From the July 2003 issue of Entrepreneur

The Entrepreneur: Bob Evans, 53, founder of Bob Evans Designs Inc. in Santa Barbara, California

Product Description: Force Fins (www.forcefin.com) are swimming fins with a flexible blade and a "V" design that propels a swimmer faster and with less effort than traditional fins. Evans' company has a product line that incudes 24 models, each selling for $200 to $500.

Start-Up: $400,000 in 1985

Sales: $1.5 million in 2002, primarily through swimming and outdoor retail stores nationwide

The Challenge: Staying ahead of the market when a number of competitors sell lower-priced, more traditional products

For nearly two decades, Bob Evans has found success using innovation to his advantage. Here are his secrets for staying ahead of the competition:

Steps to Success
1. Love what you do. As Evans explains: "My wife has two rules: No fins in bed, and no fins on the kitchen table. That's because I love designing new products and I'm always thinking of fins. I have them everywhere in the house." Evans is adamant that "Force Fins are the finest fins for military and recreational swimmers, divers and fishermen," and he loves producing what he believes are the best products on the market.

SEAL OF APPROVAL
One way to crank up word-of-mouth advertising is to get product reviews. Most magazines that deal with specific topics will consider reviewing your product if you send them a sample. Sometimes clubs offer a member review service that you can use as an endorsement, too. One such program is run by the 850,000-member Handyman Club of America, which can distribute product samples to hundreds of its members. The product receives a quarter-page spot in the club's HANDY magazine, and, if it tests well, you'll receive the Handyman Seal of Approval to place on the product packaging. For more, contact Product Test Coordinator Ryan Jones at rjones@namginc.com.

2. Know your product. Says Evans, "I worked my way through college and then helped finance my product development as a freelance underwater photographer." He knew firsthand the shortcomings of existing fins, and the initial inspiration behind his product line came from observing fish. They use the split-V shape of their tails to channel water behind them, where it generates the most forward force.

3. Test, test, test. Nothing kills a product faster than poor quality or poor performance. "There is no room for sloppiness in any business," says Evans. You have to test your product and make refinements for as long as it takes to get the product right. For Evans, that meant 37 different prototypes of his first product before it was introduced. But you don't have to spend a lot of money to develop the right prototype. Evans' first prototypes were made with chicken wire, newspapers and a resin coating.

4. Have at least one meaningful design principle. Evans actually has two. The first is that the fin should generate the forward force, and the second is that a swimmer shouldn't have to work a fin both ways. "A fin shouldn't need a strap to stay on," he explains. "Like a propeller, its forward thrust should keep the fin on." These principles are powerful because the benefits are obvious to the end-user.

5. Ignore your competition. When you have a clear vision of what you want to deliver to customers, don't clutter it up by worrying about what your competition is doing. Says Evans, "I never go around a trade show looking to see what other designs people are coming up with. It contaminates my mind, and I do better creating products just by what I feel is right." Here's another reason to ignore the competition: Following others doesn't make you a leader in innovation; it tempts you to do what the competition has already accomplished.

6. Listen to what customers say about your products. Not all swimmers need the same kind of fin. For instance, underwater photographers need maneuverability, while other swimmers need great forward speed. So Evans developed a product line with many models-24 in all. "I listen to
what my customers tell me," Evans says. "I try to define my fins like a surgical knife, giving each end-user exactly the product they need."

7. Promote flexibility in your manufacturing process. While many manufacturers run off to Asia for cheap production, Evans takes another approach. "My goal is to be able to build a prototype in just two weeks and then be in production in less than two months," he says. "I adjusted my tooling so that when a customer need comes in, I can respond quickly." This kind of flexibility helped Evans fulfill a recent order from the Navy. "They needed a fin for divers carrying a heavy payload. They didn't need maneuverability; they needed high forward thrust. I prototyped the product and delivered the order inside four months." And customers pay a premium for his fins in order to get performance that fits their needs.

Lessons Learned

TESTING THE WATERS
Are you struggling to produce a low-cost prototype? Visit www.inventorhelp.com, the site of Jack Lander, prototype columnist for Inventor's Digest magazine. You'll find books specifically for inventors and a series of reports, including How to Save Hundreds of Dollars in Making Your Prototype. Every inventor should read this one to understand the prototype process and all the options open to inventors--even if you don't plan on actually making the prototype yourself.

1. Understand what's most important to your customers. Different customers will want different types of products. In Evans' case, infrequent users of fins just want an inexpensive fin that works well. But people who swim a lot, either as a hobby or as a work-related activity, need high performance. The Force Fin line is expensive, but the extra hundred dollars is a worthwhile investment for someone who considers swimming a vital part of his or her life. Inventors shouldn't try to be everything to everybody. Pick one customer group--in Evans' case, serious swimmers--and then develop the products they want.

2. Don't be afraid to stand out. Subtle changes in product configuration can easily go unnoticed by the market. Force Fins look totally different than a traditional fin. They're V-shaped, have ridges that channel water out the back and are much less rigid than traditional fins. Even though prospects might not understand the benefits immediately, they'll take a look to see why those fins feature a new design.

3. Impress customers with performance. New product designs are typically sold first to what marketers refer to as "pioneers"--consumers who willingly try out new products. Each pioneer who buys a product and likes it may persuade anywhere from 10 to 100 or more other prospects to try out the product. This kind of word-of-mouth advertising is what sells a new design--but it only works when pioneers declare that the product delivers on its promises.

4. Customers change, so you had better change, too. Needs and expectations can change. When customers think a product is important, they expect it to be designed just for their application. Serious customers, ready to invest in what they want, don't want to make do with a product that's designed for infrequent users.


Don Debelak is the author of Think Big: Make Millions From Your Ideas.