Engineer & Entrepreneur Robert Kay Shares What Inventors Need to Know Before Taking a Product to Market

By Jordan French Jordan French has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on January 25, 2024

Ready to launch your product? Not so fast, says engineer and entrepreneur Robert Kay.

January is when a huge portion of the U.S. population begins working frantically on their New Year’s resolutions. The gyms are full, healthy foods are flying off the shelves, and new businesses are being launched all across America. Many of those newly minted entrepreneurs are launching their first business ever, and in many cases, it’s based on a product they’ve invented. 

While it can be easy to get excited and eagerly jump in with both feet, engineer and entrepreneur Robert Kay warns not so fast.

“It is a common failing with entrepreneurs,” he says, “that the excitement and the motivation and the passion often leads them to overlook the important issues of business first, which is to make sure there really is an audience and a market for their product. So they often skip that part in favor of the passion.” It’s a downfall, he says, that derails many early entrepreneurs. This is what he deals with every day at his engineering firm, Elite Engineering, serving clients ranging from one-person startups all the way up to Fortune 50 giants. 

How Much Does It REALLY Cost to Make?

When Kay speaks, inventors listen because of his extensive engineering background. He’s solved complex problems on tech, medical, and defense projects and can even boast of his work being sent to space as part of the Apollo 15 and Apollo 16 space programs (Although he usually downplays his own accomplishments, so you may have to drag those stories out of him). Instead of talking about himself, he focuses on his team and the work they’re doing. 

Kay says that inventors often get so excited about solving the problem that they forget to figure out if there’s a big enough market willing to pay for a product that solves that particular problem in the first place. They also then forget to ask if it can be solved profitably. 

He recalls working with marine specialist Paige Murphy, who was interested in cultivating new coral and had the idea of building a robot that looked like a crab that could clamber around and clean off the algae. After talking with her, it became very clear that she didn’t really fully understand what it takes to build a robot, especially one whose sole function is to operate underwater

It was only after they consulted that he was able to explain to her that the kind of robot she was looking for would be a multimillion-dollar project. “Everybody just assumes these things, they’re only 10 bucks a pop,” says Kay. “Well, they miss that there’s millions of man hours in developing some of this stuff. It is a common failing with entrepreneurs where their excitement and passion drives them to skip the important business questions and jump right into the ‘fun’ part. This is a huge mistake that hurts them down the road.”

What Language Are You Speaking?

Kay also explains that many of the “engineering” challenges that inventors face in taking their products to market are actually planning or communication challenges. He goes on to say that most of them can be completely avoided. 

“It takes a certain skill set on both sides,” he explains. “For instance, clients and engineers typically speak a different language. Not that they both aren’t speaking English or Spanish or Chinese, but their slang is so different it can deter progress. It’s just how they’ve each been trained, so it’s important that both try to ‘translate’ their language into something the other party will understand. It’s also important to understand that both sides will have certain knowledge and assumptions.”

Kay referenced a jewelry company he works with, saying the company was asking for a machine that needed to produce commonly shaped gems but acknowledging his firm didn’t know what shapes those gems needed to be. “The trick there was to explain it in, I won’t say non-engineering terms, but to try to get them to understand the risks and that we saw the risks so they could see that we had value right away. So what that really did was begin to build a relationship where they could ask plain questions, and get answers they could make sense of and understand.“

Find a Firm That Cares

Simply having a great idea does not guarantee success, Kay says. It’s got to be important to the public, able to be financed, and have the backing of an engineering firm that cares.

“One of the things that people overlook is the value of building the relationship where you can see by the way they talk to you, the way they interact, answer your questions, you can see that that engineering team is going to become part of your team,” Kay says. 

“If the client finds out why the company does what they do, that’s probably the biggest qualifier that you should use. If they’re strictly hired mercenaries, they’re not going to care about your product. One of the things that’s different about us is we’re not hired mercenaries. We actually become the external engineering team and we care about whether or not things work. We care that you’re successful. So we’re on this journey together.”

Kay shared a moving story about his own journey that exemplifies this concept perfectly, in which the passing of his late wife led to a significant cultural shift in his own engineering firm. To honor his former spouse and business partner, Kay set his firm on the new mission of serving its clients in a way that would make her proud. That’s the best kind of motivation someone could have.

By Jordan French Jordan French has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Journalist verified by Muck Rack verified

Jordan French is the Founder and Executive Editor of Grit Daily Group, encompassing Financial Tech Times, Smartech Daily, Transit Tomorrow, BlockTelegraph, Meditech Today, High Net Worth magazine, Luxury Miami magazine, CEO Official magazine, Luxury LA magazine, and flagship outlet, Grit Daily. The champion of live journalism, Grit Daily's team hails from ABC, CBS, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Forbes, Fox, PopSugar, SF Chronicle, VentureBeat, Verge, Vice, and Vox. An award-winning journalist, he was on the editorial staff at TheStreet.com and a Fast 50 and Inc. 500-ranked entrepreneur with one sale. Formerly an engineer and intellectual-property attorney, his third company, BeeHex, rose to fame for its "3D printed pizza for astronauts" and is now a military contractor. A prolific investor, he's invested in 50+ early stage startups with 10+ exits through 2023.

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