Somewhere between scribbling your idea on a cocktail napkin and actually starting a business, there's a process you need to carry out that essentially determines either your success or failure in business. Oftentimes, would-be entrepreneurs get so excited about their "epiphanies"-the moments when they imagine the possibilities of a given idea-that they forget to find out whether that idea is viable.
Of course, sometimes the idea works anyway, in spite of a lack of market research. Unfortunately, other times, the idea crashes and burns, halting a business in its tracks. We'd like to help you avoid the latter. This how to on researching your business idea is just what you need to keep your business goals on track.
The Idea Stage
For some entrepreneurs, getting the idea-and imagining the possibilities-is the easy part. It's the market research that doesn't come so naturally. "It's a big red flag when someone outlines the size of the market-multibillion dollars-but doesn't clearly articulate a plan for how the idea will meet an unmet need in the marketplace," says Aaron Keller, an adjunct professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas in neighboring St. Paul and a managing principal of Capsule, a Minneapolis-based brand development firm.
That kind of full-throttle approach can cost you. "Entrepreneurs are often so passionate about their ideas, they can lose objectivity," adds Nancy A. Shenker, president of the ONswitch LLC, a full-service marketing firm in Westchester, New York. "Rather than taking the time to thoroughly plan and research, they sometimes plow ahead with execution, only to spend valuable dollars on unfocused or untargeted activities."
Market research, then, can prove invaluable in determining your idea's potential. You can gather information from industry associations, Web searches, periodicals, federal and state agencies, and so forth. A trip to the library or a few hours online can set you on your way to really understanding your market. Your aim is to gain a general sense of the type of customer your product or service will serve-or at least to being willing to find out through the research process. "For example," says Shenker, "if you don't know if your product will appeal to the youth market, make sure you include a sample of that population in your research efforts."
Your research plan should spell out the objectives of the research and give you the information you need to either go ahead with your idea, fine-tune it or take it back to the drawing board. Create a list of questions you need to answer in your research, and create a plan for answering them. "Utilize experts in planning and conducting research sessions," Shenker advises. "They can recommend what type of research is most appropriate, help you develop statistically valid samples and write questionnaires, and provide you with an objective and neutral source of information."
The type of information you'll be gathering depends on the type of product or service you want to sell as well as your overall research goals. You can use your research to determine a potential market, to size up the competition, or to test the usefulness and positioning of your product or service. "If, for example, the product is a tangible item, letting the target audience see and touch a prototype could be extremely valuable," notes Shenker. "For intangible products, exposing prospective customers to descriptive copy or a draft Web site could aid in developing clear communications."
When working with firms on brand development, Keller first looks at a business idea from four perspectives: company, customer, competitor and collaborator. This approach allows Keller to scrutinize a business idea before even approaching the topic of brand development. Here's what he looks at for each of the four issues:
- Company. Think of your idea in terms of its product/service features, the benefits to customers, the personality of your company, what key messages you'll be relaying and the core promises you'll be making to customers.
- Customer. There are three different customers you'll need to think about in relation to your idea: purchasers (those who make the decision or write the check), influencers (the individual, organization or group of people who influence the purchasing decision), and the end users (the person or group of people who will directly interact with your product or service).
- Competitor. Again, there are three different groups you'll need to keep in mind: primary, secondary and tertiary. Their placement within each level is based on how often your business would compete with them and how you would tailor your messages when competing with each of these groups.
- Collaborators. Think of organizations and people who may have an interest in your success but aren't directly paid or rewarded for any success your business might realize, such as associations, the media and other organizations that sell to your customers.
Another approach is to research is SWOT analysis, meaning analysis of the strengths of your industry, your product or service; the weaknesses of your product (such as design flaws) or service (such as high prices); and potential threats (such as the economy). "[SWOT] enables you to understand the strengths and flaws, [everything] from internal information such as bureaucracy, product development and cost to external factors such as foreign exchange rates, politics, culture, etc.," says Drew Stevens, a St. Louis professional speaker and consultant who works with entrepreneurs in researching and marketing their ideas. "SWOT enables an entrepreneur to quickly understand whether their product or service will make it in the current environment."
Whatever your approach to evaluating your idea, just be sure you're meeting the research objectives you've outlined for your product or service. With those goals always top-of-mind, your analysis will help you discover whether your idea has any holes that need patching.
Checking Out the Competition
Assuming your research process has helped you uncover your competition, you now need to find out what they're up to. Shenker advises becoming a customer of the competition, whether by shopping them yourself or by enlisting the help of a friend. "Visit their Web site and put yourself on their list," she says. "Talk to your competitor's customers, too-ask them what they like or don't like about your competitor's product or service. If you conduct formal research, include a question like 'Where do you currently go for that product or service? Why?'"
Your aim is to understand what your competition is doing so you can do it better. Maybe their service is poor. Maybe their product has some flaws-something you'll only know if you try it out yourself. Or maybe you've figured out a way to do things better, smarter, more cost-effectively. Find your selling point. It's going to be the core of your marketing program, if and when you're ready for that step. It's also going to be what sets you apart and lures customers your way.
After all this-the idea stage, analysis of the idea, competitive analysis-you might find that your idea (and not your competitor's, as you'd hoped) is the one with the holes. Does that mean you need to scrap the whole thing and resign yourself to life as an employee? "Not always," says Keller. "Sometimes it just needs to be reworked or retooled."
That can be disheartening if you've already spent X amount of hours in the idea stage, plus X amount of hours on market research-only to find that you're not quite ready to get started after all. But taking the time to refocus your energies and determine why your idea needs some tightening is the best predictor of future success. "No entrepreneur wants to hear that his 'baby' is flawed, but only by listening and reacting to feedback can he give his idea a chance for success," notes Shenker. "Ask yourself, 'Is this a weakness that can be overcome?' If you can't create true value for your customer and your business, then it's time to pick another idea to pursue."
Remember, though, that many ideas simply need some fine-tuning. Before you panic and start flipping through your idea books again, closely consider whether you can make this idea work. After all, there was a reason you thought of that idea in the first place. Some ideas that seem like they'll be total duds after doing a little research end up being great successes. "Ideas that seem like a flop are always interesting to me," says Keller. "Sometimes you look into an idea and find it was just luck-but many times, you find the original founder had some clear insight into the potential. That insight was his or her focus, and it seemed to lead them to success.
"I've seen many people launch ideas that I thought were beyond foolish," Keller adds, "but then I learned more about the idea, the customer and the vision-and realized the true risk being taken."
When Your Idea Is Ready to Go
The market research you've conducted thus far ought to be a good indicator of where you need to go next with your idea. One key factor to consider is pricing. You want to do it competitively while also considering what the market will bear. For products or services that have a close competitor, Keller advises pricing with respect to the competitive position. "Higher-priced positioning requires an idea with enough relevance and importance to customers to overcome the gap between your idea and the nearest competitor," Keller says.
The beauty of being in business for yourself is that you have the option to make changes at will-so if a pricing structure isn't working, you can alter it. "Price high to start-you can always drop the price down," says Keller. "You can never go up."
Shenker adds that you need to be sure your product or service is delivering enough value to command the price you set. If possible, test different pricing offers as you go, and determine what works best.
When you're ready to get started, be sure you're selling where your target market is likely to buy. "Your marketing plan and budget should include a well-crafted distribution strategy," notes Shenker. If you'll sell over the Internet, budget for media to drive new customers to your site. If you'll sell via retail distribution, you might need workers with industry experience to help you reach your target market.
Remember, too, that you can always seek help in this long, arduous process of bringing an idea to fruition. The Internet, your local library, the U.S. Census Bureau, business schools, industry associations, trade and consumer publications, industry trade shows and conferences, and new-product development firms can be invaluable sources of information and contacts. "It's just a matter of seeking knowledge from as many sources as possible," notes Keller. It's also a matter of putting your ego aside and being willing to create a business that will not only survive, but thrive. "If you have an idea, don't be afraid to refine it, retool it, rethink it," adds Keller. "The more you do before you launch, the less you'll have to do [afterwards], and the less painful the lessons tend to be."
Use the following online and offline resources to help you determine if your idea is a good one.
- Entrepreneur's FormNet has free downloadable forms that can assist you in your idea evaluation and market research process.
- How to Create a Marketing Plan, will help you strategize your marketing efforts.
- The U.S. Census Bureau has the stats and demographics you need to know.
- FirstGov.gov is a well-designed, easy-to-navigate portal to the government online. Click on the tab that says "Businesses and Nonprofits."
- Your local Chamber of Commerce can be an indispensable resource for local information for your new business.
- The Encyclopedia of Associations by Gale Group can be found in libraries, and is an essential tool for locating your industry's associations. Also search on Google, and be sure to check whether the association has a trade publication.
- At TSNN.com, you can access a searchable database of trade shows worldwide.
- Entrepreneur's Top Colleges listing can help you find a local school that offers entrepreneurship studies.
- Two of the greatest resources known to entrepreneurs are the Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) and SCORE (Service Corp of Retired Executives). Each SBA service offers free and low-cost help to small-business owners and entrepreneurial wanna-bes, and should have a local office near you.
Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer living in Southern California.