One of a Kind?

Make your product conform to break away from the norm.

Although inventors are always looking for that new innovation, one problem they encounter is that a new product may be just too different for people to accept. The challenge is especially difficult when you lack enough money to educate consumers about why your product is better.

Unique products such as the Weed Wacker, which replaced regular hand-operated clippers, typically survive only when introduced by a large company like Black & Decker. The problem is even bigger when your product costs substantially more than existing competing products. But new and different products can survive if you choose your target customers carefully and modify your product just enough that it seems more like what's already on the market.

Finding Success
In 1994, Glenn Hogle worked as a marketing director for a supplier of plastic, in-drawer organizers for cosmetics, socks and hair accessories. He was only 31 at the time, but his wrists would start to bother him after working at the computer for just 20 to 30 minutes. Hogle found relief by alternatively placing one, two or three of the small organizers under the keyboard every five or 10 minutes. By varying his posture and adjusting the keyboard's height over time, he was able to minimize the numbness in his fingers.

At the time, marketing the idea never crossed Hogle's mind. But after the company he worked for was acquired, he decided to tap his entrepreneurial skills. There was also pressure for ergonomic legislation to protect office workers from developing repetitive stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, as a result of using computer keyboards.

In 1999, Hogle and his wife, Sheri, then 36, launched Active Input Solutions in San Diego. The concept was to create a keyboard support system that moves up and down over a three-minute cycle to help alleviate stress on hands and wrists. Says Hogle, "We wanted to tie our product in with the concept of continuous passive motion (CPM), which medical experts use in rehabilitating joint and muscle injuries."

Hogle named his product the EasyMotion CPM. It seemed like a winner except for one problem: Hogle's design was bulkier than a regular pull-out keyboard platform, and its suggested retail price was $330 vs. $30 for a nonergonomic keyboard platform.

Acceptance didn't come easily, but Hogle, now 39, expects year-end sales to near $2 million. He found success because he discovered a target market that considered price a minor issue, and he reconfigured the product's design so it looked more familiar to potential customers.

Hammacher Schlemmer, a well-known New York City retailer that regularly releases a catalog featuring the latest and most innovative products, frequently sponsors inventor contests to find the best new products. To help inventors get a quicker yet rigorous new-product review, Hammacher Schlemmer has teamed up with PatentCafe. A positive PatentCafe review doesn't guarantee Hammacher Schlemmer will buy your invention, but it does promise you'll know within a matter of weeks if you've got a deal with the retailer.
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This article was originally published in the December 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: One of a Kind?.

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