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Want Some of This?

A good product is nothing without a customer who wants to buy it.
June 1, 2002
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/51926

Last year, 32,025 new domestic products were introduced-more than twice the amount in 1991, according to research from Market Intelligence Service. The sheer volume of new products coming out creates problems for inventors; retailers and customers can only buy so much. But this obstacle is not insurmountable, as evidenced by the many inventors who succeed all the time.

The secret to raising your odds of success is to carefully research your market ahead of time to determine whether potential customers are really interested in spending their hard-earned dollars on your product. The right strategy requires three key steps, each of which can be done inexpensively: 1) find out about similar products that already exist on the market; 2) ask users whether they see the same problems you do with current products available; and 3) get real-life input from actual users willing to try out prototypes or models of your product. Neglect any one of these steps, and you're looking at a challenging road ahead.

Research Rules

Thorough research helped Stephanie Kellar, 45, successfully launch her innovative eyelash curler, which features a new take on an old design dating back to 1928. She got inspired after literally pinching her face with the casing (the part that allows the metal parts to curl the lashes) on a traditional model.

With dreams of inventing a better eyelash curler, Kellar set out in 1995 to make two specific improvements: 1) move the casing away from the face so it's not a pinch hazard; and 2) design a larger, rounder curling surface that minimizes the possibility of over-curling lashes. That same year, she launched her Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, business, Corionne Consulting Co. Inc.

Kellar decided to start by finding out whether other potential users had the same complaints about eyelash curlers she did. She used a Usenet newsgroup called alt.fashion to gather information. According to Kellar, "I didn't want to tell people exactly what I was doing, so I would pose questions on the Usenet like, 'Has anyone had problems pinching their face with an eyelash curler?' " Over a few months, by continually posing questions on the Usenet, Kellar was able to get input from more than 100 people. The overall consensus was that the eyelash curlers currently on the market clearly had problems. Kellar was sure this was her great opportunity.

Next, Kellar decided to make a pilot run of products so she could ensure the product was just right. "The biggest error people make is to put a product on the market before it's ready," she explains. So in 1996, Kellar produced a small run of eyelash curlers and gave test units to about 50 of the users she had met through the Usenet to see if they felt the product actually delivered the results Kellar promised. The product testers suggested a few adjustments, which she made.

With close to 5 million eyelash curlers purchased every year, Kellar was confident her new and improved eyelash curler would have an adequate user base. She visited Boston Public Library's Patent Depository section to research past patents on eyelash curlers. (You can also do an online search at www.uspto.gov.) "I wanted to do the patent research myself so I could see all the improvements people had proposed, just as much as I wanted to see if anyone had already patented my idea," Kellar says. After finding that other inventors hadn't really pursued her approach to the problem before, Kellar decided to apply for a patent, which was eventually granted in 1999.

As her experience suggests, Kellar's research paid off. She launched her innovative eyelash curler-the Lashpro, which retails for $19-in 2000 and reached $100,000 in sales in 2001 selling primarily to high-end retailers like Henri Bendel and Nordstrom. Today, 50 stores carry Kellar's product, and she hopes to double the number of high-end outlets by the end of the year. Kellar is also approaching mass-merchant accounts and beauty supply shops and hopes to land a major account by the end of the year. Not bad for an innovation based on a product first patented more than 60 years ago.

SMART AS A POST
Entrepreneur Stephanie Kellar used a fashion-related newsgroup on the Usenet not only to conduct initial research, but also to find people willing to test out an early version of her innovative eyelash curler. The Usenet, an online bulletin board system that lets users post what they have to say in ongoing discussions about specific topics, is a great market research tool if you can find a newsgroup that fits your product category. To access Google's extensive Usenet directory, log on to www.google.com and enter "Usenet" as a search term. Another site that you can use to find the right newsgroup is www.ii.com/internet/messaging/newsgroups; click here to search through 18,000 newsgroups.

Getting Results

Despite what you might think, success is not based on how much people like your product. Instead, according to Shelia Mello, a market research expert in Boston, "The crux of the problem is how strongly people feel about solving their problem." To Mello, the most important point to learn is what percentage of potential users feel the new product is essential rather than just nice to have. "The classification of how much someone likes something is not really relevant," Mello explains. "It is a matter of how much they value solving the problem, so that they will spend money to get it solved or spend money to switch how they solve it."

In Kellar's case, she knew from her research that 25 percent of mascara users use eyelash curlers. When she was using the alt.fashion Usenet, she concentrated on how anxious people were to switch to a new product. She was trying to answer the same question Mello recommends asking: "Is there a significant number of people motivated to buy your product?"

Inventors often get so caught up with their ideas, which they've often worked on for years, that they start to believe they're true experts. This is a big mistake, as inventors usually don't have the same buying motivation as most consumers. So if you want to make sure you're spending your money and time wisely, take time to find out what potential buyers think of your idea. That small step will stop you from making costly mistakes, and it will give you the best shot at successfully introducing the best possible product.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
  • Customer-Centric Product Definition: The Key to Great Product Development (Amacon Books) by Shelia Mello explains the ins and outs of how to find out what customers want and then give it to them. Although the book draws on market research techniques from experts at MIT and the University of Chicago as well as experiences at large companies, its advice will help inventors and growing businesses produce the right product.
  • The Market Research Tool Box: A Concise Guide for Beginners (Sage Publications) by Edward F. McQuarrie, a great resource for both inventors and new marketers, explains the differences between various research phases such as market assessment, final go or no-go decisions, and how to formulate a research plan and assess the results for each phase.
  • Small Biz 911 (www.ndsu.nodak.edu/smallbiz911/main) is a useful site that explains the main steps inventors need to take to get their product to market. Areas covered include idea evaluation, idea assessment, product design based on market research and early stages of product development.

Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant and author of Think Big: Make Millions From Your Ideas. Send him your questions at dondebelak34@msn.com.

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