I think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door." Well, that's not necessarily true.
Consider the dilemma facing Superior Aqua Enterprises Inc. in Sarasota, Florida. Superior Aqua has developed an electronic device that cleans swimming pools by injecting copper and silver ions into the water. The ions kill bacteria, algae and other yucky stuff without chemicals. The device is warranted to last for 10 years, except for a "flow cell" that can be easily replaced by the pool owner every 2 years or so. With the money you save on chemical treatments, the product pays for itself in 2 to 3 years-even sooner if you use your pool year-round.
This is great for consumers, but it's lousy for swimming pool installers and pool supply outlets that make a ton of money selling chlorine. Their profit margins would probably be cut in half or more if they started carrying Superior Aqua's product, and many smaller stores and distributors would go out of business. So they don't buy.
Of course, Superior Aqua could pitch its product directly to consumers with a massive barrage of newspaper, magazine and TV ads, e-mail blitzes, late night infomercials, and radio plays, but that costs a ton of money that the company doesn't have. Also, the market has been conditioned to buy pool supplies only through established retailers and wholesalers, who are firmly committed to chemical-based pool cleaning products. What to do?
In a nutshell, Superior Aqua has decided to scare the hell out of the marketplace. "We're trying to increase public awareness of the health and environmental hazards of chlorine and other chemical-based pool products," says Jim Muha, CEO of Superior Aqua, "both to benefit consumers and to persuade distributors that their current big moneymakers won't be viable over the long term."
A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that pool chemicals interact with organic matter (such as skin cells and body care products) in the water in such a way that molecules known as trihalomethanes (THMs) are formed. While scientists caution that the links are still inconclusive and inconsistent, their studies suggest that prolonged exposure to THMs may increase the risk of miscarriages in pregnant women, among other things.
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Superior Aqua's marketing staff has collected abstracts and copies of THM research from the Internet and routinely sends packets of information about THMs to commercial pool operators, aquatic directors of health clubs, municipal recreation departments, and other large consumers of swimming pool chemicals.
In its mailings, which suggest that pool operators can "reduce their liabilities" by switching now to electronic cleaning products, Superior Aqua is careful not to make any claims itself about the potential health or environmental hazards of pool chemicals. "We merely pass on information which is all publicly available on the Internet, published by EPA staff members, water scientists and microbiologists," says Muha, who adds that Superior Aqua's lawyers are intimately involved in preparing, updating and reviewing the mailings to ensure that the company does not make false or misleading statements about competing products.
What about the fact that scientists haven't yet proven a direct link between chlorine, THMs and health risks? "You can't wait for the science to be perfect," says Muha, "because by that time, the marketplace has already moved on. Hey, scientists still aren't even 100 percent sure that global warming is happening, and still you have international treaties trying to stop it."
While it's still too early to predict results from Superior Aqua's strategy, Muha says the marketplace has already started to demand alternatives to traditional pool chemicals. "What we see is the industry leaning toward more expensive chemicals such as bromine, which costs five times as much to produce as chlorine without, as far as anybody knows, eliminating the risks," says Muha. "The more expensive the chemical alternatives become, and the more nervous people become about pool chemicals generally, the more opportunity we have to get our electronic product into the system."
One more thing: To see what happens when a "better mousetrap" takes on an entrenched industry, go to your local video store and rent The Man in the White Suit, a 1951 British movie starring the young Sir Alec Guinness. Guinness plays a starry-eyed inventor who's come up with a miracle fabric for clothing that never wears out. Pure white, like shining armor, the suit shrugs off dirt and stands out like a searchlight. However, there is a problem. Because the material is so durable, people only need to buy one suit to last them a lifetime. How will the textile mills make money, and what will happen to the workers' jobs? It's one of the funniest movies ever made, and one of the most poignant for entrepreneurs.
Cliff Ennico is host of the PBS television series MoneyHunt and a leading expert on managing growing companies. His advice for small businesses regularly appears on the "Protecting Your Business" channel on the Small Business Television Network at www.sbtv.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.