Hit or Miss

Jumping on a hot trend at just the right time can be a great way to launch a business. But how can you tell if a trend has enough staying power to stake your startup on it?

Three years ago, Rebecca Cutler and Jennifer Krane saw big changes happening in the athletic wear and maternity industries. Women were wearing athletic clothes for going out, not just working out. Obstetricians were encouraging pregnant women to keep up a modified exercise regimen to stay fit, whether it be yoga, walking or another favorite sport. Designers were creating fashionable clothing lines for pregnant women, and celebrities were making pregnancy look hip, beautiful, fashionable, even athletic. Cutler and Krane did some research and learned that 4 million babies are born every year in the United States, and American women spend an estimated $1.2 billion annually on maternity wear.

There was a pregnant pause, however, when they compared what they saw to what was on the racks at sporting and maternity stores-especially when it came to tennis, a sport Cutler and Krane both love. "[Pregnant women] were buying extra-large nonmaternity tennis skirts-pulling them on, feeling awful and not really fitting into them," says Cutler, a mother of two. They thought a box set of fashionable maternity athletic clothes that included a mix-and-match reversible tennis skirt, a few V-neck shirts, and shorts that could transition from the tennis court to a night on the town just might sell.

Fast forward to 2004: Cutler, 36, and Krane, 38, are co-founders of Raising a Racquet, a 2-year-old Darien, Connecticut, company that makes athletic wear for pregnant women. Their multipiece box sets retail from $108 to $158 and are sold at stores like A Pea in the Pod, Bloomingdale's, Copeland Sports, Mimi Maternity and Pickles & Ice Cream. The company has expanded into three clothing lines for tennis, golf and yoga. Gross sales in the first year were $250,000 and are projected to reach close to $1 million in 2004.

Jumping on trends early helped Cutler and Krane develop a loyal customer base, especially among stores with limited buying resources. "[They might] pick up fewer pieces of Nike running pants and hold that money back for the Raising a Racquet yoga kit," Cutler says. It's also making the company a contender. Adidas, Nike and Reebok have come out with maternity lines since Cutler and Krane started the company, and Raising a Racquet has been mentioned in stories alongside these industry behemoths. "That was thrilling," Krane says. "I think we hit [the trend] just right."

Early trend spotting can set up young companies for long-term success. But how can entrepreneurs discern whether what they're seeing is a long-lasting trend or a fad that will die out in six months? Mistaking the two can put entrepreneurs out of business faster than they can say "fad."

So what is the difference between a trend and a fad? Ask 30 people, and you'll probably get 30 different, yet similar, answers. A fad is a statement, a one-hit wonder, something eye-catching that comes and then goes just as quickly. (Think Pet Rock.) A trend has roots and staying power; it strikes a deeper chord and is connected to a larger change in society. The real debate starts when you ask people whether a popular product or service is a fad or a trend. Take the Atkins diet, for example. Some experts say it's a trend because it's become part of a lifestyle and ties into larger trends like the quest for health. Others argue Atkins is a fad that's riding a larger, long-term trend: a fundamental shift in consumer behavior.

A trend is "nothing more than a manifestation of an individual's values," says Vickie Abrahamson, co-founder of Minneapolis trend analysis firm Iconoculture, who points to the late 1990s craze for clear products such as clear beer, clear soap and even clear Pepsi as a fad that didn't connect with consumers. Even Saturday Night Live parodied the fad in a humorous commercial for clear gravy. Clear products didn't succeed because the inventors didn't factor into the design process the value people put on their senses of sight and smell. In the end, clear beer just couldn't tap into the importance consumers place on the total beer experience, and the genre went flat. As Abrahamson puts it: "[Clear beer] was fun until people actually tasted it."

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Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the June 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Hit or Miss.

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