Designing a Product: OMG, Making a Consumer Product Is Sooo Hard!

"I have this new, unbelievable respect for every single product that's in my house."

Beyond the Cart Lightburn Podcast - Ecommerce
Graphic illustration of designing a consumer product.

EPISODE 03: OMG, making a consumer product Is sooo hard!

Join us as our digital agency launches an ecommerce company and the challenges we — and you — are going to face along the way. This series will focus on solving the complicated minutia involved in starting a direct-to-consumer business. Ongoing topics will include; Getting Started, Selecting an Ecommerce Platform, Product Development, Branding, Market Research, Customer Challenges, Overhead, Operations, Marketing, Inventory, and Customer Service. 

Today’s Topics:

  • Creating a production process
  • Managing feedback overload
  • Sourcing product materials
  • Creating physical prototypes


The following is a transcript of the cross-conversation streaming in the above media: 

How to create a new retail product

Well yeah, I'm making a product is super hard.  I've underestimated this process by a factor of probably a billion. Yeah. It is there every time you think you've got something figured out another 10 things pop up that you have to nail down. Totally, yeah. And the thing is at the end of the day, and I've had a number of people comment on this, we're making a product that's been around for 100+ years. I mean we're not even inventing a new product and it's still the challenges, and the details, and all the things that are going into designing our product line and figuring out how we're going to make it, it's just... I have this new, unbelievable respect for every single product that's in my house. You start to think of, Oh wow, somebody somewhere had to sit down and figure this out. And not only figure it out, design it, get it made, and get it to my doorstep. Well and honestly think of, we are making, well we're starting with a chair. It doesn't have any mechanicals, it doesn't have any soft goods, you are using basically one material. All of this would get exponentially harder if you had other factors. 

I'm curious to know, you talked in our first episode a little bit about how this started with people asking for you to make them, you do woodworking, you love it, you like making things and helping people with projects like this. So you were just going to make some chairs and you came up with the idea of making a template. So what was that process like? So I had originally started, I had redone my patio. And I built a fireplace in my beautiful new patio in the backyard. And I had an Adirondack chair that I loved, super comfortable, but I had one of them. I made that thing 20+ years ago.  I was like, well yeah, I'm going to make a few of these. And ultimately there was more interest there than I had realized from others. So what I thought I was going to do is just take that one apart, essentially make templates out of it, and then crank out a bunch of them. So I did that, I sacrificed the one chair that I had. And in retrospect I probably didn't even have to do that, unfortunately. So I tore that thing apart, I traced all the parts.  I made templates, made a prototype or two based on those templates, and made some tweaks because there was a couple of things that were really hard to get measurements on because of wear from the original one. And then as I was putting them together I just was getting super frustrated with the quality. It just wasn't where I wanted it. So I made more templates and then I built more prototypes. And at one point I think I had like seven or eight prototypes and these are, they're not huge but they certainly take up space.

I just see you like Doc Brown style, your hair sticking up, surrounded by these different prototypes, completely, they're taking over your life...

Market research and considering your options

...and then I was getting feedback from people as we started talking about doing this as like, "Hey, let's do this as an e-commerce company. Let's make this." I started getting and more feedback from people. So it was like, "I love those chairs but they're super hard to get out of. Oh, I love those chairs but they're not high enough, or the back is too tall. Why don't you put a cup holder in it? So it was like, oh, I started listening to all these folks. And then that's where all these additional prototypes kept coming from is I'd take what I would hear from a couple of people like, "Hey, it's not tall enough." I heard that over and over again. They're always so low to the ground, can't you make it a little bit higher? And that's what my parents, that's ultimately the one that I made the first prototype from I had built for my parents. They gave it back to me as they got older because they were like, "We love this chair, it was the most comfortable chair. We love sitting in it, but we're old and it's hard to get out of." So I started playing with that, and changing the heights, and making more prototypes. And again, what I thought was going to be a super simple, I'm going to make some templates and we'll pound these out, boom we'll have a product. Well have one there, and it's going to be the thing that we sell.

So now how many are we at now? How many different models would you say? Well you know I think we still have to make that final decision, but there's at least four. But the cool thing is, and this is the other thing that I am learning and I guess I never really thought about this, is we're designing four chairs that will launch with. They're they're similar, they have some styling changes. Like for example one has a curved back, another one has a flat back, which that flat back is actually going to be quite a bit easier to manufacture and assemble. So that'll help us offer a product that's a little less expensive than the one that has the curved back, but some people prefer the curve back and want to pay more. But the cool thing is that we'll have four chairs, three Adirondack chairs, primary difference is really the back. The cool thing is like 75%, 80% of the components that make up those three are going to actually be the exact same part across that entire family.

And then along the lines as I was doing research I noticed there's this nesting chair. It was a very simple, essentially a little folding chair. Pretty popular, lots of hobbyists, woodworkers make these. And I noticed though there was none out there, A, commercially available that you can just buy. Everyone had plans or step-by-step videos, a bunch of woodworkers that I follow have YouTube videos like "Here, I made a couple of these for my yard. But you can't buy them." So I was like, well let's add that to the product family, and let's make it out of this really cool new material that we're going to be working with instead of wood so that they last forever. So now we're going to have four products. I didn't even know about that one, this is exciting. Yeah. I think everyone kind of got taken off guard in our meeting when I was walking the team through the most recent digital prototypes. I was on vacation that day so I missed it. I still need to catch up with that. That's what happens when you leave, you miss out.

Yeah. But that's also the problem with product development, right? That's dangerous. Which is super dangerous because—I'm like, oh shit, I just saw three people that commented about this. Maybe I should make a fifth version or a six version. And then you start to look at some of the competitors and they're like, oh, they have tables. Shit, do we need a table. So I don't know that we're going to go live with the table, Yeah. So let's talk a little bit more about the feedback, how you got that feedback. Everyone's familiar with these chairs. You've owned one of these chairs before or not, chances are you've sat on one, or you're familiar with one, or your neighbor has one, so everyone has an opinion. So that was my initial source of feedback.

And that's true even with the office  I got just a ton of feedback. Keith is like, "One thing I would love is a cup holder." And I'm like, oh shit, nobody has a cup holder. Do we figure that out? . But I really keyed in on collecting as much feedback as possible from people through conversation, then I ultimately started a document where I would just write out the feedback I was getting from people. And I started seeing patterns like I mentioned earlier, the height was an issue, the angle of the back... Then what I did is I started just searching Google, finding forums of people talking about backyard remodels and looking at feedback... Literally looking at product feedback and reviews of our competitor products, and going onto their Facebook pages and doing searches on Instagram where people were talking about their chairs. You literally just read the comments. So I read thousands of comments across a whole bunch of competitors, a whole bunch of Facebook posts and Instagram posts, and a lot of that feedback just kept falling in these couple of key bucket areas where I think we're going to make a... We've made those tweaks to our design, and I think that that might go a long way.

Creating a production process

So you mentioned that we're waiting on some equipment to be able to produce enough of these to get them out into the hands of more users, which will then bring another round of feedback, right? Yeah. That is something that you cannot skip. Even if you sell something that you've been selling in another way, you've got to listen to the feedback from your e-commerce customers, because they may be giving you feedback on how it's packaged, quantities, how you could bundle things, and you really have to let go of any expectations you have that you've got it all figured out.  I thought I had to figure it out. I thought this product was a slam dunk, super easy, let's copy the one I have, and launch an e-commerce site and start selling these things. But there's just so much more to it than that. I think it's a really fine line of confidence in your product and expertise, but also humility that you don't know everything about it and that you're really in service of your customer and user, which I always think of the analogies to how we build websites for an end user. You're building this chair, not for how you want it to be, but how other people expect it to be.

Yeah. I think there's really two product design philosophies, right? So there's one of confidence and, "Hey, we're going to design this product our way. We're not going to solicit feedback. We're just going to do it. We're going to put it on the market because we think it's the best. Take it or leave it," which there's plenty of case studies where that works. We're taking a little bit more of approach on, "Hey, this product's been around for a hundred years. How can we make it incrementally better?" Yeah. I want to make a chair for the people, right? It's just weird to me that if you go back on some of these forums and review sites years, they've been talking about the same issues. This isn't one unruly customers that's like, "This thing's too low." Right? You're going to have somebody that hates whatever you design. I'm already mentally preparing to get torn apart by somebody at some point. You're selling direct to consumer. Yeah. That's going to happen. People have bad days or there's Oscar the Grouch-type folks out there that, no matter what you do, they're going to hate it. Fine.

But ultimately, when you see the same feedback, not once or twice over a five or six year period of feedback, but dozens of times, you're like, "Why are they listening?" To me, it's just these are obvious little tweaks. I get it. They have tooling, and I do think that is a mistake of a mature company, is like, "Well, we have our process. This is how we make it. We've set it up. We've invested to make it this way. We're not changing it." It's a balance, for sure. But I do think as we're entering a market that already exists, obviously, and we're not going to be able to compete on price day one, I think we know that for the most part, then we've got to compete somewhere else. So we've got to answer some of those pieces of feedback. Yeah. At what point does it become not an Adirondack chair, though. There's a philosophical question, I suppose. 

At some point, you're building something else. We'll name it after a different mountain range entirely. That's how evolutionary it will be. Yeah. No, that nesting chair... Definitely isn't an Adirondack chair. It's definitely an outdoor chair, though. Right? So we're really starting an outdoor furniture company. We're using the Adirondack chair styling. The three that we go live with will very, very obviously be in that category. Andy, say the chair name again. I can't. Say it. You got to get it right. This is- Why do I have to get it right? You don't? I don't. Anirondak? Annirandak? Anna. Anna. Onna? On Anna ran back Anna. Yeah. Ad. A-D. Adirondack. Oh. Yeah. Someday I'll get it. But until then, I don't care how you pronounce it. I just want to make it the most comfortable version of that as I can. We'll just call it the chair. It's the chair from now on. The chair. The chair. Yeah. That's the name of our company, and done. No. That's coming later, the branding. Annarondak. Anna. Annaron? Yeah? So, but Andor. Adore. You adore it. Adore it. You adore the Adirondack chair. Watch, I'm wrong and it's some other way entirely. That would be perfect.  One factor here, I'm curious to know, when you were making templates and you were going to be doing a handful for friends and maybe selling them one off, like you said, that side hustle, and now this is becoming more of a business. Repeatability is a factor and how it can scale. So what were some questions you were asking, or considerations? Originally, they were still going to very much be handmade, right? So I'd use a template, trace that on a material, use a router to do the finishing touches, to make them identical to the patterns every single time. But it was still going to be fairly labor intensive. Every piece would be touched by a human multiple times and require a human. 

So when I started looking at where this could go, and quite frankly, there's some pretty big players that I... I didn't realize this. I'm blessed with being naive, and I'm glad I didn't look at how big some of our competitors were and how big of a marketplace this was before I had decided to do this, because I think I would have had that, "Oh, I can't do that. There's already huge players in this. We'll get killed." Right? Yeah. So I was just like, "Yeah, we could do this. This is great. I can work these on my garage. No problem." That's your naive voice. "Yeah. We can do it." Yeah. So I'm glad I didn't do that. I think that is actually one lesson I learned, is just if you're confident and you think there's a market, go for it. I think you can talk yourself out of what could potentially be good ideas by getting too much information.

Repeatability is huge, definitely tooling towards that. Yeah. Repeatability too, and tooling, and we've had to make some design product changes to fit the tooling that we're acquired. But to repeatability, we want to... Yeah, I guess my vision is, yes, we want this company to last forever and grow and be successful and employ people. We're trying to put the right level of automation in place and spending a little bit more money so that the folks that we do ultimately have to employ are well-paid employees. So that's our philosophy in terms of manufacturing. So then next, material and equipment. We had some challenges there. Right? We're still not quite all systems go. So started with wood. Right? That was a conversation you and I had. Again, this is where I think being a little naive helped, is I just assumed they would be made out of wood. I like to be a woodworker. Wood is good. Right? It's quality. Yeah. That's what it seems like upfront.  

Working through initial challenges

Yeah. So then I started figuring out like, "Oh, hey, wood has shot up big time price-wise. B, the quality is dropping." Even the quality of material, the same species of wood that I originally built that chair with 20 years ago and what you can get today has dropped dramatically. It's expensive. So originally had some headaches with trying to figure out how I was going to get enough material. The earliest prototypes, I was going to Home Depot and Menards and buying what they had off the shelf and dealing with that and spending 10 times more material than what is feasible in a production environment. 

Then you were like, "Well, yeah, this is going to be composite material. Right? So it doesn't rot?" I was like, "Yeah, we should probably do that." Then noticing all of our true competitors are using similar materials, that became a no brainer. So I had to stop what I was doing, shift gears, figure out either how to make that material or how to source it, and ultimately got over that hump. 

But COVID, too. I mean, COVID has made a mess of the supply chains, right? So the equipment that we... Aluminum right now is actually really hard to get. So the base of this one, the large piece of equipment that we've ordered, is all aluminum. It was eight weeks back order, and this is a pretty basic extrusion that normally, according to our supplier, usually it's made to order, but it would be a three to four day turnaround. Usually it's made to order, but it would be a three to four day turnaround, like eight weeks. Because they're dealing with ... they had to shut down for COVID, they had to ... The whole supply chain is just kind of a mess. And I think it's worse than what people really realize. Well, and what a cascade it's impacting. Because that aluminum is affecting this machine that then is affecting production of a chair that's made out of recycled milk jugs. Never would I, as a consumer, understand that.

So when we finally pulled the trigger in late December, mid December to order this... we're like, all right, we're going to do it. Let's make this commitment. I was thinking, yeah, we'd have this thing in four or five weeks, and they're like, cool. That should get to in 12 to 16 weeks. And I was like, Oh. You were really frustrated when you found that out. But I think in the end it was a blessing because we've had a lot of other stuff to figure out. Yeah. I don't think it was as much frustration as it was disappointment. Because I'm really excited. I'm kind of, from a product development standpoint, we're kind of at a standstill until we get this. Because I've got enough prototypes made by hand and with the tooling that I have that I think making any more using anything but what we're going to ... the new equipment that we bought is sort of a waste of time. Yeah. Because you are absolutely going to have to go back and make tweaks again to the design process once you're on that machine. And that design process, I think you ... were you originally doing that by hand? Yeah. Yeah. And now computer-based obviously.

So when we get this new equipment, even the very first, because it's a lot less expensive, we're going to be running prototypes out of plywood. It'll all be the same dimensions as the final product, but using... Is that an expense thing? Yeah. So using high quality Baltic birch plywood, which is sort of top of the line in terms of stability, and Baltic birch material is ... will make the prototypes a lot less expensive than using the actual milk jug material. So what's your ... you're going to get the prototypes into people's hands and I think everyone's excited.

Yeah.  I want to make a bunch of prototypes of all four designs using plywood. Get some feedback on that here at the shop. We'll have people come and sit on them and look at it and like, yep, this feels good. Or I would tweak that. We'll probably make another version of all the chairs again, at least once in plywood. Get that dialed into to the point where we're like, yep, let's go for this. And then we'll run real prototypes using the real material and get those in the team's hand initially.

Considering shipping and logistics

And in that process too, because obviously we're not going to ship a chair fully assembled. It would cost an incredible amount of money to ship that. We could do it and it would be a big box, but it's kind of silly. As someone who's gotten so many things shipped to me over the last year that I never thought I would bother to get shipped to me, don't send a big box because it's... to deal with. Exactly. So part of the design process, which, day one, when I was just going to make 20 of these for friends and family and sell them as a side hustle, I was like, it doesn't matter how I assemble them. It doesn't have to be an elegant process as long as you know how. I can throw it in the back of the truck and go drop it off at their house and boom, it's done. That's not how this is going to work. So we've had to make some design changes. So that assembly, so we're going to do basically two assemblies on these initial chairs that'll ship flat in a box. So I want to avoid the IKEA. I don't want to just put all the parts in a box with the hardware and be like, yep, here's some instructions, good luck. Not instructions, pictures. Yeah. They'll be 95%, 98% assembled and come in two pieces that you just have to bolt together. So assemblies should be pretty easy.

I'm excited about this process, that aspect of it. Because that's been something I've been researching in my own life. We're in the process of buying a sectional for our upstairs, and finding something that will fit up the stairs and assembly is easy, is a huge thing for us. So it's been really fun to be thinking about what I like and don't like about the way instructions are presented and how much effort is put in.

Obviously the more effort that's put in upfront to pre-assembly translates to a little bit more cost. So are you willing to pay a little bit more for something that's easier to put together? That's kind of the, to me, I think of that as like the car seat conundrum. Because when you're shopping for a car seat for a kid, ease of assembly and installation is just as important as any other aspect of it. Yeah. It really is. So that's going to be a dance between what makes the most sense for shipping costs and logistics and that user experience once they opened the box. And I think I have that figured out, but only tests will prove that out. Yeah. And we want to go all the way through, from you putting it in a box to it arriving on someone's doorstep, and what that feels like, what that experience is like, that's part of the design process. Yeah. And it's funny how many volunteers you'll get to raise their hand, like, well, yeah, I'll take free product. You can ship it to me.

Yeah, that's not going to be the problem. And we're looking at different ages and heights and skill levels, as far as putting things together. I want to be able to send this to my mom and she be able to figure it out. Yeah, exactly. So I think that's fun and it'll be a fun challenge. Unfortunately, that's one of those, going back to what I mentioned when we first started this conversation, these are all things I didn't even think about when I ... When we started going down this path, you weren't thinking about the fact that, Oh, you have to actually test this thing and test shipping and actually have real users assemble it. That stuff never came into the equation of how hard this would be to actually pull off.

How to approach product offerings and user feedback

Which is funny, because that's what we do, as far as web design. We're all about user testing. But I think you were so excited about making a thing, and that balance is so important. You need someone who's looking towards the product itself and excited and obsessed with making all these different tweaks. And then you had plenty of people around you saying, well, Hey, what about this? Have you thought of this? So I think that's good and fine that you weren't thinking of that yet, because otherwise you might have talked yourself out of it. Oh, I absolutely would have. I would have been like, this is not worth it. I would have easily ... if I knew the mountain that I had a climb before I set off on that, I would have been like, meh, forget it. It's just easy to talk yourself out of it when you know how challenging it is. I think, and don't get me wrong, I love the process. I have no regrets. I'm super excited, but it absolutely- It does feel hard sometimes, or maybe not hard, but there's a lot of moving parts here. There's a lot of considerations. We didn't even touch on, what does, what does liability look like on a product like this? I don't think that's going to be insurmountable. I don't think that that liability is going to stop us, but it's something that we have to look into and get right. Do it right.

Yeah, exactly. But even little details, so we've got 30 ish color options day one that we could potentially go live with. So, but now I'm freaking out because I just realized, well, we're going to use stainless steel screws. Because this is outdoors and they're going to be marine grade stainless steel. Great. Boom. But are they going to look dumb? So if we have a red chair with these shiny stainless steel screws wherever we have screws, is that going to look dumb? So now I'm trying to think of, well, and I won't know until we actually start making prototypes and getting feedback, like- Yeah, getting that feedback. ... those need to match the color of the chair.

Let me ask you this. Have you ordered from any of those competitors? No, that's actually on my weekend to-do list. I've looked at our competitors online. I don't want to accidentally... borrow anything from a competitor. Maybe I'll order something, because I'm not designing this at all. I don't know anything about anything, but then I'd have the experience of it to give some input if needed. Right. Well, the other thing too is I don't want to assume that the way they're doing it is the right way. And I don't want to just be a knockoff company, right? That's not where we're after. Yeah, absolutely. We are trying to make those changes. And yes, this is a hundred-year-old product. There's a billion versions of it out there. But still, that's where my hesitation with, "Let's just order a bunch of our competitors products and take a look at them."

Yeah. Although I will say with our clients, we have often done that, so that we know that we are meeting a standard, especially when it comes to shipping. I've certainly done that for our clients is look into, how's your competitor packaging things. What, what are they adding in? What's that experience like? Yeah. So I think that's often a good idea, as long as you can temper it with not copying, or not letting it distract you from your purpose. Right. And plagiarism's easy, especially when you're down to the wire, because we're trying to get this launched in June, which we're going to miss a chunk of the 2021 season. So, I am starting to feel pressure to maybe push a little faster than what should probably be done, just so that we can try to hit the seasons. So, that's something I'm wrestling with. Yeah. It almost seems like, "Well, we got to have it by this summer, or we just miss the boat." And that's really not the case. If we launch in August, we launch in August. I am learning to accept that reality.

Mm-hmm (affirmative), but we're not launching in August. I really like your aggressive timeline, and I want to hit it. So, that brings up a question that we talked about in the very first episode, conceptually, this is a lot of hard work. Why aren't we just selling somebody else's product? Why are we going to all this trouble? There's a selfish answer there. And part of that is, I have a mechanical engineering background, I always envisioned myself making something physical, but then I caught the digital bug in school, in college, programming just consumed me. Distracted you for 22 years. Yeah. And we've had this conversation, I've always wanted to make a product and own it. We've owned two other e-commerce sites that were essentially retailers and middlemen. We've done that. We learned a lot. That was great experience. And those companies are still around and very successful. But to me, to do this and to have it fulfilling, we had to control our own destiny. Yeah. I just don't think it would be the same, I think fulfillment, really, and passion is what it comes down to. What's making it worth it to go through all this? Yeah. And part of that is...

Yeah. And when we had the safety company and we were selling earplugs, for example, I wasn't passionate about earplugs. I was passionate about getting earplugs to consumers who otherwise didn't have access to them. There's a lot of things I was really passionate about with that company, but the actual product, not so much. So, I'm really excited. So, that's a big selfish reason why we're doing this rather than just taking somebody else's product, buying a bunch of inventory, launching a site. I do think we could be successful at that, but there's more to this, right? It's more than just making a dollar on profits. If we can be breakeven for the foreseeable future, I would be over the moon. We're not going to be breakeven. We're going to sell... If we can not lose our entire life savings, I'll be over the moon.

Shh. Stop. And part of me is really proud of the fact that that's why we're doing it. It's not, "Hey, we think we can make a buck," because there's a thousand ways somebody could go make a buck, and that's not why we're doing it. I would not mind if we made a buck, or two, for the record. No, of course not. But I don't want that to be, and I think we all agree that that's not the number one goal of this. No. Absolutely not.  You weren't even done with this process, but as far as you've gone in this process, what advice would you give someone else who is embarking on designing their own product? Just go for it. Do it, man.

Staying focused in a sea of naysayers

Honestly, ignore the haters. That's a big one. I cannot stress that enough, because people are going to think whatever you're doing is dumb.  no matter what people are going to be a little bit jealous, and I think that's a big reason there's haters in the world. But if you're really thinking about it, do it as a side house. I've always been an advocate for that. People think they can't do something, because they would have to quit their job and do it full time and invest their life savings. There's a million ways. We're proving that right here. I'm not investing my life savings. I'm not working full time at the agency. We're doing this above and beyond that. And that's a sacrifice we're willing to make. My other advice is listen to, to consumers. And planning on it taking a lot longer.  So I think on the note of haters, the people giving you feedback on the product, even if it's negative are not haters. They are trying... No, exactly. I don't consider that a hater. I've had some people being like, "That's dumb. Nobody's going to buy those." That's just unnecessary. Like, "Thanks, dude."

Bye. Kind of. Maybe they're right, but I think they're wrong. And everyone has a right to their opinion. And I'm cool with that, but just be prepared for that. And don't let it get to you. And the initial people that are getting the first prototypes, and I said this in our last company-wide meeting, that as people start getting their prototypes, I want them to, if necessary, don't hold any punches, I want to hear it. Rip it to shreds. If need be, if you love it and you're happy with it, and you think it's great and the quality is good, and you truly believe that, tell us that. But if you're like, "This thing's a piece of shit. Poorly built. I think it's uncomfortable. I think it's too hard, or blah-blah-blah, I think the color awful," and you truly believe that, I want to hear that. I'm not necessarily going to make a change just because one person complained, but I want people to tear this thing apart, if necessary.

Put on your Yelp reviewer hat and go to town. Yeah. Don't be negative just to be negative, be negative to ultimately lead to a better product is what I'm asking people. Yeah. And I've honestly had some haters, like, "Dude, you're fucking dumb." Who are these people? Friends, literally friend. And I can't figure out if it's just like a jealousy thing. I don't know.  

Hey, worst case scenario, we'll have the equipment to pound out cribbage boards 24 hours a day. We're going to make so many things that are cut out of wood and stuff.  Yeah. It's going to be crazy.

- - - - - 

Tune in next time, for episode four of Beyond the Cart, where we trade in the tempera name of Project X for something more sophisticated. 

Beyond the Cart is produced by Lightburn. Our episode today was edited by Ryan Dembroski. Our music is the song, Let's Go Go Go by Tigerblood Jewel.

Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you consume your audio. You can always learn more about e-commerce at

We'll see you next time on Beyond the Cart

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