How we built it: To make Roominate we had to remember toys were supposed to be fun

Many of us have an idea for a cool connected product, but have little or no idea what it takes to translate that thought into an actual device. To help aspiring entrepreneurs understand the process, we recruited six people who have already gone from idea to product and asked them how they did it. They’ll be presenting and answering your questions at our Structure Connect event Oct. 21 and 22, but we wanted to offer a taste of what’s to come. Below is the first in our series from Bettina Chen of Roominate on how she and her co-founder got from an idea to their minimum viable product as told by Chen to me.

When we first started out, we knew we wanted to make some sort of building toy for girls. We had no idea what it would look like, but we knew that the toys we had played with growing up had influenced our love for engineering later. And when we looked around at the toys offered to girls today, we didn’t see a lot of options out there that offered those same experiences we had, so we knew we wanted to do something about that.

We started building the product as part of a graduate class in the winter, and I think in making the minimum viable product, we spent a little too much time pursuing one vision. We waited too long to change tactics because we didn’t want to let go. For those not building hardware, the minimum viable product is an attempt to get a core set of features into a device so customers can try it out and help you develop the product further. You don’t want to spend too much time on a version that doesn’t work.

But that’s what we did. We started out with a car kit that girls would put together with a motor circuit and rubber band drive train. And then we went a bit beyond that with another iteration where you would build the car and then make this little animal body out of craft paper to put on top of the car. The idea was that you would have this little pet that would be able to follow you around.

This was one of the prototypes that we held on to too long. We were trying to make it fun for the kids so we thought, “Why don’t we let them make a little pet? We’ll call it Peggy the Pig and she’ll even have a backstory about when she was born and her favorite things.”

Roominate's Peggy the Pig concept.

Roominate’s Peggy the Pig concept.

The low point for us came when we were testing it with a girl and she was building a hamster body for her car. Her sister came in with a tiny hamster toy that ran around and vibrated. Our tester got really excited about her sister’s toy and jumped up, running around and following the hamster. That was when we realized we weren’t capturing the experience we were hoping for with these kids.

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We were trying to force the engineering and educational aspects onto the kids too much. They saw through that immediately and it wasn’t fun. So we went back to the drawing board to try to figure out how to bring in the educational aspect more seamlessly and in a fun way.

Our next main prototype was a shoddy little house made of foam core, popsicle sticks, and circuits breaking all over the place. We first tested it out with a group of about 20 kids. We knew we had hit on the right idea because when the parents came to pick their kids up, they were kicking and screaming and didn’t want to leave. Instead, they were turning to us, wanting more pieces and circuits. That’s when we knew we had found a way to bring in electronics and do it in a way that kids found entertaining and didn’t want to stop playing.

The deluxe Roominate package today.

The deluxe Roominate package today.

We had found a way to make circuits fun for kids and also made sense as to why they would build with them. Now when they were wiring up circuits, they were thinking about how they could make a fan for their dollhouse with the motor or use the light to make the TV glow. They could see the end goal in a way that they couldn’t with the car kit.

We spent a lot of time on the car and other iterations that didn’t work before we hit on the dollhouse. We lost a lot of time when we kept trying to iterate on our first idea, so we learned that you shouldn’t be afraid to move on if something doesn’t seem to be working.

Learn more about how Chen helped build a minimum viable product at Structure Connect Oct. 21 and 22 in San Francisco, where she’ll cover where she found cheap motors for her prototypes and what to do when focus groups lie.