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New and Improved

Products that make life easier are all the rage. Your next big business idea may be making a good, everyday item great.

You've seen them all over. You may even use one or two of them during your average day. They're convenience products--those nifty little inventions that make typical tasks just a bit easier. Think cups with spill-proof tops or organizers that keep your car tidy. Not only do you use convenience products all the time, but you've also probably come up with a few ideas of your own--the kind that start with, "Hmm . . . somebody should invent a . . . ."

But it's still a difficult market to crack, says Dave Sutton, CEO and president of Inforte, a Chicago-based strategic consulting firm that does marketing analytics and business intelligence work. "There are a lot of missteps with this [kind of product]," he says. "Mainly because people oversimplify what the need might be . . . and the new device doesn't do anything substantively different than the old type of thing."

Even so, entrepreneurs shouldn't try to completely reinvent the wheel with a product--or try so hard to make it unique that it doesn't fit into any established retail categories (like health and beauty, food, automotive, travel, and so on).

It's often a shift on an established product that makes a good convenience product. Take, for instance, TissueKups, cup-shaped tissue dispensers that fit in car cup holders. Lorraine Santoli invented this convenience product after she scrambled around in her car for a tissue box that had slid away. She thought this twist on a classic tissue box would make things easier. "The most simple things are the best ideas," she says.

Santoli, 56, secured a patent in 2001 and began selling her product online in 2003. She's also seen great success in private labeling for corporate groups and is currently trying to get her product into larger retail stores. Projecting 2005 sales to reach the $3 million range, she notes that the challenge is finding enough capital to roll out her specialty convenience product the way she wants to.

"That's the most difficult part for anyone who's not in that world," Santoli says. "How do you get into the market? It's very hard to get a retailer to take on something new."

It's true that throwing your product into the convenience market could put you in direct competition with big companies that have the R&D capital to launch products faster than you--but that could be the way to get your idea out there: Sell it to the big guy. Says Sutton, "I think most small product innovations get bought out by larger manufacturers."

You could also try going local with your product--getting it into retailers in your own neighborhood and building a buzz around it, notes Sutton.

The key, though, is landing on the right product at the right time and really heeding the needs of the marketplace. Products like the Johnny-Light, a small light that mounts on a toilet-seat to light it up at night, or the AirPocket, a small pouch designed specifically to carry an inhaler at the ready, fit specific needs of specific markets.

To get ideas, Sutton suggests asking questions like: What are people doing with their downtime? What brands already resonate with them, and how can you change their behaviors? What are some unmet needs of your target market?

Airports, for instance, are ripe for convenience products as the wait time for the average passenger has increased--travelers have time and expendable income, and they're a captive audience, says Sutton. Apply that thinking to other areas, and you might come up with the next cool (or should we say hot?) convenience product.

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This article was originally published in the May 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: New and Improved.

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