Ah yes, the inevitable mistake, I was waiting for you to happen.
Business is an endless array of problems. How you choose to solve them and stop them happening again makes the difference between a good business and a failed business. This mistake cost me around 50 hours of manual work, around $2000 and almost cost me our ability to sell anything via our listing on Amazon, but it came with a lesson that’s much more valuable. It’s quite embarrassing for me to admit, but it came down to not thoroughly testing our first product’s quality and durability, before committing to ordering 250 units of the product.
My wife Selena and I have been selling on Amazon for a few years, one of the products we sell is a zinc alloy cast safety razor. Safety razors have been around and offer tonnes of benefits over more modern plastic razors, which is why we decided to sell them in the first place. They’re cheaper to use (around £8 for 100 razor blades) they’re smoother to shave with, feel more premium in the hand, look nicer, better for sensitive skin, reduce the chance of ingrown hairs etc. etc. The point is, we were and still are confident in the product proposition for all the right reasons. The mistake was deciding to broaden our appeal by offering multiple colourways without thoroughly testing the differences in paint quality. Based on what was currently on offer, no-one was selling a pure white version of the razor handle. We spoke to our supplier and asked them if this was possible. Of course, everything’s possible, but you need to have your own set of quality checks to put the product through before you can be confident it’s actually possible.
Once we’d packaged the white razors and sent them to Amazon, the first cracks started appearing. We’d sold a small number of units through the platform, and started getting feedback from customers. People mentioning small chips in the paint before they’d used it. Alarm bells started ringing. I unboxed two new razors, bashed them together and saw it plain as day, they were covered in a superficial layer of crumbly, cracky, paint.
The next day our first 1-star review came through, then the next day another. For a young amazon listing, this is a death sentence. Backed into a corner, and having researched into industrial units of tip-ex and deciding it was too expensive (joking), I had no other option but to pull the entire batch.
The world is saturated with physical products, in order to stand apart, my ambition is to make and sell products that speak for themselves in terms of build quality and reliability, so this was not a great start. Replacing 200 units with the more reliable black colourway, and losing quite a chunk of cash, was a nice little sting. When you’re just starting out, the temptation to rush to market with a product offering is sometimes just too much, and I’ve paid the price for that. This is why I disagree with the ‘Lean Startup’ sentiment that “if you’re not embarrassed by your first product, you’ve launched too late.” This might work in software, but in hardware and physical product, that shit gets expensive, fast.
The Box of Screws Test
So before I replaced the units, I wanted to make sure that the black colourway was actually up to the job of being long-lasting, reliable and in line with our ambitions. The question for many mechanical engineers and design engineers out there is how do you accurately recreate years of use in a few minutes? IKEA had a great showcase for this with their mechanical chair testing machine, mine was a smidge more primitive than this.
The moral of the story is not to test so thoroughly it takes you two years to launch your first product. It’s that when you evaluate a product you have to remain as objective as possible. This is difficult because you’ll no doubt be very familiar with the product beforehand, but you have to act like you know nothing about the product. Ignoring any marketing, instructions or guides, you have to honestly ask, does the product speak for itself in its build quality and reliability?
As a business owner, you have an obligation to act with integrity. This means owning your mistakes and making sure they don’t happen again. The good news is that our amazon listing & reviews are looking good. This was just a reminder that the real world is fair in many ways, a bad product got what it deserved. For all future Parallel products, we’ll be testing them much more thoroughly before sending them out.
I now have 200 chipped white razors that I need to remedy, maybe I’ll make them it into a big wall-mounted banner? Maybe I could spell out a word to remind me of this feeling…