How do I find a great product design firm to partner with?

The first thing you should do is to look at your product category and its key characteristics, then look for partners with experience creating products in the same category.  Developing a wearable device? Look for wearables in the portfolio of the potential partners.  Creating a medical device? Definitely look for companies who have gone through the 5(10)k process multiple times before.  Working in clean energy? Find a company who has experience with policy.   Developing a mass produced consumer electronics device?  Look for someone who has done consumer electronics, not people who specialize in one-off projects, like a piece of custom automation for a laboratory, or who work on high-margin, low volume items like military helicopters and the like.

Skip right over the corporate pitches and ask potential partners to talk about products they have created that is similar to yours.  If you are looking for, say, someone to create a seven-degree-of-freedom robot arm, and the only product category that the product design firm has ever worked on is mobile tablets, you can stop right there and move on to the next candidate.

The second thing you should do is to look at the key components in your product, then look at how your partners are staffed. Do they have all the talent in house to execute your project, or do they need to subcontract part of your project to someone else?   A lot of product design firms in Massachusetts come out of an industrial design and mechanical engineering tradition.  As of 2015, probably fewer than half have in-house electrical engineering and firmware capabilities. Yet, the vast majority of hardware startups are creating connected devices, or devices that have some level of IoT characteristics.  This requires three disciplines: industrial design, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering / firmware.  If your product design partner covers only two out of three functional disciplines, chances are they will not be as strong as another partner who has in-house expertise in all three areas.

Product design firms long on hardware and short on EE/software will either need significant support from your in-house team, or they will need to find a subcontractor, increasing the complexity of project management and reducing the efficiency of the whole process.

The third thing you should do is to look at whether your project can be a good deal for you and for the firm you are working with.  This is something a lot of startups overlook.  Many flock to top-rated, world-class product design firms, such as IDEO.  However, not every company and project is a good match for IDEO.  If the startup is minuscule in scale, the project is small in scope, and the product design partner is used to doing projects that are 10x in scale and scope, then the project will not be a good deal for the partner.  There is a fundamental impedance mismatch in how they do business. With best intentions, it will be difficult for the partner to be responsive to the startup’s needs.

It is far better for a startup to work with a design partner that is used to dealing with people like them – startups who are learning continuously from the market, who need flexibility and agility from a scrappy design partner.   At the end of the day, the startup needs a service rendered, and the product design firm needs to make money.  Always keep this in mind when selecting a partner.  The project has to work well for both sides.

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