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How to (Safely) Test Lunatic Inventions on Your Kids

For one inventor and father, his kids are his most important test subjects.

Having kids doesn’t just turn dudes into dads. Fatherhood turns men into problem-solvers, inventors, and (vomits slightly) “parentrepreneurs.” It’s not a coincidence that so many dads wind up pleading their case to Mark Cuban on Shark Tank. However, the path from light-bulb moment to booming business is a long, complicated, and often runs directly through kids themselves. Josh Wiesman, an inventor, engineer, and father of two, knows this all too well. Testing products on his kids is something he does all the time, which is not to say he does it carelessly. But in the development of his personal favorites, like the Smilo bottle, bottle sleeve, and on-the-go snack containers designed to look like trucks and boats, his family has been an integral part of the process. 

“Being a parent, there’s no shortage of issues you run into on a daily basis and problems are a great opportunity for solutions,” Wiesman says. And just in case that comment be misinterpreted, he’s quick to add. “We’re not doing it haphazardly. We’re not mad scientists. We’re pretty calculated.”

Those calculations aren’t easy, but for mothers and fathers inspired by the challenges of raising children to create something new, they are critical. Wiesman spoke to Fatherly about how to use kids as assistants and guinea pigs without, you know, being irresponsible about it.

What problems have your kids helped you solve? What kinds of products have they inspired?

The feeding bottle that we use for Smilo was build out of frustration of trying to feed my daughter Elaina. While she was a breastfed baby, every now and then we needed to leave her at her grandparents’ house for overnights and such. We needed to have a bottle that worked for her and there are so many different bottles out there that had wonderful claims, but none of them lived up to it. Certain bottles had way too many pieces and were very tough to clean, and other bottles didn’t work. They were just total junk. I had already developed a number of products in the parent and child space and I said, “It’s time to do a feeding bottle.”

So the feeding bottle, and your other child products — how do you typically go about testing these on your kids?

When they’re ready to be tested on people, we believe that if we’re going to let other people use this, we should be willing to test this on our own kids, on our own families, and on ourselves. So we definitely use them as subjects for trying them.

Obviously you aren’t testing baby mountain climbing harnesses or anything explicitly dangerous, but for someone who isn’t familiar with the process of safety testing products — what safety processes do your products have to go through before you’re willing to test them on your kids?

It’s important to understand that there are difference stages of testing. The stage we’re talking about with my kids is a very early stage. I’m not yet dealing with international safety standards and all of the specific material testing that needs to take place. That’s not what I’m looking to address. When I’m testing on my kids, it’s very early stage, but the products are safe to use and nothing is going to happen to them.

What feedback are you looking for when you try out your inventions on your kids? What information are you trying to get?

I’m looking really to validate — I’m looking to make sure the product is doing what I think it’s going to do. And I’m looking to verify that this is the type of product I was looking to develop. Those are two different questions. If you make a pair of scissors, you can verify if the scissors will cut paper. But if I make them for right-handed people and not left-handed people, I need to use validation testing to see, “Oh, there’s a population of people who are not going to be happy with this product.” When I’m testing on my kids, I’m asking both of those things. Are we building the right thing? And is it the thing they really need?

For parents who may not have the experience inventing, developing, and creating products, what’s important for them to know about trying their ideas out on their kids?

It’s important to recognize that there’s a lot that needs to go into the invention before you even get to the testing point. There’s the idea, that’s where most people are going to be most comfortable. Saying “I have an idea for a great product.” But that’s only one component. The other components I like to think about are, is there a customer? And, is there a market? Is there someone who’s actually willing to take out their wallet and pay for this and are there a lot of people who are going to feel this way? The last part is feasibility, and this is a really important component for the average parent trying to invent something. Feasibility can mean a lot of things, but it comes down to, can I design this product? Do I have that skill set or do I need to hire someone? Do I have what it takes to carry this product through whatever stage I need to? A lot of different things need to take place before you’re ready to test it on someone, especially kids. What I wouldn’t encourage is stringing a bunch of things together and just trying it out. That’s going to lead someone down the road to disappointment.

So even if it was totally safe, it wouldn’t necessarily be productive?

Yes. Rather than worrying about testing initially, I’d worry about trying to reach out and connect with people who can help bring this vision to light.

What advice do you have for moms and dads for finding those people to bring their visions to light? How can they take those next steps after having the idea?

The first step is trying to talk to someone in your network — either an engineer who may be able to offer some sort of opinion. You might be able to find some connections through connections, to find a friend you can team up with and develop the product together. But the best first step possible is just googling to see if someone has already come up with that.

And if parents successfully do that and create a prototype of that product, why should they try it on their kids? What’s the upside? How has that process helped you?

It’s not just testing with the kids, it’s testing with the families. When we were thinking about the Smilo bottle, and we were just testing with our close family and friends, one thing that came out was that these bottles tend to be slippery and hard to hold on to. The addition of the bottle sleeve is a great example of what I was seeing in members of my family struggle to hold the baby and the bottle at the same time. That was something I wasn’t thinking of initially, but after testing, we were able to make that addition before launch.

What’s the downside?

If your family and friends are just going to be nice and tell you this is great, the real gut-check would be asking them to pre-pay for that. Asking them, would they buy that? Sometimes they say yes to be nice, but if you ask them for $5 right now, that’s where you’re going to see in line in the sand drawn.