Taking Advantage of Trends to Start a Biz

Let's Go Trend-Spotting

A trend spans more than one industry and touches more than one market and generation, says Louis Patler, chairman of consulting and market research firm Near Bridge Inc. in Mill Valley, California, and author of TrendSmart: The Power of Knowing What's Coming...and...What's Here to Stay. "Trends do not exist in isolation," Patler says. "The entrepreneur who wins is the one who sees how three or four of them dovetail together." Consider the iPod, which draws on multiple trends, ranging from our desire for more mobility, instant gratification and customization to our craving for all things fashionable.

It's too late to catch a trend if you're reading about it or seeing it at a trade show, says James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a marketing strategy firm in Belmont, Massachusetts. Start following lead indicators in similar industries for what's bubbling up. "You have an advantage if you can train yourself to look at adjacent industries," Chung says, noting it wasn't until recently the ski industry realized its trends follow those happening in surfing and skateboarding. "That's why California ski resorts are a lot more ahead of the trends than others," he says. "They've had a chance to view the adjacent industries driving the trends within theirs."

And don't forget your potential customer. Cutler and Krane conducted focus groups early and built momentum based on what they learned. "Keeping the momentum going after you spot a trend is important," says Cutler, "because, if it's something with staying power, chances are good there's someone else out there who's thinking about it."

Distinguishing between trends and fads requires quantitative and qualitative analysis with a bit of gut instinct thrown in for good measure. Janet Lee, 31, is founder of Petote, a 3-year-old Chicago company that makes upscale pet carriers that look more like fashionable purses. Company sales have increased from $120,000 in 2002 to projections of more than $1 million in 2004. Petote's five designs-which retail from $100 to $600-are sold at more than 400 stores in the United States, including Hallmark, Henri Bendel, Marshall Field's and Petco. Lee also touts a roster of celebrity clients like Halle Berry, Jewel, Jessica Simpson and Justin Timberlake.

But back in 2000, Lee-whose family owns a carrying-case manufacturing business-was itching to create her own product line. An animal lover, she spent a few months researching the pet-carrier industry, visiting pet stores and Web sites for pet- and travel-related gear to figure out what was on the market. She also found statistics showing the market for small pets was growing fast.

Lee had a gut instinct that there was a need for a stylish, zippered pet carrier with a rigid, plastic lining inside to protect a small pet. Her hunch was backed up by research. "There was just a very plain, soft-sided bag that you could put your pet in," Lee says. "I decided it would be great to develop a pet carrier that's not only cute and functional, but [that] people could use for a very long time."

She created some prototype bags and made sales calls to 20 pet stores. Lee feels she hit the pet trend at the right time: Since she started the company, Kate Spade has come out with a pet-carrier line, and shoemaker Donald J. Pliner is marketing its own upscale line of dog collars and leashes. The 25 employees at Petote are staying a step ahead of the competition by extending the company's product line into matching duffle and tote bags for people and their pets' accessories. The company is also developing a line of dog clothes and recently moved into a 30,000-square-foot facility. "Having a little dog and carrying it around in a pet tote is the trendiest thing now," Lee says. Her advice: Research every channel out there. That includes vetting competitors as well as big and very small retail stores. "Know everything about the product you're making," she says, "what's out there, what's not available and what fits into your creation."

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

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