Diary of a Start-Up: The Path to Product

Diary of a start-up - Week 2: The path to product
By Alison Grieve on Mar 21, 10 09:02 PM

It seems a particularly relevant week to be talking about the multiple steps in our design process to have led Safetray to the stage it is at now.

If rumours are to be believed, our design process involved me scribbling down some sketches of an adapted food and drinks tray, sending them over to Fearsomengine and, BINGO, we had ourselves a revolutionary product.

How I wish it was that simple.

Fearsomengine were involved very early on in the design process. They wanted to have a look at a variety ways of stabilising trays before committing with certainty to my original idea of having some sort of solid retractable device that would slide in-between the fingers of service staff to provide the required support.

Our first focus group consisted of three waitresses who had worked in France, the States and the UK. We discussed how they picked up, carried and stacked trays. Actions they had repeated literally thousands of times in their lives were suddenly under scrutiny and their comments were fascinating.

Fearsomengine got to work with a number of possible designs which were then debated ferociously between us.

We picked three of the strongest designs for Fearsomengine to adapt, modify and add the special magic which only they can do.

The much improved trays were then brought back to our focus group to watch them using them as they would in a hospitality setting.

Two hours and a dramatically smashed wine bottle later and we had picked our winner.

We had initially considered approaching existing manufacturers of the bog-standard trays in China to ask them to make modifications so that we could retrospectively attach our 'clever bit' but we knew that until our patent was registered, discussions with anyone in the industry could lead to their own brainstorm and possibly to our idea being snatched before we were protected.

An extensive IP landscaping exercise was conducted to ensure our product was sufficiently inventive to secure a patent and during that process we discovered several designers who had looked at the very same problem in the past.

We were however relieved to discover our invention could prove 'meaningful differences', changing the function and capabilities of trays in a way that was to that date unknown - a necessary requirement for anyone looking to secure a patent.

But with the knowledge that we were onto a winner came even greater levels of secrecy and in the end we decided to hold off any discussions with manufacturers until our patent application was finally registered at the beginning of this month.

A registered patent does offer some comfort in its protection but it would be inadvisable for us to shout from the rooftops quite yet. I had, once upon a time, believed that there must be some sort of Patent Angel who would swoop down on any copycats and carry them off to the Anti-Parasite Court to be sentenced and eliminated with immediate effect.

Even if you do locate copies, which you have to do proactively and on your own budget, you need strong legal presence globally and a lot of money to back it up.

And it's not as if copycat products come with business cards attached with Mr. Rip Off's name in bold and all their contact details found at pleasesendmetocourt.com.

The reality is that copies are almost inevitable once a product becomes commercially successful.

Deciding to manufacture the tray ourselves instead of using existing tray manufacturers with their distribution networks already established will at least buy us a little time.

Our client-ready prototypes will be with us by the end of this month to take round to excited hotel, bar and restaurant groups but we will need to make some big decisions about how we intend to satisfy the resulting orders.

We are still debating whether or not we should manufacture the 'clever bit' separately but, with a trusted manufacturer secured through Fearsomengine's agent in China, we are leaning towards getting the whole thing done in one place. This will save the inevitable time it would take to iron out any manufacturing glitches if we had to liaise between two separate factories.

With China producing some of the best reverse engineers in the world, Mr. Rip Off may well make his copies but we hope that a rapid commercialisation programme will minimise the damage and, with some pennies in the bank further down the line, we might just be able to hire that Patent Angel after all.

Posted on March 21, 2010 .