Four key lessons on bringing a product from design to market: August Graube’s journey with Fort Boards

fort boards

Remember how much fun it was to play with forts when you were a kid? Regardless of whether you grew up in the city or the suburbs, you no doubt found ways to use the resources around to build your own private little escape.

Well, August Graube, founder of Fort Boards, wanted to recreate that excitement and instill that same sort of passion and imagination for kids today. The only problem? No one made a fort-building kit the way he envisioned it. So began his journey with Fort Boards. Click play below to listen to my interview with August and keep reading below for more.

Phase 1: Design

As Graube explained, designing a physical good is much more challenging and cost-intensive than designing a software product. You cannot just roll out different versions and hope customers appreciate the latest updates. On the contrary, when you are dealing in physical goods, you have to nail that design down before you can do anything else.

Graube knew exactly what he wanted to create: a fort-building kit that would resemble an oversized Lego set, something kids could use to build a variety of forts, boats, ships, animals, etc. He wanted the creations to be large enough for kids to crawl inside of and play within. But these large pieces proved to be difficult to design in the four months Graube predicted it would take. Instead, it ended up taking three years and 165 designs!

Phase 2: Manufacturing

Graube’s careful approach to finding the right-fit manufacturer took him on two intensive journeys.

The first consisted of a five-day road trip and 1,300 miles traveling between Washington, D.C., and Chicago. He met with five different vendors, learned about the manufacturing process, and found a manufacturer that Fort Boards ended up partnering with. The only problem? “Toy industry margins are slim and competitive.”

Because of this, it meant he could not afford to sell his product to certain third-party resellers for a reasonable price and still make a profit. So, he decided to move manufacturing overseas.

This time, he took a train down the coast of China and visited each of the manufacturers he was considering. One of the first ones he found, however, didn’t pan out. The issue was that it was too soon in the design process (about design 40 out of 165). He ordered the first batch of the product, went to test it out, and discovered that it was too flimsy. He had to choose: “Do I move forward with this current design and just be so-so with it or do I start-from-scratch?”

That dedication to perfection resulted in a retooling that scrapped his original $2,000 investment and turned it into a $20,000 investment.

Phase 3: Sales & Marketing

Initially, Graube approached the design process with the customer in mind. However, he had not given much thought to the sales channels where the product would be sold. “We were chasing after the wrong sales channels for a long time… The retail shelves at Toys ‘R’ Us and Target were not the best fit for us.”

Upon discovering this, Graube and his team decided to pivot their business model. “We have streamlined our processes so that each product is in the correct sales channel. That was a big learning process for us.”

Once Graube sorted out what made sense regarding sales, Fort Boards found their groove in marketing. They focus a lot on social media as well as email blasts. Moreover, they try to add humor to all their marketing efforts. Graube recognizes that there’s already an interest in forts and that customers do not need to be sold on them, which allows them to focus more on making strong customer connections.

They have also found that Kickstarter has been a strong sales and marketing platform for their product. “The difficult thing for launching a new product is getting people to buy in on the idea. People trust Kickstarter and know the format and are comfortable with it, so it is a great way to launch a product.”

Phase 4: Success

The road to success was a lengthy one, but Fort Boards has arrived. In 2016, Fort Boards won the grand prize in the second annual Microsoft Small Business Video Contest and were awarded $20,000, a Surface Pro 4, and an Office 365 subscription (which his team makes regular use of). It was Fort Boards’ video subscription that took home the grand prize, and it was all because of that connection Graube hoped his customers would make with his product:

“When I watched your video I immediately thought of my nephew – what a great product to engage a child’s imagination. Fort Boards provides hours of fun, independent playtime and no doubt is also a big hit with parents as an alternative to building with couch cushions.” – Ramon Ray

Watch their award-winning video below.

This article originally appeared on Smart Hustle Magazine

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