy the learning - Developing something new means you will have to test and learn as you go. If, like us, you're stepping into an unknown area the learning never stops. Embrace it!

  • You WILL make mistakes - Striving for perfection will drive you mad, so don't. While no one wants to make mistakes, they're inevitable so don't beat yourself up when they happen.

  • Your designer must understand manufacturing - To avoid developing a product that can't actually be made, ensure you design with manufacturing in mind. We've fallen foul of this a few times and had to re-do large chunks of development work as a consequence.

  • Build partnerships not transactional relationships - If you can, ensure all external suppliers believe in what you're doing beyond getting paid. We now talk about our company values (being upfront, proactive, curious and caring) before working with anyone and this really helps us avoid misunderstandings further down the line.

  • It's going to take longer than you expect - One way or another prepare for the long-haul. Start developing your product as a side-hussle, reduce your overheads, commit some savings if you have any or better still get some early stage investment from friends and family to give you a little financial breathing room.

Our first Newlane production sample, packed and unpacked