With a background in quantum physics at Cambridge University, it wasn’t rocket science for Dr Nick Hill to quit his job and re-mortgage his house to take his pet tech invention to market.
And after developing the SureFlap Microchip Cat Flap using a pets’ unique microchip numbers as an electronic door key to solve the problem, his company Sure Petcare has gone on to sell more than one million smart reading products in 35 countries across the globe.
A few months ago, the company took its tech to another level, launching Animo, an amazing behaviour and activity monitor for dogs that we will be writing about soon.
But in the meantime, Dr Hill has divulged some of the things he has learnt during the past 10 years that may help get your tech idea or start-up company off the ground.
1) Choose or refine your product
First of all it’s important to choose the right product. Coming up with an idea that’s simple to develop and quick to market is all very well, but why hasn’t someone else done it? Probably, because it’s not a viable option. If you hit on something like this, it could be copied in a heartbeat.
I like to solve problems and I like them to be relatively hard because you can add value by solving them.
It also helps to have a barrier that makes it harder for other people coming in, but possible that with some innovation you can come up with something.
When you have your idea, next, make sure there is a market for it. Would you buy it yourself? If you would use it, then that’s the starting point. Then ensure you talk to other people about it. Does it add value to them?
But remember, if you talk to others about your idea, don’t disclose the patentable elements of it or do it under a non-disclosure agreement.
2) Patenting and other intellectual property
It’s important to protect your product or idea early on. Patenting is one form of intellectual property, others include trademarks, copyright and domains. It’s pretty straight forward to start all of these processes, but very easy to put off.
If you do get intellectual property, the protection provides you with that important security if your product is a success.
If it’s software, rather than hardware, there may not be a patentable element to it, but maybe copyright is more appropriate.
The first thing to do is check you have freedom to operate – so that’s doing patent searches for your idea. There may be someone who has done patents close to your idea, so it’s a matter of downloading them and seeing what they claim. Are they enforceable or in force? It’s free and you will see if they cover your product.
The inventor is best placed to do some of this background research. They know it better than anyone else and it could be expensive with a legal firm.
If you need to create a patent, you can get a patent lawyer to help and write it.
The patenting side is actually not that expensive to begin with, but it can rise over time. Costs during the first 18 months are reasonable but then they can go up depending on how wide you want to take the product. You have 12 months to complete the filing from when you first file it – so you have time to add to it.
It’s not right for every start up or innovation, but it was an important element for me when I started.
It’s critical to take time from the outset to consider how you are going to fund your product or start-up.
Are you going to fund part of it or all of it, or will you need external investment to get this off the ground?
Even if you need external investment, you are likely to need to put a lot of time and some of your own money to get it investment-ready. It depends what the concept is.
In my case, I gave up my job, we remortgaged the house and put the money into the business, so built it up without outside help. The advantage of that is you have overall control; the disadvantage, you are limited on your funds. It can be quite a balance.
There is crowd source funding, especially if it’s a consumer product. This could be an excellent way forward and gives you the chance to see how well it is received. You can also apply for grants, which would be free money and may come with external advice.
I was given a £20k grant originally which was ‘matched funding’ to promote innovation, research and development, but there are all sorts available, from EU money to regional development grants.
At the beginning of the process, the founders of the company should guard the equity very closely. Build up the value of the business before considering giving away equity.
I think there is quite a bit of people giving away advice and mentoring in return for equity. You should be wary of people like this. Have confidence in your own abilities.
If you are looking for investment, the key is people invest in people. They invest in ideas but ultimately they are investing in their confidence in you as a person.
It’s best to have a team behind you with a diverse set of skills, so there are more people being invested in. It’s a lot more compelling as an investment story.
If you are looking for investment, you will need a very detailed plan, presenting how you are taking it to the next stage. It should include all your costs, costs to market, costs to support the product or to the next funding round.
Everything will cost more than you expect. It’s a cliché, but Cash is King. You need to fund the product and pay deposits to suppliers and many other things.
4) Develop the product
It may be you need to develop the product further before going for funding, or you are doing a few cycles of the process.
But my main advice is get it into the real world as soon as possible and develop it from there. It allows you to test out all the really important things, like feedback on the product, how robust it is, the manufacturability of it: it’s a lot easier to talk to manufacturers when there is a physical product. But get it to the real world quickly.
What you may find, even if you are creating something brand new, is that it can be a disappointing experience! You want it to be perfect and for your product to do X, Y and Z, but in practice to get it out, you have to cut the scope to your minimally viable product. I’ve experienced this many times with every product I’ve developed under Sure Petcare, from the SureFlap Microchip Cat Flapto Cat Flap Connect and Animo, that will be launched in a few months – you have to cut out features you like.
Having a minimally viable product allows you to get it launched and get that feedback. It works well in software and hardware. Then you can launch new generations as you go along.
And make it look nice! It’s important for it to look good and have the feel of quality – it’s a huge differentiator in the market. You’ll find you may not need to add a lot to the costs to get it looking better, but it’s worth that time and effort.
5) Launch the product
Launch your product within a reasonable timeframe, as it saves a lot of money long-term. But then support it well and listen to your customers.
It’s not nice to hear criticism of your ‘baby’, but a paying customer will be a much harsher critic of what you produce than you are yourself. You will get honest feedback and it’s incredibly valuable.
When you get the first feedback, closely support it and then improve the product to fix any issues. Then those initial customers can turn into your best advocates. Fix problems quickly and come out with later generations, while making those first customers feel valued. Provide them with solutions and undertake fast development cycles.
Strive for excellence in every aspect of your business. If you have a great product but it’s not marketed or supported correctly, it will be dead in the water. Don’t neglect parts because you are more comfortable in one area, get a team together to support you in every aspect.