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History Lessons

Don't reinvent the wheel
June 1, 1999
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/17768

Steve Christini's new All-Wheel Drive Mountain Bike was all the buzz at two major bike trade shows, and the 27-year-old entrepreneur is on the verge of major success, now that a sales and marketing agreement with a major bike manufacturer is in the works.

A passionate mountain biker, Christini felt there had to be a solution to an annoying problem with mountain bikes--they lose traction on steep inclines or sandy or slippery surfaces. Since he had a degree in mechanical engineering, Christini felt sure he could come up with a winning design that would eliminate the problem.

Christini did succeed--but mainly because he didn't just run out and start designing his product. First, by researching the history of other all-wheel-drive mountain bikes to see how they worked and how they had fared on the market, he was able to determine how his product should work and what pitfalls to avoid. With that head start, he avoided repeating others' mistakes, and ultimately created his product with a minimum of design changes.

Most inventors never bother to take this step, and as a result, they often follow the same flawed design paths of earlier inventors. Christini's brother, a patent attorney, didn't want Christini to make the same mistakes--he pushed him to do his homework so the capital provided by their family would last as long as possible.


Don Debelak (dondebelak@uswest.net) is a new-business marketing consultant who has introduced new products for more than 20 years. He is the author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, 800-225-5945).

Start Your Search

There are three ways to get information about previous products. One is a patent search, which shows all the similar product ideas that have been patented. This was Christini's initial research point; his patent search at a public library in Philadelphia uncovered six or seven recent patents for all-wheel-drive mountain bikes. (You can do your own Internet patent search at http://www.uspto.gov.)

Because Christini's invention is a mechanical device, most, if not all, competitive products are likely to be patented. Product categories that involve less engineering--say, a clip to hold a seat belt away from the driver's neck--usually have a lot of products on the market that aren't patented. If your product falls into this category, your best bet is either to call the sponsors of major trade shows in your industry and ask for old show directories, or to look through new product announcements in back issues of trade magazines.

In Christini's case, the major trade show is Interbike, and a key trade magazine is Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. You can find trade shows for your industry in any number of trade show directories, available at most larger libraries, where you'll also find Gale's Source of Publications, a listing of trade magazine names and addresses.

Check Out The Competition

As you research similar products, find out how each one performed in the market, as well as the strong and weak points of their designs. Christini relied on his own evaluation of previous patents, talked to older bike riders (since he was too young to remember the previous products himself) and got additional information from writers and editors of bike magazines. Here are some other ways you can check out previous products:

1. Simply call the inventor or company and ask how well their product did. If the product is off the market, they'll typically tell you everything you want to know.

2. Talk to retailers; they often remember products that are no longer on the market.

3. Talk to manufacturers' reps or salespeople in the industry who are knowledgeable about past products.

Like Christini, don't be afraid to contact writers and editors of industry trade magazines or newspapers. If they can't help you themselves, they can often refer you to good sources of industry information.

In his research, Christini discovered that early all-wheel-drive mountain bikes had external, flexible cable drive shafts that bicyclists considered ugly and cumbersome. Another drawback: The flexible cable drive system needed to be twisted a certain amount before it could transfer energy, which caused a delay before the all-wheel-drive feature kicked in. Previous products also had too many plastic parts, which weren't durable enough.

Christini did uncover one positive feature of previous products: They had the front-wheel drive set at a less than 1:1 ratio to the rear-wheel drive, so that during normal riding, only the rear-wheel drive is engaged. Bicyclists loved this feature because it gave the bike greater traction and allowed for an efficient transfer of power without compromising steering ability. The front-wheel drive didn't engage unless the back wheel started to slip.

Fine-Tune Your Design

Christini now had several items to add to his initial design specifications:

Frequently, inventors create their initial design before they do any research. They end up repeating other people's mistakes, then have to go back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, their money often runs out before they can perfect the product and they never get to find out how well that great idea could have sold.

You can save yourself a lot of time and money by following Christini's example. Take the time to find out all you can about the past attempts of people who tried to market similar products before you. With a little luck, that extra effort might just help you create a product that will hit your market's "hot button" and become the buzz of the industry.

Learning Curve

Steve Christini came up with his idea for a mountain bike in college. He had tinkered with ideas since childhood and always had an entrepreneurial bent. "[But] to succeed," he says, "I had to know what I was talking about when I met with other technical people."

Rather than start his company immediately, Christini went to work for Air Products and Chemicals, an industrial gas and chemical company, where, after two years, he became a project engineer and learned everything he could about engineering new products. Last summer, he cut back to part time at Air Products and Chemicals; by October, he went out on his own full time.

Christini was smart to look for jobs that would give him the skills he needed. On-the-job experience gave him the background necessary to develop a great product in a cost-effective manner--something he could never have done otherwise. No matter how impatient you are to get your idea to market, it's worth taking the time to acquire the skills you need.

The Price Is Right

Many earlier versions of all-wheel-drive mountain bikes failed because they weren't durable enough. That's partly because four or five years ago, mountain bikes sold for $300 to $500. They targeted serious bike enthusiasts who didn't necessarily have a lot of disposable income. At the $300 to $500 price point, Steve Christini says, it was impossible to introduce a quality all-wheel-drive bike. External flexible cable drive shafts were the only feasible option, but their performance was lacking.

Today, high-end mountain bikes sell for $1,000 and more. The 20- to 30-year-olds who buy them have lots of disposable income and ride for recreation, not competition. At those prices, you can manufacture a high-performance, durable all-wheel-drive bike and still make a profit.

Christini's main reason for delaying his start-up was to gain job experience, but the delay benefited him in another way: His bike is now in the right price range. When you pursue your idea, make sure you can deliver both the right price and the right performance. If you can't, you might end up losing everything.

Fountain Of Youth

There's never been a better time to be a young inventor. Twenty-somethings have become the entrepreneurial leaders in virtually every activity dominated by Gen X, including kayaking, surfing, snowboarding, skateboarding and mountain biking. These companies strike a chord because their owners and employees have the same values, beliefs and desires as their customers. Stores and distributors know no one can hit the pulse of the fickle young adult market better than young entrepreneurs.

Cutting-edge, visually arresting products that were once hard to sell are now what every retailer wants. If you've got a great idea related to an activity you and your friends love, get out there and start selling it before you're too old for anyone to care.

Contact Sources

Steve Christini, c/o Christini Technologies, (215) 508-3491, http://www.christini.com