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January 18th, 2012
Last year, I built and sold my first cleantech product. It is a tool used to install solar PV modules more efficiently.
Here is the story and what I’ve learned about prototyping in the process. Hopefully, it will be useful to you as well.
Here’s a quick snippet of what I learned.
- Closeness with customers is key, especially if you’re getting them to change their behaviors. If you’re building a new product and are not building relationships with beta customers, this is a problem. It is critical for time between iterations and testing. This is also critical for them providing you blunt feedback. Lastly, with many cleantech products you’re interrupting existing operations. If they don’t trust you, they won’t want to risk it.
- Don’t assume you know the answer. I was the target customer but 15 minutes of feedback on our alpha prototype enabled us to reduce manufacturing costs by 400% for our beta. This is key because unlike software or internet products, cleantech products are EXPENSIVE and tend to require face to face relationships.
- Work on your communications. The concept must be clear to the customer quickly or it will be difficult for them to provide useful feedback that can use to enhance the product.
Click below to read the full story. Also, apply for Cleantech Prototyping Academy if you want to learn best practices of how to build products faster (and cheaper) in order to impress investors or find beta customers. CPA is taught by Ethan Labowitz.
The PV Pal is a tool that allows residential solar installation crews to install solar faster and with less men. Installing solar on a pitched roof is difficult. The hardest part is getting the first row up and to make sure the modules are parallel. It’s a three person job and an art form. The PV Pal holds the modules, so you need less people, and it also allows you to set the line before panels are up. Thus, the bottom line will always look straight.
My own pain point. I’ve installed well over 300 kW of residential solar PV and it can be serious pain. At one point, I was running a 3 person installation crew that was completely green. Their uncomfortableless started slowing down production and it was a safety problem.
The ‘Ah-ha’ Moment
There were two ‘ah-ha’ moments. The first was when I brought the alpha prototype to the crew. Everyone instantly saw the value and started providing feedback on how the design could be improved. Physiologically, this means they understood and liked the idea. The second ‘ah-ha’ moment is when my boss bought our first version for use on a job he was running. Why? Market Validation.
Our target market is extremely specific. Residential solar installers that are primarily using Unirac mounting and installing at least 1 residential system per week.
Better quality and time savings. Because the PV Pal holds the array, it will always be straight. Also, the ability to hold the array means a smaller crew is needed, and they can move faster.
The main competition is first using other racking systems. Our product is currently only compatible with Unirac.
Here’s the longer story.
Part 1 Realization of idea
Two years ago, I started working with Nexamp in the field installing solar PV, solar thermal and geothermal systems. My goal was simple. I wanted to really understand how the systems were installed and designed. After 3 months, I was training and running my first crew installing 50 kW of solar PV on 5 buildings in downtown Boston. Needless to say, these guys were scared of being on the roof and standing on the edge. This is when I realized the problem, if I could create a tool that held the panels, we’d be able to go faster, the modules would always be straight, and it would be safer.
I ran the idea by other installers at Nexamp and their response was “that tool would be amazing. We’ve been trying to figure that problem out for a while”. The initial feedback gave me confidence but I didn’t have the skill set to make the product. It was at this time that I was first introduced to Adam Standley of Arista Solutions. We quickly became friends and started talking about this problem and the idea. Adam’s job is to design and prototype products. We first met on a Saturday, Adam set my initial design ideas on Sunday morning. From there, we designed version 1 of the product.
Part 2 Creating of Product.
Our goal was to create the product as quickly and cheaply as possible. Our team was perfect, while Adam was clearly the product guy, I was the customer guy. He knew and had the relationships to prototype, I was in the field everyday. It took us less then 2 months to create the product with the major bottleneck being the machine work to manufacture the product.
Part 3 Putting it into the field and version 2.
Finally, we had the product and in enough time for me to try it on the job.
We field tested the tool and quickly found we had not built it strong enough to hold the modules straight as we wanted. Here was the key in the building the product, although it did not work the first time, everyone on the crew instantly saw the value of the tool when I first showed it to them. As soon as I told them what it would do, they understand why it would be useful, saw how it would work, saw how it could save them time. I feel that this realization is what made them so willing to provide feedback and test the product out. If it was not clear the tool would be useful, they would not have provided any feedback.
Key Lesson Learned: When you are prototyping and finding beta customers, don’t waste your time on customers that don’t “get it”. Find customers that see the value in what you’re working on. Key in mind that this can also be a problem if you’re not sure what the value of the product is or how they would specifically use it.
Part 4 The expansion dilemma
Here is the current dilema. Our business is completely financed by our own cash. This means, we need to take an order and downpayment to produce any PV Pals. However, in order to get to sell the product cheaply we need to manufacture in large quantifities. We can have a substantial gross margin if we’re producing units in batches of a hundred or more, but this is direct. Most likely, we’ll need go through existing distribution channels to get our product to installers because its cheaper then hiring a sales force for such a cheap product.
Also, I’ve spoken with many distributors and in order for them to carry a product they like to installers asking for it. This makes sense, they’d like to decrease their own risk.
Here’s the 5 Things I learned
Here’s were the keys to successful prototyping
- The concept was clear to the customer quickly. The item that helped us the most in terms of making an initial sale and also getting feedback from my colleagues is that the concept was very clear instantly. Why? They understood what the tool was supposed to do, even if it didn’t work perfectly the first time, saw the benefit of a perfect tool, and thus wanted to help me. Thus, they were able to provide us with very specific and useful feedback. If the concept was not clear to them they would not have been interested in providing feedback.
- Piggyback on existing product. Our product can only work with Unirac mounting hardware. Why? Because that is the product that we used during installation. Piggybacking on an product that has already penetrated the market helps in two ways. First, it provides us with some credibility. “Our product works with Unirac” sounds good. Second, it makes our marketing easier and also allows us to quality companies more easily.
- Clear target market makes marketing extremely easy. Here’s how specific our target is, small and medium size companies that focus on residential solar, that use Unirac and install more then 20 systems per year. This makes it very easy for us to find them because we know exactly who they are and where they are. If you do not know exactly who your target market is, you need to. This has a huge amount of overlap with
- Have close connect with the customer. In my example, I was a customer. Trust and relationships is key in product development and getting customer feedback. If I had to create a new relationship with an installation crew, it would have taken at least five times as long to get the needed feedback. Time and momentum are key in creating new products. The process is very personal and requires building strong relationships. This is why engineers tend to not focus on it as much as they should.
- Don’t assume you know the answer. Everyone says this, but it can’t be stressed enough. I WAS THE TARGET MARKET, but my colleges still gave me feedback that helped drop production versions of the beta version by 400% within 15 minutes of using the product. They just saw the product differently AND we had an existing relationship so they were okay being blunt with me.
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