Today’s Biz Ladies post comes from Los Angeles textile designer and shop owner Paula Smail. Paula traded her corporate career for the more creative realm of textile design in 2005 and opened her shop, Henry Road, in LA a year later. Jumping into the design process with little research or know-how, Paula eventually figured out how the product development process works. Today she offers us some helpful tips on creating a product line of your own. Thanks Paula for this easy-to-follow guide! — Stephanie
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In my experience, creating a product line is like having a large table of elements. Unlike a scientific table, however, mixing the different elements provides definite results in only a few cases. Like, for instance, the fact that no product line is sustainable if the cost of goods sold exceeds the price paid by buyers.
There’s no specific right way to mix the elements and definitely nothing linear about the decision-making processes involved, but hopefully I can provide a general overview of things to think about as you determine the personal potion that works best for you.
To simplify things, I think of my product line as falling somewhere in the middle of a triangle with the three corners representing the decisions that need to be made:
This is the ideas, design and style corner of the triangle. It starts with the completely fun part of generating ideas and includes the more challenging selection process, because a good product line is an edited product line. Some of my favorite “babies” never see the light of day.
The overriding requirement of any product line, irrespective of size, is a sense of cohesiveness and a distinct brand identity, feel and style. This sense of unity can come from any number of places — a common use of fabric, be it felt, rubber or wood; a distinctive approach to pattern and color; beautiful packaging; a common functionality like kitchen utensils or kids’ toys; a commitment to eco-friendliness; an interesting naming solution; or a sense of playfulness and fun.
Examples of product lines with strong identities include the use of resin for tabletops and jewelry by Tina Frey; the graphic packaging of Compagnie de Provence; and the quirky modern, vintage style that Jonathan Adler threads through his extensive line that grew from ceramics.
Over time, research, customer feedback and a history of items sold, as well as a personal sense of what works for you, will make identifying what fits and what doesn’t easier to determine. In addition, the implications that the two other corners of the triangle — making and marketing — have on designing a product line are critical. These provide the reality checks that determine whether a product line will be part of a successful business or not.
So you have a great idea for a product line, but can you get it made and how much will it cost you to make it? How long will it take to get it made? If you make changes to your line to use common elements across more than one product, will it bring costs down? Can you scale up production if you get a big order or Oprah features you on her show? How much can you afford to spend on production? What are the packaging, warehousing and shipping costs? If your product needs to pass certain tests required by law, how much do these cost?
Making a product line is part sourcing, part number crunching and part problem solving. Even if you are planning on making everything yourself, you need to know the real cost of producing a product, including your time. Hours and hours of research are the name of the game when it comes to sourcing raw materials, production and prototyping and product packaging. Don’t under estimate the long term savings of something as simple as being able to standardize your packaging to one size; using a single zipper size; employing a single mold or silkscreen in multiple products; or making changes to a product that result in streamlining production. In all cases, it is a good idea to have at least one fallback source filed away in case something happens to your primary source.
Some other common cost elements that might need to be considered include the cost of packaging for shipping breakables, as customers may not be prepared to pay over the norm for shipping and the cost of tests/certification that certain products require by law.
The back and forth between this, the marketing elements and the creative development of a line is like a three-way tennis match that has the potential to go on forever. At some point you just have to draw a line in the sand and go for it.
The other reality check corner concerns who will buy the products, in what channels are the most suitable and most importantly, what price will the market bear? If the math doesn’t add up, your product is dead in the water before you even start.
Price is determined by the going rate for your product in the market. Every product falls somewhere on a spectrum between mass market and luxury. Research will give you a pretty good idea of where your product falls or, for example, what changes could be made to a particular product to bump it into the next level of pricing (or lower it) without adversely impacting cost. Something as simple as packaging can make a huge difference to the price people are prepared to pay. For example, Trumpette stands out in the market because their baby socks are very cleverly and stylishly packaged and for the same reason, they probably can charge more.
If you plan on selling wholesale, you need to be able to make enough money to run your business at wholesale prices and once that price is at least doubled, the resulting retail price needs to work in the market.
Other questions to ask: If a product line targets multiple markets, for instance gift and baby and fashion accessories, how much will it cost to market to all of these areas? Can you edit your line to start in a smaller number of markets? If you plan on selling via the Internet, is your product easy and cost effective to ship? Is your product line seasonal? In other words, how often will the market expect you to introduce a new line and how much will that cost? Fashion is a prime example of a market that demands a brutal schedule from its creators. Studying collections from new designers is helpful, as most of them work on shoestring budgets and tend to present an edited, coordinated line.
There are entire books written on each of the elements involved in creating a product line, so this is nothing more than a quick summary that reflects my experience and a general overview of things to consider.
I am continually looking and learning. My biggest advice would be to get out and talk to people. Most people will surprise you with their willingness to divulge their experiences. If talking to potential competitors is problematic, approach people in other areas. Good design has no boundaries — I am equally excited by great car design and a beautiful fabric pattern. As such, there are certain universal tenets that apply to all successful product lines, regardless of your area of focus.