One of the great rules of building a product company is that no matter how amazing you think the product is, there has to be a customer that also agrees with you, and is willing to spend their hard earned cash on your vision. This can be a daunting prospect, as the time and money spent to bring a physical product to life (especially complex ones like dirt bikes!) is significant, and typically businesses starting out don't get second chances.
Thankfully, over the years, systems and approaches have been developed to break down the complex space of starting with an idea and developing it into a finished product. Generically called Product Development Processes, these tools can massively increase likelihood of success by helping a startup establish customer desirability, market viability and technical feasibility. Dust uses 4 broad phases within our development map, starting with Discovery, Definition, Development and Delivery.
The common denominator amongst these phases is the critical importance of prototyping along the journey. A prototype is a representation or proxy of a finished product made using methods which are able to produce results with substantially less resource investment. Essentially, any element of the business that justifies testing to validate and verify that intent matches up with outcome can and should be prototyped. These prototypes are not just examples of the complete product before production, but any aspect of the experience, customer journey, feature set or Brand. TEST AND LEARN.
Here we breakdown the Dust prototype approach within the Development phase and what we are currently up to with our Alpha build!
To build a great product, first you must break it. - Someone pretty smart
Phased Approach to Development
First, Dust layers a dedicated phased prototype process on top of the Development portion of our Product Development process. We have chosen to follow industry best practice to build 3 rounds of prototypes, prior to full production release of the design. Managing risk is the name of the game when it comes to utilizing a phased approach, and the best practice here is to push the most existential risks to the front of development so that over time, things become firmer and higher confidence.
We believe that it truly takes 3 tries at building something before you get it right, and that is reflected in our approach.
Up front in our development phase we are building our Alpha prototypes. These bikes are designed to answer key questions about the market positioning, performance, feature set and ultimately, desirability.
We follow up Alpha with Beta prototyping, whose objective is to test the detailed design and engineering specification, and confirm major selections regarding components and vendors. In consumer product development, this is typically called Engineering Validation Test (EVT) phase.
Finally, we will build a small fleet of Gamma prototype bikes, which verify our production process selection and build strategy by developing and testing a repeatable method for production of the bikes. Again, in consumer products, this exercise is called Design Validation Test (DVT) phase.
The Dust team is now firmly in detailed engineering development and working our way through the Alpha prototype exercise. While in digital form, the bike is largely taking shape, we are also working to build 2 functional bikes that represent the key elements of the experience for rider testing and feedback.
The dominate elements that we are looking to confirm in the next couple of months as these bikes come together are: Geometry, rider ergonomics, suspension kinematics, torque + power levels, and general usability. Essentially - is this thing as fun as it should be?!
Without these things established, there is no foundation for our product to succeed, no matter the technical execution or production delivery in later phases. These would be the hardest areas to revisit later on down the line.
In the spirit of prototyping, we are utilizing many off the shelf parts as proxy for our own custom design parts in this Alpha phase. This ensures we learn valuable lessons before committing significant resources into committing down our own custom path.
Currently, we are converging on our chassis design to release for fabrication, and building a small stockpile of parts in our shop to be ready for assembly over the coming months. Before we know it, we will be getting a diverse mix of riders from pros to joes on the bikes to give us unfiltered feedback.
Beta and Beyond
We will take these valuable learnings from Alpha into the subsequent prototype phases, where we will see ever increasing resolution and maturity in the design.
Contrasted with the more subjective aspects of the Alpha phase, Beta phase will be highly technical, focused on reliability, repeatable performance, edge case failures and any necessary regulatory testing. The bikes built represent final design intent, but built with prototype methods. Here is where smaller tweaks and refinements are made, and a structured test program is necessary to maximize results - field testing with data acquisition as well as lab tests. Also worth saying that this is where many startups fall short - in rushing to get product out the door, this critical phase is glossed over, resulting in painful teething issues making their way into customer hands.
Finally, Gamma typically signals an exciting time for a company. Many of the critical engineering challenges have been crested, and now more bikes are being produced and able to make their way into the hands of media, demos and friends of the brand to help build sales momentum. The operations team will work out all the major kinks to make sure the bikes can be produced repeatably for optimized costing, and the business is gearing up for the large spend associated with material procurement and ramping production. These bikes are "production intent" and reflect the final build configurations. Successful completion of Gamma prototype build and test means we can move into production!
One can imagine how important the early steps of prototyping are, considering the massive cash outlay associated with starting up production!
- Honda Prototype CR electric (looking fairly mature!) was tested last weekend at the All-Japanese Motocross Championship. Check out this exciting video of it competing with combustion bikes. (Here)
- Tinkering and upgrading bikes is an important aspect for many riders (moto or MTB). So it's interesting to see companies, like DT Swiss, making aftermarket hubs specifically built with electric upgrades in mind. (Here)
Welcome to Mitchell Burke, Dust product management intern!
Catch us at firstname.lastname@example.org OR just respond to this email!
Done and DUSTED for this month. See you all on the next lap.