Neil Macqueen is a leading industrial designer with 78 patents to his name, having previously spent ten years at Dyson and is now the Head of Design at Gembah, the world's first global marketplace for product development.
Chad talks to Neil about being focused on industrial design or actual physical products as opposed to interfaces and digital products, working designers and developers, and design to manufacture as a process.
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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel. And with me today is Neil Macqueen, a leading industrial designer with 78 patents to his name, having previously spent ten years at Dyson and who is now the Head of Design at Gembah, the world's first global marketplace for product development. Neil, thank you so much for joining me.
NEIL: Oh, it's great to be here with you today, Chad. Thank you for having me.
CHAD: One distinction I feel like we always need to make, and this is one of the things we struggle with at thoughtbot; people want to put themselves out in the community and say, "Here's what I do," and people use the word product design. And there's actually a pretty big, you know, some designers are, or product developers are industrial design physical products and others are digital. What do you do at Gembah?
NEIL: For me, myself, what I do at Gembah explicitly is far more focused around industrial design or actual physical products as opposed to interfaces and digital products.
CHAD: And as the world's, you know, the self-described first global marketplace for product development, what does that actually mean?
NEIL: What it means is that Gembah provides a platform in which anybody with an idea or an aspiration to even have an idea has a single source by which you can tap into all the resources you need to get your product to market. So I think a good metaphor for it would be that it's very easy for myself, yourself, any of the listeners today to become a seller. Like, I can set myself up with an eBay or an Amazon account this afternoon and start selling a product. There are very low barriers to doing that.
Whereas if you want to become a product creator, that is a very disjointed process. And what you'll see from large companies like my experience at Dyson and other companies is that they have a vertically integrated business. They own each part of that product creation, development, engineering, production, logistics. It is all very integrated. And what we try and do and provide to creators is that single integrated structure by which you can have an idea, work with a designer, develop that in conjunction with a manufacturer, and then very seamlessly move over into your production and logistics.
CHAD: You mentioned Dyson, and you spent ten years there and moved through various design roles. I definitely want to touch on that in a little bit. But what attracted you to Gembah?
NEIL: I think, as with all people who are interested in ideas, whether digital or physical, it's the process of creating something that really attracted me, has attracted me to all my roles in the past, and certainly to Gembah. In as much as what I just described previously, it is a world first, like, it is a category-defining company.
So I think what really attracted me to Gembah was the fact that what we're doing here is not only building lots of very interesting products and helping entrepreneurs, and product creators, and businesses, but what we're doing is developing a platform which is entirely unique and one of its kind.
CHAD: I have to admit, I did a little bit of research on you, as I always do. And I looked at your Twitter, and I saw that a lot of your tweets were, I think, back from 2016, where you yourself designed...how would you describe it? A coffee press stand?
NEIL: Exactly. And AeroPress stand.
CHAD: Having been through that process and launching it on Kickstarter, is that part of what...you said I want to help other people do this.
NEIL: Absolutely. And it is probably a very congregating experience in terms of people who go through crowdfunding campaigns and then try and do it yourself. And certainly, my experience, you know, Kickstarter is a wonderful platform. But everything thereafter for me as a creator doing something in my spare time and my evenings outside of my normal nine to five was incredibly challenging, you know, dealing with factories who had very broken English or really struggled to communicate both my idea and their complications accurately. And just how that unfolded into trying to get a product to market without somebody to help and guide me through that process, doing it entirely by yourself.
So I think that was certainly a very challenging experience in terms of getting that coffee stand to market. And I think the same is true for lots of first-time creators and even businesses in trying to reduce costs, up efficiency of getting to market quickly. Like, who are the partners and people that you can work with and businesses you can partner with to help provide you with those benefits? And that's really what we try and provide at Gembah. And I think, as you mentioned at the start, certainly my past experiences make me think that what we're building here today certainly does bring a lot of benefit.
CHAD: I've had quite a few people on the show who launched physical products themselves on Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platforms. And often, the conversation turns to how difficult it actually was from a supply chain perspective from a manufacturing perspective.
One of the things that struck me about Gembah is that it is not a small operation. It has headquarters in the U.S, but team members live and work all over the world. Their website says there are 150-plus team members globally, so given that reach, it seems like it probably can be really helpful to people solving those challenges. I'm curious who the ideal customers of Gembah are. What is the profile of someone who works with Gembah?
NEIL: For our ideal client at the moment, I think that's one topic, and we can go into that. But what we're really trying to do in terms of the company vision is to democratize the design process and creating a product that gets to market. So as much as for us as a company, you know, having gone through a series A funding round and heading towards a series B, yes, we have got a fairly focused view of who is our ideal client profile and persona.
However, what we're really aiming towards is providing this vertically integrated system of design and marketplace resources to absolutely everybody. That is the vision, the vision that anybody can become a product creator for the first time. In as much as, like my metaphor said earlier, you can become a seller on eBay, you should be able to have as easy access to the resources that enable that product creation.
CHAD: So there's an example I always like to use; it has legs a little bit, which is thoughtbot is a well-respected design and development company. And there's an opportunity, you know, we're working designers and developers. And as people who do this work, we often either buy products and see how they could be improved or have ideas for our own, whether it be notepads, or pens, or even mechanical keyboards are a really interesting thing. If we wanted to pursue something like that, how might we do that?
NEIL: In the context of Gembah?
CHAD: Yeah, or beyond. But yes.
NEIL: So I think the first thing for anybody with an idea is to really have some very clear goals at the outset in terms of...and for anybody who is interested in user-centered design, three of the guiding principles for that are three things I always really lean on which is feasibility, viability, and desirability. So within all of those things, what are your ambitions for your product? In terms of ideally, every product should be desirable; people should want to buy it.
Have you got the means by which to get it to market? And once you've got it there, will it provide you enough of a margin to have a sustainable business? So the viability of the product. And can you actually make it? You know, it's not made out of unobtainium, or it [laughter] might be.
So I think a very easy starting point for absolutely everybody is to really go via those three guiding principles in terms of the desirability, viability, and feasibility of your idea. Where do you think you score on that matrix? And then if you think you really have got something in terms of an idea that really has merit and that you have the wherewithal that you want to see it through to fruition, certainly just picking up the phone and calling Gembah, that's a great second step.
CHAD: Okay. So at Gembah, if someone picks up the phone before going through those three steps and is talking to you, do you help them take a step back and answer those three questions?
NEIL: Absolutely. So I think what we really try and do is not only facilitate your product development journey. We're not a service provider; we're a service facilitator. We want to connect you with all of the resources within our platform and marketplace. And what we really try and steer towards is what is the product development journey that best suits your needs. And I think, typically speaking, if we were to use a broad brush, it falls into three camps which is, do you want to speed to market? And the fact you want to sell an idea very quickly.
So, could you potentially white-label your product? So we provide these options to people. So there's a white labeling route. There's then a customized route which is to say, is there something fairly similar already commercially available in the market and that factories provide, and that you could adjust the feature set for your idea by perhaps 10%? That would actually then mean that you could get your idea customized in the factory and into market. So that's the customized route.
Versus then an entirely unique product which is to say that you need to both develop the design and tooling for the product from the ground up. Intuitively, I would hope from white labeling all the way through to unique product development; you have a fairly matched scale of time and cost. The more involved, the more detail, the more unique, the more time, and the more cost proportionally increases.
CHAD: How would you say that designing within a company like Dyson is different than being outside?
NEIL: The thing that working for a company like Dyson and others like it really affords you is the freedom to research without the means of having to really focus on what is my next launch in a year's time. And what I mean by that is Dyson and other large, successful companies have exclusive product development innovation hubs and idea teams who, for every 100 products they develop, potentially only get one through to market and into the global markets.
So I think as a designer, what you're really afforded there is the space and creativity to explore lots of ideas without the pressure of I have to have something out in this next six-month period into the market. I think that's very different to a small to medium-sized enterprise who have a set product line, and this may be your only product line.
Like, you really need to be laser-focused in what is my incremental product development here so that I can maintain the attention of the public? As well as then trying to work concurrently on how do I evolve my product line to then broaden out my audience? So I think that's quite different in terms you have to be very focused.
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CHAD: You started at Dyson as a design engineer, and you moved through up into a senior design engineer, then concept lead, to design manager of new product innovation. What was the journey from design engineer to eventually design manager? And what are the differences between those roles?
NEIL: I think the key thing that changes within those roles is the level of autonomy and responsibility. And I think what scales up through each of those rungs is essentially how you can demonstrate competency for your core responsibility set. So as a design engineer, you're responsible for part-level designs like, here is, you know, you mentioned the mechanical keyboard earlier in the conversation. In that scenario, you would have a team of potentially four design engineers seeing that through to fruition. You would have a subset of those parts which you're exclusively responsible for.
CHAD: So you might just be responsible for designing the best keycaps.
NEIL: Exactly, exactly. So one chap will be just looking at the springs, and the tension, and how do they feel. Another one will be looking at the structural integrity; another one will be looking at the ergonomics. So I think you have the individual part and function. And what then levels up from that is as you go then into an advanced design engineer or a senior engineer is that you begin being responsible for the full assembly. So instead of having your keycap, you're now responsible for leading the whole team doing the whole keyboard.
And then as you then progress through that, having demonstrated competency and reliability of delivering things, you then become a concept lead, which is to say that you have multiple projects on at the same time. You're leading the teams to do that. And then as you progress through that into design and management role, you then level that up again in terms of you're typically managing portfolios of projects within different market sectors.
So I think if that answers your question directly enough, what it really builds on is for anyone aspiring, is you really need to focus on the basics first, like making sure that you are fundamentally a good designer and a good engineer who can demonstrate and communicate your logic and your thought process. And I think if you already underpin yourself with those sorts of fundamental competencies, that serves you really well as you move up through the ranks.
CHAD: Some people I talk with, as they move up through those ranks, they feel like they are getting further and further away from what they actually love to do, which was design products. Is that something that you felt, or how did you not feel that?
NEIL: I think as you move up through the management hierarchy, at the same time, typically the people that do that, I find and who are successful at it have a fairly focused view of what are their goals, what are they trying to achieve, and what is almost their trademark that they're known for. So for myself, how I've avoided that is...you asked me why I'm interested in Gembah, and that's because what I have very instinctively done both at Dyson and here is make sure that I've positioned myself to solve real problems. Probably everybody in a senior management position sometimes still misses getting on CAD or coding and just having the afternoon with no meetings. [laughs]
NEIL: I think there's an element of that that you can't get away from. However, what really enthuses and keeps me really engaged and motivated in what I am doing now is to say I'm still solving problems, which is the fundamental heart of everything. So instead of designing the best keyboard for somebody who has carpal syndrome or hand problems, what we're now designing and developing is a platform that solves problems for a whole very broad user base.
As long as you are always focused in your role in terms of how can I best serve and provide solutions to problems, I think what people will find is that you're actually always very fulfilled as a creator, maybe not as a mechanical engineer or electrical engineer, depending on your background, or a coder. But if you're fundamentally interested in solving problems and bringing solutions, you can still hold on to that very tightly.
CHAD: Yeah. As head of design now, what does your day-to-day look like?
NEIL: The majority of what it looks like is what I almost just mentioned with regards to how are we both developing and sustaining a business that provides and develops better solutions for our clientele as well as then dipping in and out of projects which require support and a little bit of extra attention? As I mentioned, as a design manager at Dyson, looking across portfolios of projects.
My role now is really around making sure that all of our category leads, who are people looking after multiple projects that they, all have the support and tools that they need and require, as well as, as I mentioned, in particular cases, giving attention to some design projects that need help. And then roadmapping out, like, what is the future? What are the next incremental steps of functionality and platform features that we want to develop as a company and facilitate and bring to market for our customers?
CHAD: What are some of those things that you're seeing across the portfolio that are needs that you're hoping to meet?
NEIL: I think a very interesting new thing that we're bringing to market at the moment is what we call design to manufacture as a process. And what we really try and do there is we see in the market at the moment that people have a real sensitivity around cost-effectiveness with the global economies where they're at and supply chain. Like, how do I, number one, potentially diversify my supply chain? Or number two, how do I actually launch a new product with as little cost to myself as a business as possible?
And what we do there is a report, a product opportunity report that profiles you as a business and a brand, and then overlaps that almost in a Venn diagram of where's the sweet spot in terms of available products in the markets that you could customize that would really suit your brand and that we could really effectively customize, and develop with a manufacturer and with a design team and get to market really quick, really cheap, but is still uniquely your own and has your special touch to it?
CHAD: Obviously, a thing that has happened in this market or this industry over the last decade or so is crowdfunding and Kickstarter specifically. How have you seen that change things for people?
NEIL: I think what it's meant is people get access to funds in a way that would have taken a very long time previously. And I think the other thing is people get feedback on ideas quite quickly as well, which maybe isn't the case across the broad spectrum. But for people who have an idea and want to very quickly test it with the markets in terms of does, this resonate with my user groups that I'm interested in? Like, is this a real set of user problems which I believe I've solved? Is that actually true?
I think what it's provided product, you know, industrial design is typically, or any other type of product creator is this very quick access to people with capital who can invest and seeing their products through to fruition, which otherwise was actually a really hard and arduous task, not only getting feedback but then trying to raise capital separately.
CHAD: In your opinion, what's the ideal point that something actually goes to crowdfunding?
NEIL: The ideal timing for your crowdfunding campaign is where you have the first iterations of a working and demonstrated functional prototype where it's not just all idea but that you can demonstrate the fact that you're committed to this, that you can demonstrate the functionality of it, and show that you've considered how it's going to be made and that it's not actually going to change massively. Because I think what you can sometimes see is people can go to Kickstarter prematurely. And then when they're actually getting into the manufacturer of the product, there are some fairly large compromises that need to be made or the fact that the idea isn't feasible and they can't make it.
The ideal time to go to a Kickstarter is where you've already thought through all your user scenarios. You've got a very clear perspective on what the problem set is that you're solving and that you can then demonstrate that with a working prototype. And that doesn't need to be pretty or visually pleasing because you can have your beautiful render next to your functional prototype. I think that's a great time.
CHAD: And concrete information on the feasibility of manufacturing it.
NEIL: Absolutely. So I think in part of informing your working prototype, I think you need to have early what you'd call DFM, design for manufacture feedback which is where you've spoken to a manufacturer or a tooling engineer and said, "What are the key considerations I should take into building this assembly?" And often is, the case for people who perhaps haven't gone down that road very, very far is that there are some fairly significant adjustments that you need to make to either the visuals or the functionality of your design. At least having a few initial conversations with those factories very clearly integrated into your product considerations is really, really critical.
CHAD: So I have to ask, is there something that you're personally pursuing now and working on?
NEIL: At the moment, not via Kickstarter. I think the thing actually I'm doing in my spare time is a bit of a passion project with regards to furniture. I think certainly, from my perspective, every designer can pay homage to architecture as the mother of all design. What more is an in-depth user experience and journey than the spaces we're all sitting in every day? And a big part of that is furniture. So I'm designing an armchair in my spare time. This is a way to, [laughs] as you mentioned earlier, with my current role as how it is just making sure I keep sharp my sketching skills and design skills, even if it's just for myself.
CHAD: What does that look like for you? Is it sketching on paper now? And how far do you think you'll take it?
NEIL: At the moment, it's just sketching on paper and asking my kids which ones they like, they dislike. [laughter] And I think, thankfully, with the abilities I've developed and some of the resources I have access to, we'll probably build a functioning prototype just so I can have a nice new armchair in the kitchen.
CHAD: Does that mean creating it yourself, or what does that look like?
NEIL: Again, I can only speak for myself. But being a creator and having come from my past, as we mentioned at Dyson, I think my true passion is creation, so keeping my hands very familiar with materials and screwing things together. So I think what that will look like for me is actually just getting all the raw materials myself within the woodwork, the metalwork, and doing all that work myself. I haven't got much of a passion yet for upholstery, so I'll probably outsource that part. There's something really rewarding in physically making something with your hands which I've never let go of, and I think I'll always enjoy.
CHAD: That's great. I want to come back, as we wrap up, to those three pillars that you outlined, which I thought were really great. What does someone do who's really passionate about the idea that they have, but they hit roadblocks on one or more of those pillars?
NEIL: Hmm, if somebody wants to start just themselves and you have an idea, and you don't want to necessarily engage with a company or service providers yet, I think what you can really do and start with is engaging with groups and doing research yourself so around desirability and feasibility. There is a world of products and reviews out there. There are a lot of resources there. So what I would encourage if somebody has said...you know, let's use your keyboard example again.
NEIL: What are the best-selling keyboards out there? And is there a silver lining in between all of them in terms of what makes them sell so well? Is it their functionality? Is it their design? Is it the ergonomics? So I think people can really do a lot of research around what develops and constitutes a really desirable product. As well as then in terms of the feasibility, like, are the things you're putting together can you find them freely on, say, a website like Alibaba? Or can you fundamentally make a keyboard out of wood at scale? Again, there are a lot of resources online that you can do for yourself.
And then around viability in terms of, like, what would your margins have to be? Again, I think there's quite a lot you can do there with yourself with regards to what is available on the market today? What are their unique selling points? What are their suggested selling prices? And where do you think you could competitively position yourself?
Typically, how I find that works out is a matrix of ideas. And I think people really need to not be precious about the one idea they have but really be adventurous around, like, what are all the ways that I could potentially solve for this problem set? And then just market against that matrix of desirability, feasibility, and viability and see which one is enough of all of those that actually gives you your best shot at success?
I think, typically, you see a lot of creators who are very precious about an idea. And actually, maybe, again, it's entirely machined out of aluminum. Well, you know, you're really going to struggle to make that at a competitive price.
CHAD: Right. You're not necessarily Apple. [laughs]
NEIL: Exactly. You haven't got that economy of scale available to you. [laughs] So I think having a very clear goal in terms of, like, where do I think I can position this in the market? Do I think people will like it? And could I make it for that much?
CHAD: Yeah, I think that that's true across the entire spectrum of digital and physical product design and development. We work with a lot of founders who have an idea. And compromise problem-solving through the many challenges that you face is critical. And if you're not able to do that, it's very difficult to actually get a product to market in any reasonable time frame or financial sustainability.
NEIL: I completely agree.
CHAD: Well, I really appreciate you stopping by the show and sharing with us, Neil.
NEIL: Thank you so much for having me today. It's been a great conversation, and I've really enjoyed it.
CHAD: If folks want to get in touch with you, or follow along, or learn more about Gembah or anything else, where are all the different places that they can do that?
NEIL: So you can certainly find and connect with me on LinkedIn if anyone would like to follow up with me personally. And if you're really serious about getting a product to market and engaging around that process, you can just look us up at gembah.com.
CHAD: And I can also personally say if you like looking at pretty things for inspiration, Neil's Instagram is also pretty good for that. [laughter]
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