Ideas are fine but marketing is key
The number of business-minded professionals who spend their time coming up with what they think is an 'essential' item is far more than you might think. Some time ago, I wrote about the minefields of intellectual property and how to protect your blueprints from unscrupulous concept thieves. But if all goes well, your patent is accepted and you manage to fund your product, what happens next?
Well, however 'essential' your item may be, you have to make sure potential consumers know what it does, how it works and when to use it. Here is where the initial marketing can make or break your life-altering product.
Whenever we come across something new, we need to know its context and we need to know how it will benefit us. If the internet was highlighted as a tool which could tell you the weather anywhere in the world, you may think it was clever, but not particularly relevant. If it was put forward as a tool which could give you access to live stock trading to news archives to the weather anywhere in the world, it gives you the impression that not only does it have a wider range than you previously realised, but you automatically begin to ask yourself, how could this be relevant to me?
It is the application of the service that sells, not the service itself. When Orville and Wilbur Wright took to the tarmac at Kitty Hawk in 1903, they managed a propeller-powered flight of 120 feet in 12 seconds. Effectively, they travelled a short distance in more time than it would have taken a casual jogger. Any spectator on the sidelines may have given a quick 'Wahoo!', thought it was a good trick and gone home for tea and scones, but the seed had been sown for what is now an essential tool.
Indeed, the local Dayton Daily News afforded it no more than a quarter of a column with the headline "Flight of a Flying Machine". The paper not only missed the tremendous implications of this feat, but apparently, it seems, had an intern sub-editor at the time, too.
The demand for aircraft wasn't exactly huge in 1910, and so the brothers decided – quite (W)rightly – that marketing was key. They wanted to draw attention to their machines, show their capabilities and explain their commercial potential (even if a large part of that was to take passengers on a short flight as a one-off experience). And so they established travelling aerobatics exhibitions. Good thinking. Unfortunately, the products weren't quite up to the mark and six out of the nine pilots in the shows died in crashes. (I think this is what they call a PR disaster).
Another invention/discovery which has hundreds of applications and is used practically every day in households across the western world is Teflon. It has been described as "an example of serendipity, a flash of genius, a lucky accident…even a mixture of all three". The story in a nutshell…Scientist experiments with gases to invent fridges…Gases make most slippery substance known to man…Scientist goes "Oh", marketer goes "Aha!".
There are some great stories about Teflon, probably the most apocryphal is that it was used to coat the outside of spacecraft to stop them from burning up when they re-entered the earth's atmosphere, and then some bright spark realised that also meant it would be good for non-stick frying pans. Nice story, no truth. To be fair it was used in Neil Armstrong's suit and helmet on the day of the moon landing, but the number of other applications is vast, from computer chips to socks which help circulation.
The point with Teflon is that it has been aimed at the right markets and marketed to the right people. After all, it's no good telling a pan manufacturer that your product can also help with pins and needles in your big toe, you need to go to a big toe pins and needles man.
A product for product's sake is not a good way to conduct business. At the 2008 National Motorcycle Show in Toronto, 18 year-old 'scientist' Ben J Poss Gulak decided to unveil his UNO, a unicycle motorbike. The crowd went wild. Sorry, that should read 'the crowd went why?' It is certainly a head turner, but why on earth would anybody want it?
I think the point here is that successful entrepreneurs do not produce what they like, they produce what a market needs – whether the market knows it or not. It's the same as the old adage about buying a house to flip it for profit; don't buy somewhere you want to live, buy somewhere other people want to live.
One final innovation I'd like to mention is a great new angle in home security. The movement-sensitive method outside your doors and windows that automatically turn on an exterior light is a good idea. Let me correct that, was a good idea. Any self-respecting burglar would now probably not even notice it. In fact, most home owners now probably don't even notice it. A neat twist on this is removing the annoying dim illumination and replacing it with a recording of a vicious, snarling, barking Doberman barely restrained by its lead just inches from the door. I'm convinced that gardens around the world will soon be strewn with swag bags abandoned in mortal fear.
So whatever your product, if it is worth using, then make people know it, make them see the light. Make them say 'woof', make them say 'wow', but don't make them say 'why'.
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