Whether it’s mastering the latest social media craze or trying out a new marketing campaign, many entrepreneurs are often on the lookout for that seemingly-elusive trick that will take things to the next level.
One way is to create an innovative product.
A few years ago I was afforded the opportunity to write a book called The Big Idea in which I looked at just that: How did ordinary people turned a novel idea into a multi-million dollar business or product?
How many times have you said, “I wish I had thought of that!” or worse, “I thought of that a few years ago!” The Big Idea looks at the people who figured out how to take that big idea and turn it into reality.
What I learned is if they did it, you can too. Consider:
The scientist whose walk in the woods changed the world: One day George De Mestral took a walk in the woods to capture some flies with which to examine under his new microscope. Although he found no flies that day, he did end up with a lot of burrs on his sock. Figuring that was next the next best thing given the situation, De Mestral examined the burrs under the microscope, wondering what caused them to stick to his sock.
It turned out that the burrs were made up of thousands of tiny hooks that attached to the thousands of tiny loops that made up his sock. De Mestral then had his big idea: If he could duplicate the hooks and loops system, he just might be on to something – a product that could fasten things together without the use of a zipper or button.
It took him 10 years and almost going bankrupt, but his product, Velcro, is now found everywhere on Earth, and maybe most interesting of all, inside the helmets of astronauts as a way to it a scratch an itch that can’t be scratched by hand.
The woman who changed play forever: Back in the early 60s, Ruth Handler and her husband co-owned a small toy company. Although she had not been on the lookout for a product that would become ubiquitous, you never know when inspiration will strike.
For Ms. Handler, it occurred when she noticed that her daughter enjoyed playing with paper dolls more than real dolls. At the time, real dolls were all made to be babies, whereas paper dolls were grown-up women dressed as stewardesses, doctors, veterinarians and so on. With paper dolls, her daughter could pretend to be anything, not just a mommy to a baby.
But creating a doll that was a woman – with shape and breasts and so on – was a radical idea at the time. Not only that, but creating tiny dresses with patterns, hair that changed, and the like was a feat of engineering that stretched to the limits her small company, Mattel. Nevertheless, six years later, Barbie was introduced.
For Mattel, the lesson was similar as with the creation of Velcro: Great products often take time. They take time to create, and time to gain acceptance. Commitment to the vision is a requirement.
Necessity is the mother of invention: Ed Lowe was a WWII veteran who owned a clay factory. Yet his idea to sell tons of the stuff as an industrial absorbent went nowhere. It was only when his neighbor came over one day and asked to use some for her litter box that the idea for Kitty Litter was born.
For Ed Lowe, the trick wasn’t in the invention then, it was in getting people to try the stuff. No one had ever thought to use clay for this before as people generally used ash at that time. Undeterred, Lowe bagged up his product and drove to cat shows and pet stores.
It worked, but what really worked was being first to market with a new product. Amazon.com was the first big online retailer. FedEx was the first overnight package delivery company. The so-called “first mover’s advantage” is real and makes a big difference.
Partners make a difference too: One of Chester Carlson’s first jobs was to copy patents by hand. Figuring there had to be a better way, he tinkered at night in his garage until he came up with a photocopying process. But he could not sell it to anyone. It was not until a man who owned a company called Haloid saw it and saw the potential that anything happened. The man, Joe Wilson, teamed up with Carlson. Haloid eventually renamed the business Xerox.
Having a partner that fills your gaps helps you go from small to big.
Lessons learned: Predicting whether a product will break through is of course difficult, but the evidence indicates that these things help the cause:
- Passion for the product
- Keeping it simple – hard-to-learn products (think programming a VCR) have two strikes against them
- Fulfilling a need
- Being first if possible
- Well-timed publicity
- Forming strategic partnerships
By Steven D. Strauss
The senior USATODAY.com small business columnist and author of 15 books, his latest is the best-selling Small Business Bible.
Steve is also a lawyer and public speaker and speaks around the world about entrepreneurship, including a recent visit to the United Nations. He has been on CNN, CNBC, The O’Reilly Factor, and is a regular guest on MSNBC’s Your Business.