Monday, April 30, 2012

Seven Steps to Product Evaluation

As you may have figured out, our business will involve engraving personalized products on a variety of media, including wood, metals, acrylic, glass, crystal and plastic.  We are currently reviewing products that both fit our budget and meet our design needs.  Here are some recommended steps when comparing products and trying to find what best meets your needs.
  1. Identify your requirements – Unless you know exactly what it is you are trying to accomplish, you will not be able to figure out what products will meet your needs!  Come up with a list of your goals.  In our case, we are looking for an engraving solution that will work with various media.  As we go through the rest of the steps below, you’ll see how requirements can be refined, but knowing what you’re trying to do is often overlooked by people who jump in and say, “I’m going to get ‘PRODUCT X’ and see what I can do with it.”  By defining your requirements first, you’ll be able to narrow down your contenders easier.
  2. Research! – This one is self-explanatory.  Learn everything you can about the technologies or products you are thinking about buying.  Watch demo videos on  Find online discussion forums for people who are currently using the products (and not only those forums hosted by the vendors).  See what people who use the products daily have to say.  Talk to people in the business, whether at a local business or online.  I have learned so much about CNC routers and laser engraving systems in the past few weeks, I can now hold a conversation with a sales person and hold my own.  I know this, because I just did it today!  And don’t forget places like Amazon and other online resellers to get user reviews from actual people.  As you research your potential products, you’ll learn about different features that will affect your requirements identified above.  The requirements list is allowed to grow as you learn more about the products and services you need.  For example, I learned that speed is also a very important (and varying) factor in laser engravers, and is greatly impacted by the wattage of the laser used.  A 60 watt laser engraves much faster than a 35 watt laser, and the 35 watt laser is relatively useless when mass-producing on certain mediums (such as wood).  So I adjusted my requirements accordingly!
  3. Find multiple vendors – A good sales person knows who their competition is, but they may not tell you.  If you haven’t found their competition, they aren’t going to tell you where to look!  Look online for at least 3 or 4 different vendors so you can make an educated decision.  Never go with the first vendor you find, unless you have learned that they actually offer the best deal for your needs.  (see requirements, #1)
  4. Request documentation and samples – Contact the vendors you are interested in and ask them for literature, links to online videos of their equipment being used, and samples of their products.  One vendor seemed shocked when I asked for samples.  Others jumped at the opportunity to send me samples to show off their product.  Who do you think we’re going to lean towards when we make a decision?
  5. Compare apples to apples – One of the biggest problems when making these kinds of decisions is that everyone offers their own thing, and competing products don’t often match up.  How do you compare products when they all have different features and options?  With organization!  Create a spreadsheet in Excel or even on a piece of paper.  Put each product/model/flavor of what you want on the left side, and each feature across the top.  Fill in this matrix as thoroughly as possible.  I include columns for all basic features, add-ons, price, and anything else I think will influence my overall decision.  I also add a field at the end for “Notes”, since there are always things that just don’t fit in anywhere.  Your research, requirements and matrix are all inter-dependent upon each other, and they will continue to grow and have a lot of the same information.  This is how you can make the best overall decision – by laying out in front of you what you need to level the playing field.  If you are requesting quotes, make sure the specs are the same on each vendor’s products.  If they aren’t be sure to identify the differences and, if possible, ask for line item additions so you can see what it would cost to add a specific feature.
  6. What’s included in the deal in addition to the product itself? – Don’t only think about the product you are buying.  What else is included?  Does the vendor offer free training?  Do they throw in accessories?  Is there a 1 year support contract with one product, while another of equal quality provides 3 years for the same price?  Remember, there are a lot of considerations, not just the product or service itself.
  7. Consider after-sale support – What did those on the forums have to say about the support after the sale?  Are there forums that you can view on the vendor’s site?  If so, what is their response time when a user asks a question?  If the support forums are password-protected, ask for access before the sale so you can take this into consideration.
When evaluating any product for your business, always do plenty of research so you know what your choices are, regarding features and functionality as well as your initial vendor’s competition.  Always compare apples to apples.  By knowing what your choices are and leveling the playing field between options, you will be best-informed to make smart financial and business decisions.

In the beginning, there was an idea…

So what is it we’re trying to accomplish here, you ask?  Our vision is simple.  Create customized and personalized gifts.  There are a million places on the net where you can get something for an anniversary present for your great grandparents.  You can even go to Things Remembered and get them a picture frame with their names and the anniversary date on it.  That’s pretty cool, and they very well may love it.  But how do you take it one step further?
Our vision is to create gifts that are truly unique.  Yes, we do understand that a big part of this business is going to be to incorporate the traditional gifts people are used to, specifically including the picture frame mentioned above.  But what about if the contents of that picture frame was not just an 8x10 glossy of the couple’s wedding picture.  What if the picture itself was engraved into the medium that comprised the frame?  Instead of having an off-the shelf frame with a name engraved into it, the present would be a truly unique project, custom made for that individual recipient.  That’s the idea.
Picture frames are one of an infinite number of possibilities.  They are common, and even this blog entry has not yet discussed anything Earth-shattering or unique.  Yes, you can already order projects like this at a variety of online and retail locations.  So where is the uniqueness in this project?  It’s in the design.  What else can be customized to provide a truly unique gift?  How does one design something that really is for the person who has everything?  We’re working on those designs right now.  I’m obviously not going to give away our unique design ideas this early on! (Sorry!)  But while we are learning the ins and outs of the engraving process, writing a business plan, evaluating accounting software and researching marketing possibilities, we’re also putting a lot of thought and effort into our actual product line.  Because you can have the best accounting software in the world, and the best engraving equipment on the market, but if you don’t have something that people want, your business will go nowhere.
This is the start of a process to get our business off the ground.  Thanks for reading.  I’d love it if you would leave some feedback or advice.  As we go through what we expect to be a busy, crazy, hectic and fun time in our lives, Andrea and I will be keeping you posted on how we’re doing, what we are working on, decisions we’ve made, etc.  And we’ll always want your input, because we hope you can become a customer, and your ideas are important to us.