If two heads are better than one, how innovative can a whole posse of customers be? Very, says Pat Keane, 51-year-old founder of PM Gear, a ski products manufacturer in Reno, Nevada. During his 2002 startup, Keane went to his ski cronies on the online message boards of PowderMagazine, a ski industry publication, and asked what they wanted in the perfect ski. With fresh ideas in hand, he commissioned some designs, put them online and asked the same customers to vote for their favorites. The result was the BRO Model--revolutionary skis suitable for all types of conditions, from powder and ice to slush.
Community involvement isn't just a great way to solicit innovative ideas; it also engages your customers and encourages loyalty to your product, says John Winsor, author of Spark: Be More Innovative Through Co-Creation. "The idea is to be customer-inspired," says Winsor. First, identify where they hang out--from online message boards to real-world trade shows. Solicit opinions, but be genuine and really listen, as most are eager to share ideas. You might even create comment areas on your website, and let customers know that you'll respond and make it a true dialogue.
That dialogue has helped PM Gear grow to sales of $250,000--all the while engaging and exciting clients, who, Keane notes, feel like they have "ownership in the design and final product."