Failing Fast with Durable Goods

At a party last night, I was talking to friends about the big learning curve I’ve experienced with Po Campo. In short, at 4 years in, I feel like I need to rethink who my consumer is and what my distribution strategy should be. In some ways, it feels like going back to the starting line.

Agile Vs. Waterfall product development
My friend Randall, who works as a programmer, suggested trying the agile method commonly used by Web 2.0 developers, that encourages you to develop a product in quick iterations to “fail fast”. It is thought to identify and fix bugs faster and less expensively. Agile doesn’t have a definitive endpoint, you stop when you run out of time or when the product is good enough. This contrasts with the traditional waterfall method, in which development and management follow a sequential stage-gate process. For example, you know there will be, say, five phases of product development and what will happen in each phase and what criteria needs to be met before moving to the next phase. I grew up with the waterfall method in industrial design, which always made sense to me since there is more capital investment involved and more interdisciplinary stakeholders that need to be managed. You can’t pay to have a mold built and then decided you want to change it. And what about rapidly getting approval from marketing, engineering, procurement, logistics? That sounds like chaos!

Graphic from Thycotic Solutions,
Graphic from Thycotic Solutions,

I told Randall that it was hard for me to fail fast because it took a long time to get learning in the marketplace. By the time product is made and shipped to stores, 3-6 months have already gone by. We need another 3-6 months to see what consumers think, so my rounds of iterative development would be every 6-12 months – not very fast. Also, all of that less-than-perfect product would still be out there, potentially tarnishing my brand name. It’s not like I can just do a software update and bring everyone’s Po Campo bag up to the latest model. Retrieving them and replacing them would be too costly to consider.

No new machinery here!
No new machinery here!

Yet, I’m interested to see if there is a way to become more agile in product development. As consumers, we are getting accustomed to products being rapidly improved and the kinks worked out on an ongoing basis. There isn’t really any reason why this should stop with durable goods. One thing I like about cut-and-sew is how it is already inherently pretty agile, in that no new tooling is generally required and doing running changes is pretty acceptable. If agile was going to work with any manufacturing process, cut-and-sew would be the best fit.

Our bags in a store
Our bags in a store

What’s holding me back? I get confused with implementation. Most of our business is wholesale, meaning that we sell to other stores who sell it to the end user. They are a fairly traditional bunch and I know they would only want the latest and greatest. They also discourage change (even seasonly!) because it makes things harder for them to manage. Online sales seem like a better match because we can communicate with our end user and get feedback faster. Again, the bulk of our existing wholesale customers will push back against this, as they do not like product available online that they can not sell in their stores.

Has anybody else had success with implementing agile in their development of durable goods? I’m very interested to continue this discussion.

2 thoughts on “Failing Fast with Durable Goods

  1. Just found this oldie but goodie. Wondering if you ever did land on a hybrid of these ideation processes. I have a background in fashion, but I’m working for a softgoods manufacturer and I’m basically responsible for creating a product development process that never existed here before. Our new product rollouts are a major part of a new sales strategy, but we are challenged by the same kinds of supply chain lead times, consumer feedback lag (and frankly lack, since we sell wholesale), etc. Make-to-order seems like a great, lean way to ideate and produce for more of a fashion product, suitable to e-commerce. Maybe one way to hack this is to test new products by selling B2C online, which lends itself to “limited edition” type marketing, and then adopting those products into the wholesale line after incorporating improvements from made-to-order consumer sales.

    1. Hi Allie, Thanks for the comment and bringing my attention back to this post. Sad to say that three years later (!) I am still struggling with these issues. I have arrived at a similar conclusion as you, that B2C is better for testing new ideas, and then take the proven winners to the B2B channel where there is less tolerance for risks. Since margins in the B2C channel are higher, I could afford to spend more on very small runs to test ideas, and then bring the cost of goods down with a larger volume sold wholesale. Sounds great on paper, now just need to implement it!

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