New ideas and invention are wonderful things – so long as you don’t have any illusions about cost and payoff, that is. So, with that cheeky headline, here’s Roger Linn. He writes us:

I thought you might get a kick out of this and maybe some of your DIY readers might find it useful.

Occasionally I get an email from someone who thinks he has a great idea for a music product that will make millions, and asks for advice on how to make a prototype, or wants to tell me his idea so I can make it for him and pay him a big royalty. I finally got tired of rewriting the answer and wrote up a general answer on my FAQ page.

In all seriousness, he offers some great advice; I’ve already had a couple of entrepreneurial music tech folks nod in agreement. And avoiding losing huge amounts of money is probably a good thing for artists and inventors, too. I’ve reproduced in in total here, as I suspect this may generate some comments; many musical inventors, humble and experienced, are lurking out there reading this site.

Q: I have a great idea for a music product and need to make a prototype but I’m not very technical. Can you can me any advice on how to make a prototype or any companies that I could pay to make a prototype for me? Or how can I present my idea to a music products company so they can pay me a royalty and design/manufacture it for me? How do I patent my idea?

A: Of all the ways to lose huge amounts of money, making a prototype of your idea is one of the most effective. First, there’s a very good chance that others (and possibly many others) have thought of your product idea before, and the reason it isn’t already on the market is either 1) others don’t find it as valuable as you do, or 2) the necessary engineering or material costs would make it sufficiently expensive that few would buy it.

The first thing to do is to learn the true value of your product idea in the marketplace. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to thing that everyone will value their idea as much as they do. First document your product idea, including a clear text description, drawings (or 3D renderings using the free Google Sketchup software) and a realistic customer price. To arrive at the realistic customer price, don’t use a price you’d like it to sell for, but rather what it must sell for considering the total parts cost, development cost, manufacturer profit and distributor/retailer profit. Then take an objective survey of people you know and don’t know, asking them not if they like it buy rather would they definitely buy it at the realistic price you’ve given. To insure they aren’t just telling you what you want to hear, tell them it’s someone else’s idea, not yours, and don’t appear to like or dislike it.

If you still want to make a prototype, try to find a way to make it for no more than $1000 and ideally for free. If you’re not technical and you have some friends who are, get them excited about it and ask for free help in exchange for future payment if you make any money later. Important: do everything you can to avoid designing new circuit boards, embedded software (software that runs on the small computers inside self-contained products) and metal/plastic mechanical housings. Very commonly, people start doing this thinking they’ll spend only a few thousand dollars then later find they’ve drained their relatives’ savings only to teach themselves how difficult it is.

For many music product ideas, it’s possible to–by yourself–create a functional prototype by connecting and reconfiguring a variety of existing low-cost hardware and software music/audio products. It won’t be pretty but will be functional and therefore allow you to prove your concept at low cost and therefore give a better demonstration of its usefulness. For hardware and human interface (buttons, knobs, sliders, drum pads, etc.), use existing Midi controllers such as Korg’s inexpensive Nano line. Or design your desired control panel on an iPad using cheap iPad apps like MIDIPad or TouchOSC. For foot control, use a cheap midi foot pedal board like a Behringer FCB1010. For the software, it’s often possible to prototype your product idea by configuring Ableton Live or other music software. If you like Live and want to dig deeper into functionality, use Ableton’s Max For Live add-on. To dig even deeper, learn one of the simple graphical audio/music programming environments like Max/MSP, Max For Live, PD or Reaktor, or learn to program an iPad app.

Regarding presenting your idea to a music products company so they will pay you a royalty and design/manufacturer it for you, this is a highly unlikely scenario. While companies are always interested in their customers’ free suggestions, it’s very unlikely that they will pay anybody for anything unless they absolutely have no choice. Often they will politely decline to hear your idea because 1) customers’ products ideas are rarely unique, and 2) if they were already planning the same idea, they don’t want you to later accuse them of stealing your idea. However, if they truly feel it’s worth spending their money to make your idea into a product and they feel you have the necessary skills to help them, probably the best scenario is that they may offer you a job.

Regarding how to patent your idea, you can’t patent an idea but rather only the implementation of an idea. Getting a patent is another great way to lose lots of money. Plus, having a patent doesn’t prevent anyone from stealing your idea but rather simply gives you a better case for infringement if and when you must hire an expensive lawyer to sue them. Again, don’t spend any money until you’ve objectively proven that lots of people would buy your product at its realistic customer price.

I think what’s great is that there’s a real silver lining in all of this – prototyping now can be cheaper and easier than ever, and for many musicians, while there may not be much of a business opportunity, you can very often build what you want for yourself.

  • From Pd to Max for Live, there are superb software tools for rapidly creating tools. (Add to that, I’d say, things like OpenFrameworks and Processing.)
  • Hardware prototyping is easier than ever, thanks to projects like Arduino. I hope our own MeeBlip will soon be a way for people to learn basic microcontroller programming for synthesis, too, and a platform for these sorts of ideas.

So long as you take a good, strong dose of reality, you can find opportunities.


  • Its funny, how it is the same in any industry. I come across people who have the "best idea in the world" fairly regularly.

    As he points out in the first paragraph, the fact is, it is so often that either someone else IS already doing it or it is not practical.

    I certainly understand wanting to get a prototype done for free, but all too often the pitch I get is, "I have this awesome idea, which is really easy to do. If you do it for me, I will give you a cut of my imaginary earning." However, it is far from easy and as stated above, most of the time it truly isn't practical or someone else is already doing it. Kind of a sour point really…

  • Tony

    Excellent advice. Ive had several product Ideas over the years, and after doing a very little research, I didnt go any further simply because of the above. The cost of an item is way way WAY more than just the cost of parts inside. 

  • james

    in a way, i wish i'd read this 6 years ago and saved myself and my friends lots of work…

    on the other hand, building a prototype, and learning all the skills that go with that, is pretty rewarding. there is something utterly wondrous about holding a plastic part in your hands that was a cad model 2 weeks prior..  and in my case the project at least hasn't yet failed..

  • loopstationzebra

    One of the most important aspects that Linn leaves out:

    You create something. It's revolutionary. Everyone loves it. There's been nothing like it. Everyone wants it. But somewhere along the line – after you've designed and prototyped and even made a few of them – you utterly lost site of how much the friggin thing is going to cost. Any valuable part of the planning/design/prototype phase is COST ESTIMATION. The gear world is replete with examples of this important step being completely overlooked. Best example?

    The Fairlight.

  • Radiophobic

    I thought he mentioned cost estimation a number of times. 

  • Peter Kirn

    He did – I think others are underlining this.

    I don't mean to post this to discourage people. On the contrary, I think if you really believe in something, you *need to hear this* so that you don't crash and burn later on. 

    I think there's even a similar calculus to time investment with prototyping new ideas. Really, if you can be brutally honest with yourself, then you're able to prioritize what really does matter to you about doing something.

  • This is so true – amazing how regularly in my previous role(s) people would insist that the company should build X without any consideration of the business factors, costs, or effort involved.

    Nonetheless, innovation and experimentation still occurs and should be encouraged in order to progress culture and technology. It's just that people need to be aware of what they are getting into before re-mortgaging their homes. Hopefully that can be avoided thanks to great folks like Roger giving this advice, and communities like this offering support and loving but realistic critiques.

  • Heh. Snap, Peter!

  • "it’s very unlikely that they will pay anybody for anything unless they absolutely have no choice."

    priceless advice there.

  • loopstationzebra

    Shit. You're right. He did mention estimated cost. I power read through that bit. 🙁

  • Luc

    Very well written advice. I will make sure to refer people to it.

    I have been a hardware and software consultant for over 25 years, and I can't remember how many times over the years I have had people approach me with "great ideas" that they did not even superficially research before trying to find an "expert" to build it. Most of the time with a budget that would not even cover the cost of the first week of a probably multi-month effort.

    I have encouraged creativity and exciting "new ideas" throughout my career, even running a challenge for that over the past few years, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I came across genuinely exciting and potentially lucrative "new ideas". Even then it was a long and painful task to give birth to a salable product.

    It is the thing that I like to do the most, and I love to encourage people doing it as best as I can. Life is not worth living without creativity and learning new things daily. The most important advice I can give, is do your homework first and try to see behind the "idea" and plan your project and try to find if it is doable at a price that people are willing to buy it at. After that it is time to try to hire "experts".

  • I think the difficulties cited by Roger are true of any space and not specific to music technology products only.  I don't think the advice is very constructive and in fact, I wouldn't consider it advice at all.  When someone is looking to innovate and obviously is willing to put a certain amount of money on the table to do it, you don't answer them with "well it's hard, and in general you shouldn't do it".   Now a days it can cost as low as $10K to develop a music hardware (or generic consumer electronics) product.  While we do all of our development in house and only utilize external suppliers for plastic parts and PCB assembly/fabrication I have many friends in the space who have simply created a Maya model of their product along with a description, sent it to a factory in China and after $10K had 200 functional market units ready for sale.  
    We took a bit of the hard road to develop our products, but it also has to do with the fact that we have immense hardware development experience and are also interested in the subject.  I think that is the best advice that can be given to someone looking to do something new, if you have a passion for it everything else will fall into place.  The money aspect is a reality, but if you're not willing to plop down $10-50K on developing a product then why would anyone else be willing to pay money for it (I don't see why it would cost any more than that unless you're getting scammed by suppliers).  
    Development tools are near free today.  While platforms like the arduino are nice, there are even better platforms such as the stellaris LM3S3748.  You can buy the evaluation boards for $120 or so and the software support is amazing.  The arduino doesn't support USB inherently as it uses the FTDI chip to handle USB.  That's a total waste of money, today most MCUs have USB built in.  The LM3S3748 has all of that, costs under $10/chip at low volume and to develop your own PCB design around it is extremely easy (they give you the schematics practically) and if you go to china for PCB fab and assembly you can get these boards made for $20/board after a fixed cost of $250 (~$350 total for minimum 5 board order).
    It's definitely been a hard road to learn all of the different ways to make hardware happen but the costs are very low and should instigate development and innovation!  There are some amazing examples of great innovation in the field when people just said "screw it, lets try to make this happen".  The OP-1 is an amazing example of this.  This product was developed by some amazingly talented guys looking to make something beautiful, functional, and innovative.  I think they've succeeded as they seem to be perpetually sold out.
    I think the key to the future of music hardware is something that has been historically lacking in the music hardware community, software.  While most of these companies have built themselves up as making hardware and as such the software is an after thought, I think today more and more people are understanding how important web-device connectivity is.  I know this is something that we've been focusing on pretty heavily and I believe over time we'll see this occur in everything from music hardware to people's vehicles and appliances.  
    And on the subject of patents, write it yourself at first.  Everyone has this big stigma around patents like they're some black magic or something.  There are many books about writing patents and the reality is that they're not expensive if you file them yourself, less than $1K.  You may not get it granted immediately and you'll be going back and forth with office actions for a while.  Hopefully in due time you'll have developed your product and sold something so that either you have more cash in the bank or you can raise some funding.  You still hold on to the date at which you filed your original patent, or file a provisional patent and convert it later since you have a year.  There are very cheap ways to get patents written professionally as well once you have too many patents to deal with yourself on top of developing your product and whatever else you're doing.  But in the meantime, hit the books, write it yourself and over the range of time where you're working with the USPTO to getting the patent filed you could hire that firm to take care of that for you.  Meanwhile, you can still legally say your technology is patent pending which is really what patents are good for anyways.  Once your patent is granted then all your competitors will know how you're doing what you're doing and will find a way around it.   Also, if a big enough company wants to they'll trample all over your patent anyways once it's filed.  The only thing patents are really good for is to prove to investors, customers, and competitors that you have some kind of IP.  So file a patent yourself, if nothing else to find out how easy it can really be.
    I apologize for this long and unnecessary comment, but I'd hate for someone looking to build the next monome to read Roger's advice and to not pursue it.  Even if it's held together by duct tape and barely works, build it and show it to someone.  It just might be the next big thing that changes how people interface with music, no one can tell you otherwise.  On the other hand, don't take the eigenharp or synthaxe approach and build something so sophisticated that both people don't know what to do with it or can't afford it.  I think that's important too, no one is going to buy a $10K pandoras box.

  • formal

    This article just makes me think of the Beat Thang…..

    Did they create and hype a product?… Yes.

    Can we actually buy the product yet? .. No

    Somewhere along the development they ran into snags and something is holding it up. My guess is cost to produce, cost to distribute and having a market that will pay the price needed to make a profit.

  • That's some great advice, Idan.

    Do you have any recommendations regarding patent books, or just further tips on where to get started? It's a very murky area and the last time I looked into it personally (I'm in the UK but any information is useful) I kinda just got my time and money wasted by various supposed "expert advisors."

  • I'd totally forgotten about the Beat Thang, formal!

    Their web-site says "coming this winter, pre-order now" – I bet they're glad they didn't specify a concrete year but anyone who has pre-ordered may not be so happy.

    I hope this vapour-hardware problem does not become a trend. There are a lot of electronic musicians still unhappy over how Chimera Synthesis improperly took money and postponed delivery for years.

  • @Anthony

    For sure, it's not an exact science by the way in my experience.  After I went to proper firms to do my patent work I found that my own work was actually superior to theirs. I did some digging and found out that when you go to a big law firm like Wilson Sonsini or Orrick for IP it's not the patent lawyers there writing the patent.  They outsource it and effectively go back and forth with these patent engineering boutiques and review their work until it's passable.  

    As for a good book, this one was pretty friendly to me although you should read a variety of sources from Google etc until you sort of understand the process and system.  To be fair, the best way to learn is to dive in I found.  Here's a book I used, but most of the best resources I found were actual patents in your space.  You can look those up using the google patent search.

  • formal

    Also on a side note, look at The Open Pandora team. They've had nothing but issues getting their device manufactured, but they still have a loyal following that will wait until the product is as good as it can be. It was designed by a group of hobbyists that make the product for the love of the machine. I do think if they knew before hand what they were getting into they would have seriously considered not doing the project, but on the upside they will know how to improve Version2 with a quicker manufacturing time.

  • formal

    Sorry guys…. one more.

    Lastly, another product that comes to mind is the newly announced KDJ-ONE. At a $700 price point they've already shot themselves in the foot. It's another case where everything looks good on paper, but when the actual device is created it's twice the price they anticipated. I will be surprised if it actually makes it into production after their NAMM prototype showing.

  • Christopher Penrose

    Many of these cost concerns simply vaporize when considering software-only projects created by individuals or partners.  Software also has far greater pricing flexibility.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Christopher: That's a good point, and one way to read this in three words – prototype in software. I know that's a big part of how Roger works.

  • Christopher Penrose

    "“it’s very unlikely that they will pay anybody for anything unless they absolutely have no choice.”  This is a good mindset to have if you don't want investors.  Venture capitalists do not precisely think this way.  VCs are constantly searching for ways to invest their money — but the catch is that they are usually ruthless about measuring the profitability of an idea, and they often prefer to approach the target of investment from their own research and connections rather than to be cold called by startups and inventors.

  • @Chris

    I totally agree with the software comment, especially now a days where there are so many platforms like iOS, Android and so on.  I think a lot of hardware products try to put out something that competes with those and fail miserably since there's no way someone is going to make a new iPad with better margins and quality than Apple first run out of the factory and without immense start up capital.

    Also, in regards to VCs… most of them are very music averse.  Hardware averse as well, you're best off going the Angel route unless you can disguise your product as a social gaming or cloud based product.

  • loopstationzebra

    @ formal. Interesting points.

    We should really get the Teenage Engineering folks to give their thoughts. They've invented something that almost no one has seen first hand, TE is a very obscure entity, demo videos have been….er…sparse to say the least, build quality is an unknown, the thing has been in the works for over a year at probably serious R&D/prototype fees, and the cost is friggin $800.

    They've sold out of the 1st 500 in a timeframe that makes the monome people blush with envy. lol.

    The part that Linn doesn't really address (i went back and checked just to make sure, lol) is that regardless of how you develop a product, if you generate enough hype and teaser shots and dutch angle photos – AND you make it look like it came right out of Apple's design studio – it will set the world on fire.

    Jesus, for the first 6 months after announcing the thing they would take a DUMMY prototype to trade shows and it would get the digital music press wetting their pants. It didn't even make any sound, ffs. It just LOOKED good, lol.

    Cost of dummy plastic prototype: $3000

    Value of free marketing due to unbridled salivating enthusiasm: $priceless

  • loopstationzebra

    Teenage Engineering probably got investors THROWING money at them based on stories at createdigitalmusic alone, lol.

    Where's the part of Linn's story that addresses that?

    HYPE?! lol.

  • Peter Kirn


    TE spent a lot more than $3000 on prototypes — most likely a mind-bogglingly larger amount than that. Also, you're incorrect about the "dummy" OP-1 prototype; I've been in touch with TE and in their studio twice. I'll have a studio tour with them soon I shot back in the fall, when the timing is right. 

    In short, TE have experienced the same kinds of obstacles Roger describes here. I'll see if they want to go into specifics or not. But they all came from previous businesses and put up their own resources, and they've continued to make contract work a big part of their actual "day jobs." (I don't think I'm revealing anything that isn't common knowledge in Stockholm!) 

    Brian and Kelli did loads of contract work, too, when developing the monome.

    VC for hardware? Good luck. In fact, capitalizing any new business is a big challenge; my bet would be the vast majority of small businesses are still bootstrapped, requiring significant sacrifice.

    Going into the music tech business – going into *any* business – has to on some level be a labor of love, one that exacts significant costs.

    I also take issue with the idea that I had "unbridled salivating enthusiasm" for TE; I spent a lot of time talking to them about what they were doing and trying to understand it. But I know already others see that differently.

  • Peter Kirn

    Actually, I don't know why I'm arguing here. This seems to be official "troll CDM week," so … you're entitled to your opinion.

    I know of no outside investment in TE. In fact, I know of no outside capital investment in any project because of CDM. I would love it if that were the case. 😉

  • The essence of Roger's advice applies to software products too. While the costs of software and app development may seem quite small, there are often lots of hidden costs, and the estimations of profits and saleability are often just as exaggerated as with hardware projects.

    When thinking about invention I often come back to Tim O'Reilly's credo: "Create more value than you capture."

    Consider not building a cyclone barbed-wire fence around your inventions. There's more value to be gained by making parts, tools, things people might actually use. Even if that means making and setting them free.

    So I encourage people to consider channeling invention energy into open source and crowd-sourced projects. You can still keep proprietary interests, but at the end of the day you are more likely to end up with something people will actually use or build-on. There's a lot of net value created in that.

    When you are just building a proprietary top-secret prototype, 95% of the time you just end up with a box (or hard drive) full of worthless junk that ends up in the closet that no one will ever use (not even yourself). 

  • Peter Kirn

    Sorry, don't want to turn this into a flame war – let me put it another way.

    I think loopstationzebra's comments are somewhat understandable. Look, maybe CDM and other blogs are guilty of over-hyping the OP-1 — I think it's safe to say it's something that excites me personally, and I'm biased toward it because it contains things that I like. But that's beside the point.

    The notion that they spent a couple of grand and build a non-sounding prototype is to me typical of the kind of misconceptions about how the whole process works, as is the idea that you rake in cash or investment money that way. If you ever consider getting into the game yourself, or understanding why products are the way they are, you have to unburden yourself from those kinds of expectations.

    I'm certainly learning about this process myself as I go, and there's always more to learn — usually the hard way. 

    And to what Richard's saying, we're talking investment not only in materials and treasure but in time — immeasurably huge blocks of time.

  • loopstationzebra

    No, I meant around $3000 for that first form prototype. I realize that cost was much more than that after time went on.

    You are wrong about the prototype video. This was one of the first vids shown.

    At the :21 mark or so he says "Obviously no sound here…visual demo more than anything". LOL. For the next couple or 3 tradeshows it was the exact same thing…no sound. All those vids are on Vimeo/YouTube BTW. The first vid I saw, filmed before this one, was with NO activity on the screen at all. But shortly thereafter you started seeing stories about the OP-1. With headings like "Incredible new pocket synth". Should have been "High quality plastic prototype mold injection is proving to really work well these days!" lol.

    Anywho…the point is the HYPE factor cannot be understated enough. There are STILL no serious demo vids for this thing. Just snippets here and there….hype hype hype hype hyp hy h h h h

  • loopstationzebra

    I'm not knocking TE, btw. Far from it. They kicked ass and took names and WORKED the friggin system to a level that only Steve Jobs has been at up until now, lol.

  • I think that the core of Roger's post is that ideas are cheap, the implementation is everything. It doesn't matter how cool an idea it is, if it's impractical to make. For example, here's my bazillion dollar idea: Flying Cars. Everyone wants one, there is a lot of existing flying technology, you  _just_ have to apply flying technology to cars. If someone uses the word "just" when describing any aspect of the development process, chances are they don't understand what it entails.

    A lot of the replies are roughly along the lines of "It's not that expensive if you do all the design/development yourself,"  but that's not what Roger's post was addressing. If you have the skills to do this kind of development, great, take your best shot, but if not, don't expect an idea to be worth much on its own.

  • I you haven't read… you should do to.

    Also, please not the post date of that article.

  • I'm so glad I read this. Linn was on my shitlist of people to send my amazing (but still not entirely well thought out) idea.

    Some great advice in the comments as well, thanks guys.

    Despite the fact that most musicians / producers normally need and use 'technology' in their work, music and electronic engineering are two very different skills. I know there are people out there, but those who can both make and perform on their own instruments, AND develop something totally new from the ground up and have the marketing skills to sell it to enough people are4 a rare breed in my opinion. Maybe I don't get out enough.

    Its taken me 20 years to amass the skills that I have in music production. At the age of 33 and with only a grade C in maths GCSE, the idea of moving into programming / electronics design is daunting to say the least.

    I would really like to find somewhere that I could meet people with skills complementary to my own, who would be willing, like myself, to commit TIME and EFFORT into realizing a NEW MUSICAL DEVICE. Money really is no object at the developmental stage as long as you have a bit of pocket money lying around and the desire to achieve something, anything is possible with the cost of stuff nowadays.

    Maybe this already exists but kind of like a, although not to raise cash, rather to build teams of collaborators.

    Anyway that's just another of my silly ideas that's probably been done and failed, or didn't generate enough interest.

    Beat kang: man that looked like it was made in the 90's, horrible thing.

  • Fascinating article and comments. I started as a guy with an idea, and spent years learning how to turn that idea into something tangible. 

    Now people come to me like they come to Roger, but with MIDI control ideas. I have to deflect in much the way he does. (In fact, I think I'll link to his FAQ as he states this much better than I do.)

    My solution to this problem was to ditch the "product-i-zation" entirely and focus on one-offs. We'll see if this is a tenable business model or not!

  • newmiracle

    I know it could be called a "rival" blog, but this is an area where DJ Tech Tools interests me. He's been hyping the MIDI Fighter for some time now, which is cool. Seems like a nice piece of hardware.
    But when he announced Novation would be making the "Dicers" that he made (which I think were a really clever idea), I was curious. I posted, to no avail, to see how that whole process went. How the hell did he get Novation's ear? What? He just went up to them with a CAD file and a dream? Maybe they saw his MIDI Fighter mojo and thought they could use the blog cred. Of course, there's no way to tell.

  • Yeah, that's good.
    I think the best line is "One of the biggest mistakes people make is to thing that everyone will value their idea as much as they do." I will continue to repeat that mantra to myself.
    We actually created a line of products to address this very need: to let people play around with their ideas. The nice thing is that instead of directing people to a FAQ, we can have a bit of business from these inquiries!

  • Peter Kirn

    Oh, no rivalry between me and DJTT, really. They're a DJ-focused site; CDM is more general. Ean's a pro DJ; I'm anything but. And I do admire what they did with Novation – of course, Novation also benefits from some experience. Roger here is speaking more to people who are taking up cost themselves, not that the big players don't have to face some of the same challenges (albeit in a different context and on a different scale).

  • Peter Kirn

    And yes, as Peter says, there are extensive options for prototyping music hardware, including Livid's own very sophisticated Brain platform.

    By building on such a platform – just as with Roger's suggestion of using something like Max for Live – you sidestep a lot of potential pitfalls and cut costs. Much of this advice remains true, but you take some of the burden off of yourself.

  • Peter Kirn

    @loopstationzebra: I hear what you're saying. But you're still wrong on the prototype video. (That's the video shot *for us*, by the way. Sheesh.) That particular model wasn't making sound. I talked to the engineers at that NAMM, hung out with them and their prototype and sonic videos at that show, and I've been to Stockholm (by utter coincidence – really NOT what I expected to do) twice and visited their studio each time. What I was describing were modules I knew worked. Some of them were visually prototyped before sound was added in. But honestly, UX these days is half the battle – everyone knows how to do the basic DSP stuff; it's really the design of the thing where you can now differentiate yourself.

    Don't get me wrong – I don't disagree on hype getting out ahead of the product; it's part of the reason I'm sitting on additional coverage until they're closer to ramping up availability and units are actually shipping. I'd say I largely agree with you. But what I wrote was based on some genuine research, and I think the facts should be set straight. Too much was made (not just by you) pulling an off-hand context out of context from that video.

  • Modest engineering :
    1. Reaktor and pd, yes. But there's also little to no cost in breadboarding, using dev boards and parts samples from chips manufacturers.2. Cross-compile and/or simulate. There's no reason why developing embedded software should be more complex/expensive than a VST.3. Don't be afraid to "spill the beans", release something imperfect early. Collect feedback, learn and decide to dig deeper. eg: Shruti-1 vs Shruthi-1, Microbe vs Bhajis Loops.4. Break down risk/research into increments of 2 weeks and $1000. Set up an exchange rate between investigation cost and knowledge ("how much am I willing to pay to learn the hard way how to have non-functional boards assembled in China?")
    5. Know your Pareto. If you want your project to launch in 1 year, you should have got 80% of it absolutely right in 3 months.
    6. Be modest and know yourself. Don't expect you'll be able to hype your product farther than your knowledges and skills go.

  • loopstationzebra

    @Peter, cool. I guess my concern comes with the music press getting overly 'pee in my pants' excited about the OP-1, without ever really exercising objectivity. The music press desperately WANTED these guys to succeed. I get that, I do. The thing always looked cool. But nearly a year after the initial reports, no serious demo of the thing had really been provided. It became something of a running joke in many a forum. You have to admit, the amount of glowing coverage for a device that hadn't even been properly tested or reviewed was almost unprecedented.
    I still have not read one concrete review of the thing, nor have I seen even a slightly skeptical position.

    Linn writes a great paper, there. But he's leaving out the HYPE and BUZZ factor: both of which will work in your favour as long as you've got a HIGH GEEK QUOTIENT in your idea. For instance, I could do a series of renderings right now for a new sampler/drum machine that was the size and shape of a monome64, painted Apple white, and said (in bold font) ANALOG FILTERS next to a few knobs and I'd have 100 emails from the music press by morning just begging me to do a story. Tell me I'm wrong, lol.

  • Dumeril Seven

    As a guy who's been involved in several technology start-ups, I would add a couple points.

    Its kind of paraphrasing Linn's answer, but its worth doing: The idea or concept is almost never the problem. Validating the market, defining the product in detail, designing it, building it, putting it into production, marketing it, and selling it — all at a cost that makes it profitable — those are the tough nuts to crack. That's why lots of people have ideas and very few make them a reality.

    Software reduces some of the upfront challenges. A software-only product can usually be more easily and cheaply prototyped, changed, and evolved than a hardware product. There's little or no manufacturing (especially with online distribution) and cost of goods sold is very low. That said, software has its own set of challenges, its a lot less capital intensive which makes it more attractive for bootstrap start-ups.

  • This all sounds like common sense to me. I think the most difficult part is the business plan. Business plans need to be full proof before you can even begin to work on a prototype. Most start-ups fail because their business plans are a failure or half-assed. Their ideas may be great and get people excited but the business plan shows incompetence.

  • “it’s very unlikely that they will pay anybody for anything unless they absolutely have no choice.”

    thankfully, i live via a daily disproof of this claim. thank you ardour subscribers and supporters who give a lie to the notion that people won't pay for things unless they have absolutely no choice.

    other than that, a very nice article by a pretty smart person.

  • having rescanned roger's writing for the context of the quote i cited above, i must retract the first two paragraphs of my comment. he wasn't talking about customers, but potential partner companies. my mistake.

  • The critical thing is to make sure you don't get caught in a lengthy development cycle.

    Linn's first company was brought to its knees because he spent a lot of time and money developing the Linn 9000 — a $5000+ drum machine — rather than addressing the developing mass market that Alesis exploited with their HR-16 drum machine based on a cheap-as-dirt Intel 8031 microcontroller. Incidentally, the HR-16 was a third-party design by Marcus Ryle, who went on to found Line 6. It kinda demonstrates that there *are* opportunities for independent designers to work with established firms, if they really know their stuff.

    The alternative to short cycle development is to bet the farm on something like the OP-1 — develop for years and hope that there's a broad enough market to keep your company in business while you try to score the next home run.

  • Greg

    I proposed a wireless midi controller for under £100 (about $160) as my final university project. It seemed brilliant: I already had experience with Arduino and purchased Max4Live and had a soldering iron. Almost a year later the prototype barely works and had spent multiples of that £100. Yet, it has been lots of fun and learned a lot about prototyping. Still, whatever you plan to build will cost more than you anticipate it. Thanks for the article!

  • If any of you are interested, here's some figures that you should think about:

    Selling Price £500 (inc VAT)
    Dealer Cost c.£320
    Distributor Cost c.£200-250

    So – if you have a product that will sell in stores for £500, you'll actually have to sell it into distribution for £200 or so, or if you sell direct to retailers, you'd be looking at £300-£320, and of course this has to cover all of your costs and profit.

    To work out your margin, use this (sale-cost)/sale – you should aim for between 0.15 and 0.30 (15% to 30%).

    The figures above are approximate, but give you an idea of what the market expects (i.e a dealer isn't going to hold your product in stock if they can't make enough to pay for the store/staff etc etc).

    And if you want a realistic impression of what you can expect to sell, speak to the buying department of the music stores in your area – you may get lucky and get some real insight into how many of your product they could sell at various prices, and they may give you an idea on what features are worth having.

    Some of these calculations would form the basis of your business plan, and would help to make it a little more accurate..

    Hope that helps

    Stephen Parker

  • Great article and discussion! I've been working on independantly bringing an electronic project to market and, on top of development time, spent hours on spreadsheets and reading about effective costing. I can certainly echo that the retail cost of something encompasses so much more than the components that make the device.

    That said, I would still encourage people w/ ideas to develop prototypes of things they're passionate about (after verifying there isn't actually something like it out there already) . . . just don't expect the development cost to be anything near the cost of the components for one unit — many things will not go as planned, requiring additional resources (more components, more programming time, etc). The prototyping stage can also be used to gauge interest in the product and talk to people about what they'd pay for it.

  • jh

    I have some ideas. They are original. Nobody else has done them. Whether they'll appeal to anybody else I'm not sure. I think they will. I'm 7 months into prototyping and contrary to Roger's otherwise useful advice I do DIY my own PCBs and I am developing software for an embedded platform. I'm fortunate that I can do this around my day work so labour costs are effectively free and financial investment has amounted to little more than basic tools (drill station, etching machine) and parts and consumables (components, boards, etchant Etc)

    However, prototyping is one thing. Bringing a product to market is another completely and I'm pretty clueless. Any good links would be appreciated. I have two main queries. First is what I need to make something for to sell at a given price. If something retails for £100 what should it cost me to make? The second is market size. If you are likely to buy a MeeBlip you'd probably quite like to buy some of the things emerging from my workshop. So Peter, my question to you is, how many MeeBlips have you sold, how many do you expect to sell and what is your mark-up? I appreciate this is information you might not want to divulge.

  • My company builds prototype and production, Growing list of audio clients. We see prototypes from clients, and advise them to go back and make changes to save them money. My competitors are quick to give a price 'as-is', so my message to people out there with an idea, make your manufacturer part of the design process upfront.
    Jason // Chicago

  • The KvR development forum's top sticky is along the same lines:&nbsp ;

    Many developers–famous or not–get solicited by ignorant idea-men with unreasonable requests for free work or partnerships.  These folks will always exist because they will invariably fail to read the FAQs and stickies.  I applaud Mr. Linn for encouraging these folks to develop the idea on their own.  Some direct communication, however, is a simple and honorable act of goodwill.  Always encourage one to hack on, despite their present naivete.

  • jh

    @Jason – Interesting – link noted – but I'm based in the UK. Is it cost-effective to use services such as yours if based abroad?

  • @jh Dollar is weak against UK pound, so yes. Your other alternative is to find an East Europe partner. I have customers in Amsterdam, and I actually ship assemblies to China as well. Let's continue off of this forum. jd at aimtroncorporation dot com , thanks

  • Hi all,
    Thanks for all the helpful and well-considered responses. After reading them, I realized I had forgotten something, which I've now appended onto the original FAQ on my site:

    Having written the above, it is also true that there are few things more personally gratifying than the exhilaration of creating and using a product that came from your own idea. The good news is that, armed with a willingness to learn some of the inexpensive tools I've described above as well as a little self-honesty, you stand a better chance than ever before of turning your idea into a functioning prototype. If people like it, maybe make a few more, place an ad and sell them yourself while you figure out how to make it cheaper and prettier. Regardless of whether it makes you money or not, you will have taken a fascinating journey, learned valuable new skills, influenced the art of music-making and made a personal contribution to the world of ideas. 

  • Miros2424

    I have a great idea for a music instrument. Is there any place where I can ask for partnerhip and/or investor? Offer and demand don't favor the inventors.

  • I made one of these for less than $100, heh:

    (it would be cheaper/faster now, too). Also, I love the smell of epoxy, for some reason.

  • Ooops I meant $1000.

  • Peter… cheers.  Little late in the game here but I just wanted to say how much I too have come to advocate prototyping hardware in software.   I spent a good year and a half and a few thousand bucks to get to the CrudBox prototypes I shared at HMN over a year ago.  PCB design and printing, laser cutting, fabricating, it was a huge ordeal and took said obscene amount of time and money to create something I had envisioned years before.  And an inordinate amount of that time and money was spent on fabrication and electrical engineering problems I could have held off on until a much later stage in the game. Now I do all my early UI prototyping with Flash, Processing, and Arduino have been able to take new ideas from thought bubbles to reality in only a few hours or days.  Best decision I ever made for Anyway, thanks for posting… cheers.