How to prototype a niche product on a budget

Prototyping your product used to take months (or years) and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Not anymore.

Colour Cartel is perfecting a LED light panel for electric guitars which is loved by musicians (and pretty much anyone who sees it in action). Find out how they’ve rapidly built dozens of prototypes in a fraction of the time traditional prototyping takes.

Andrew and Steve also share their secrets to marketing a niche product.

See NeckFX in action with James Valentine of Maroon 5.


So this is, we call this Neck Effects, and it’s just a guitar neck that can attach to a standard body. It lights up as you play it. So wherever you play, wherever you hit the fret is where it illuminates. This is a design that Steve and I came up with. That basically all the strings are grounded and all the LED’s are connected to the frets. So when you press the string to the fret that’s what lights it up. I had gotten knee surgery back in last August and I had some time off for disability, and in my off time I dreamt up this in this drug infused state post surgery. Then I showed the prototype to Steve and then my roommate Ianm and they were both like, this is incredible. You have to make more. So then that’s how we started building them from there.

The next step above this would be to make a molds, and get serious about exactly what this design is going to be. It’ll take a lot less work because we have to machine each one of these one by one right now. We both started building projects there and that’s how I first found out about Tech Shop. So hope he doesn’t go.

Yeah, it’s a pretty good resource. Steve had been working there and he got to know the machines really well and so I knew that when I had built the first prototype that the first person I was going to go to was going to be Steve because he has all the knowledge of all the machines around here and he just can whip these things out really quick.

Tech Shop overall is, say you’re going to do a very early stage hardware start up. Tech Shop is an incredible resource, because it just lowers the cost to prototype the iterate. Say we had wanted to do this and Tech Shop didn’t exist, we would’ve had to do one of two things. File the equipment ourselves which is a possible base. You can’t buy a CNC machine or anything like that. Or we have to order out for the parts and that would take, you know. You send the cad out, have to spend a lot of money because you’re only making one, and then get that back, fiddle with it. You have to iterate three or four times, and it would take quite a bit of time and money but with Tech Shop you can condense that to a matter of weeks. Maybe two.

We call this one four B.

Yeah, four B.

Basically there was a time where Steve and I had different opinions on how the design should be, so we started splitting up designs. He would make one version, I’d make the other, and then we took the best of both of those things.

Right now we have about, I would say half a dozen, that are ordered. We have about another half a dozen that we’re talking to. So right now they go for about anywhere between $300 to $700 depending on how much customization they want. One of the challenges that we’re trying to work on is being able to market it. Get it out there. Get the word out.

The standard one is 300, and that’s the one, the production version that we’re selling.


The starter.

For example we had a gentleman in Canada who wanted a Night Rider version. So like the show Night Rider, he wanted it all red lights and then he wanted to actually scan back and forth, up and down the neck. So we’re working with him doing a micro-controller and trying to get all that stuff.

Getting the word out has actually been, I mean it’s, in Italy, this is kind of like one of those things that they want to show their friends. So amongst our Facebook friends and amongst the kick starter network, it’s been able to spread pretty widely. But being able to find that niche market has been a little bit difficult and so what we started to do is actually contact bands directly. So we have several bands that are coming through San Francisco that are going to be using it for their shows at the Independent, the Filmore, Bottom of the Hill, these venues around the area. Then we follow up with them to see if they’re interested afterward and if they could reach into their musical network. So that’s sort of the route that we’ve been going with our marketing.

So the machines downstairs that we use are the Shop Bot mostly. It’s a CNC router. That’s what we use to make the plastic polycarbonate fret board here. I’m trying to think what else we use the most.

Yeah, so the two main things that we use are the laser cutter.

Yeah, laser cutter.

And the CNC. Steven has come up with a way to make our own custom PCB boards by, there’s a several step process that I came up with that’s just you take copper sheets and you spray point it black. Then we actually [inaudible 00:04:24] off the paint on the sections that we want the copper to be etched away. Then we use the solution that etches that copper away. Then you take acetone, remove the paint, and then you’ve got your own custom PCB board. So we’ve been designing the boards in Illustrator, and then making them ourselves.

There’s a great tutorial on Instructables that outlines every step.


There’s people here making all kinds of crazy stuff and there’s skills all over the place.

Yeah, I mean the cool thing is that Steve is pretty well versed in the whole Tech Shop network, because he worked for Tech Shop. So he know a lot of people that have the know-how and how to do this kind of stuff around here. Ten years ago, maybe five years ago, this would not be feasible for us to try and market, in my opinion. But now that we have these resources it’s like you remove all the risks and it just makes it easier to put it out there and see if anyone bites and if it’s a possible avenue.

Previous post:

Next post: