Get Smart

If you don't know your product inside and out, you won't make the sale.

How does an up-and-coming entrepreneur turn a trend-setting business into a fleeting fad? By not getting smart about his or her product.

Stay with me on this. In the December issue of Entrepreneur, Robert McGarvey interviewed futurist Faith Popcorn. He asked her the difference between a trend and a fad. Popcorn replied: "Trends are big and broad. A fad is shorter in duration--a flash in the pan."

Her answer made me stop and think. Yes, it's important to select a business that won't just be a passing fancy, such as a Pet Rock distributorship. But no matter how stable a product becomes in the overall marketplace, it can still "fad out."

How? Consider the coffeehouse business, which seems to be here for the duration. For those of us who indulge, a cappuccino is no longer a luxury, but a daily necessity. I'm a major crab first thing in the morning until I get exactly what I want. And I do know exactly what I want.

I expect the people who sell the coffee to be as knowledgeable as I am. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. It took a long time and many visits to less-than-first-rate espresso joints to become this smart about my favorite drink. In my search for the perfect double cappuccino, I learned the difference between those who set a trend and those who merely follow a fad. The fad followers are the folks who say, "Hey, guys, let's open a java joint. It's the cool thing to do."

When I realize I've been taken advantage of by one of these fadists, I want to shout out: "Look, these drinks don't come cheap--$2.75 and up for a double. So quit using me as a test case."

I have even resorted to giving instructions: "Not a latte. A cappuccino. Which means [I reach over the counter and give the person the right size cup] I'll take two shots of espresso in this 12-ounce cup with just a splash of nonfat foam." By then you'd think they'd get it right. But even the fancy machinery doesn't seem to matter: I still don't get what I ask for. Guess what that means? I'm never going back to that cafe again.

The moral of the story? The best of trends can become a flash-in-the-pan fad in the hand of someone with absolutely no know-how.

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This article was originally published in the March 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Get Smart.

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