This article provides insights on the factors to consider when selecting the right contractor for your project. Read on to discover how to successfully start product development.

The article you are about to read might sound as an anti-ad, but we consider the best new product development projects to be the result of a congruous cooperation between a customer and contractor. This implies that the contractor must deliver not just timely top-notch outcomes, but also focus on synchronizing work methods and business processes with the customer's expectations, while fostering effective communication throughout the project.

1. Expertise in your industry

This one is pretty obvious and holds a high level of importance. We recommend you always start by searching for a contractor with the proper expertise. It is clear that the contractor's portfolio will define them.

To get a clear picture of a potential contractor's experience, it's important to keep the following factors in mind:

  • freelancers tend to have a scanty portfolio;
  • typically, new product development requires the signing of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA);
  • having extensive industry experience and a narrow specialization can occasionally result in tunnel vision and reliance on conventional approaches, which may not always be advantageous for your project;
  • a tremendously broad experience will not always result in an effective product development strategy and might be a bad sign if you need to solve a specific task that practically does not overlap with other engineering fields.

To save the project budget, it will be reasonable to turn to a freelancer for product development services. Hiring a self-employed engineer tends to be a more cost-effective option for engineering support compared to engaging a company with additional overhead expenses. Regrettably, freelancers often face difficulties in building an impressive portfolio. And the fact that there are 24 hours in a day is to blame for this. If there are numerous projects, chances are they were brief and focused on a very specific area of responsibility. If a freelancer has tackled large and intricate projects, their portfolio will feature only a handful of them. You're in luck if you find a single specialist with extensive knowledge of projects like yours. At a reasonable cost, they will definitely give you invaluable knowledge. A freelancer's employment with a renowned company in this field will also be a positive sign. This indicates that they follow best practices and communicate with experts, which can benefit your project. From what we've seen, it gets trickier when we go for freelancers who have done a lot of projects. A new hardware product development process is a lengthy, complex and painstaking one. The product launch cycle can last several years. So, if a young guy has a bunch of projects in their portfolio, we suggest throwing some clarifying questions about their actual involvement in those projects during the interview.

Typically, product development firms are more expensive than independent contractors. At least, with the same quality of services, this should be the case. Experienced engineering firms could impress you with their portfolios and articles that tell you about the introduction of innovations. While all of this knowledge could help you choose a trustworthy contractor, easing the process of establishing expectations. Unfortunately, most of the innovative, groundbreaking projects are protected by the NDA. Therefore, we, along with our industry colleagues, can only provide general information about our experience and partners. Sharing technical details could potentially harm our product and conflict with our promotion and competitive strategy. Just like in the case of freelancers, direct communication is indispensable in this regard.

Finding a suitable freelancer may require some effort, as you would need to search for an engineer with the specific experience you seek. Networking and platforms such as Upwork or Freelancer can be helpful in this regard. Additionally, you can discover top industry specialists by utilizing tags on LinkedIn. Even if you don't receive any feedback from them, you can request recommendations for professionals within your network.

As we mentioned earlier, when selecting an engineering firm, it is advisable to start by reviewing their portfolio. You can take a look at ours. If you don't see any projects similar to yours in the product development firm's portfolio, but you're curious about their approach to development, it's a good idea to reach out to them and set up a meeting with one of their representatives.

2. The Overall Vision of the Product Development Process

When starting a new project, you first envision the end result and then determine the path to achieve it. It may seem obvious, but in practice, these phrases, "envisioning the end result" and "determining the path," can turn into hundreds of pages of technical specifications and Gantt charts. Crafting a high-quality technical specification for a complex system can take weeks of work.

The product development process for someone not involved in hardware product development may look like this:

  1. Idea
  2. Development
  3. Prototyping
  4. Testing and refinement
  5. Manufacturing
  6. Sales

However, if we take the stages of Development and Prototyping in EnCata, they will work as follows:

Technology Readiness Levels at EnCata

We understand that these processes, iterations, and interdependencies can overwhelm potential clients. No need to worry about that; we can break it all down for you, but you're not obliged to see things exactly the way we do. Moreover, we truly believe that every seasoned hardware development company has their own take on the new product development process, influenced by their past projects and experiences.

Therefore, when communicating with a service provider, discuss with them how they perceive the development process. Find common ground on the sequence of stages, ensure mutual understanding of the terminology used by the contractor. Most importantly, determine if they are genuinely interested in understanding your vision of the process.

The Triple Constraints of Project Management

3. Project Budget

When launching new product development or seeking technical expertise that will help you solve the existing issues, it's crucial to assess the budget you're willing to allocate for this project before getting off your search. Engineering development services can vary significantly, and cost doesn't always reflect quality or timelines. Every client wants to make the most of their funds, while freelancers and companies aim to earn from their services.

It's important to understand the value you place on the engineering services you wish to hire and allocate an appropriate project budget accordingly. The budget will impact the development approach and the effort invested in ancillary tasks. For example, creating drawings or documenting test cases for device testing is not mandatory to move the project forward, and these tasks can be done partially to stay within budgetary limits.

To assess the project budget, you can consult potential service providers. Here, you'll encounter a difference between freelancers and engineering companies. Freelancers may rely on their intuition and possibly draw from experience with similar projects when estimating the project. Engineering firms typically have structured project assessment processes and continuously consolidate their experience. Project managers, business analysts, sales engineers, and highly experienced engineers go through the process of work breakdown, refining result requirements, outlining usage scenarios, describing risks, and defining response strategies. It's an extensive undertaking. In our company, it usually involves 20-40 hours of research, client communication, and documentation work. Naturally, this applies to larger projects with substantial budgets.

Regarding knowledge consolidation, for instance, we measure all the effort expended in man-hours for each project task. We can then divide the time spent on industrial design, firmware development, or preparing technical specifications if the client comes with a loosely formed idea. All this information is stored in our internal knowledge library, enabling us to quickly find information about similar projects and provide clients with a rough estimate of the development budget.

Categories of Contractors and their Corresponding Modes of Interaction

4. Communication Style of the Contractor

Communication between the customer and contractor is an important factor of a product development strategy. Freelancers are more flexible in their communication approach. Less experienced individuals may not have a well-established work-life balance, so they will always be available. This is convenient when you need quick troubleshooting or want to discuss ideas.

However, dealing with larger companies can be more complex. There, you will encounter a hierarchy of delivery managers, team leads, project managers, and testing managers. To ensure effective communication at each level, you either need to have a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of your project or have a specialist on your team who can liaise with the service provider's representative.

As we are a relatively small team of 50+ members at the time of publishing this article, working in the same office, our hierarchy consists of only a few managers. Typically, a project is led by one project manager and one lead developer/architect dedicated to the project. These individuals are in constant communication, and their role is not only to deliver the project with quality and on time but also to engage with the client, coordinate key decisions, discuss and manage requirements. In our experience, successful projects rarely happen if the technical specifications remain unchanged throughout the process. This is why communication must be substantive and constructive. Complex situations should be discussed rather than suppressed. This brings us to the next point.

The Level of Engagement in Projects at EnCata

5. Your Readiness to Dive into the Project

When choosing a contractor, you need to understand your level of involvement in the project. How prepared are you to immerse yourself in the technical details? How much time are you willing to dedicate to the project? How regularly can you do so?

It's essential to strike a balance here. The more you immerse yourself in the project, the more control you will have over the budget and timelines, and the more accurately your ideas and plans will be realized in the final product. On the other hand, involvement also implies responsibility. Your ideas come first, even before those of the contractor. Few will dare to tell the client that they are wrong.

It gets more challenging when there are several people from the client side communicating with the contractors. First and foremost, it is important to reach consensus internally before presenting proposals for changing requirements.

When working with a freelancer, be prepared to stay closely involved. We are all human and not immune to procrastination, burnout, illness, and personal issues. You not only need to be aware of the task status but also provide feedback on technical solutions and assess the overall condition of your partner. In other words, you will be their project manager.

When working with an engineering company, you may spend much less time on the project. This is possible only if you have clearly described your expectations in the contract and technical specifications. The project manager on the service provider's side will ensure their implementation.

We differentiate between business ideas and technical solutions. During the requirements analysis phase, our team will ask you numerous questions about the business approach to better understand user stories and gather implicit requirements. However, we will not influence your business model or planned revenue indicators. On the other hand, we will certainly question your vision for the project's technical solutions as we bear responsibility for the engineering aspect. Be prepared for well-founded doubts and alternative options. We believe that such discussions benefit the product, regardless of the outcome. Even if, after the research phase, we stick with the current solution proposed by you, it will undergo testing by highly experienced and skilled users, namely our engineers.

Choosing a partner for developing a new hardware product undoubtedly impacts its success. It cannot be definitively said that EnCata is a perfect fit for you and your product. Consider different options, analyze your expectations, and evaluate the capabilities of potential contractors. We believe this article has offered you valuable insights and ideas to facilitate a well-informed decision-making process.