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One of a Kind?

Make your product conform to break away from the norm.
December 1, 2002
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/57228

Although inventors are always looking for that new innovation, one problem they encounter is that a new product may be just too different for people to accept. The challenge is especially difficult when you lack enough money to educate consumers about why your product is better.

Unique products such as the Weed Wacker, which replaced regular hand-operated clippers, typically survive only when introduced by a large company like Black & Decker. The problem is even bigger when your product costs substantially more than existing competing products. But new and different products can survive if you choose your target customers carefully and modify your product just enough that it seems more like what's already on the market.

Finding Success
In 1994, Glenn Hogle worked as a marketing director for a supplier of plastic, in-drawer organizers for cosmetics, socks and hair accessories. He was only 31 at the time, but his wrists would start to bother him after working at the computer for just 20 to 30 minutes. Hogle found relief by alternatively placing one, two or three of the small organizers under the keyboard every five or 10 minutes. By varying his posture and adjusting the keyboard's height over time, he was able to minimize the numbness in his fingers.

At the time, marketing the idea never crossed Hogle's mind. But after the company he worked for was acquired, he decided to tap his entrepreneurial skills. There was also pressure for ergonomic legislation to protect office workers from developing repetitive stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, as a result of using computer keyboards.

In 1999, Hogle and his wife, Sheri, then 36, launched Active Input Solutions in San Diego. The concept was to create a keyboard support system that moves up and down over a three-minute cycle to help alleviate stress on hands and wrists. Says Hogle, "We wanted to tie our product in with the concept of continuous passive motion (CPM), which medical experts use in rehabilitating joint and muscle injuries."

Hogle named his product the EasyMotion CPM. It seemed like a winner except for one problem: Hogle's design was bulkier than a regular pull-out keyboard platform, and its suggested retail price was $330 vs. $30 for a nonergonomic keyboard platform.

Acceptance didn't come easily, but Hogle, now 39, expects year-end sales to near $2 million. He found success because he discovered a target market that considered price a minor issue, and he reconfigured the product's design so it looked more familiar to potential customers.

CALLING ALL INVENTORS
Hammacher Schlemmer, a well-known New York City retailer that regularly releases a catalog featuring the latest and most innovative products, frequently sponsors inventor contests to find the best new products. To help inventors get a quicker yet rigorous new-product review, Hammacher Schlemmer has teamed up with PatentCafe. A positive PatentCafe review doesn't guarantee Hammacher Schlemmer will buy your invention, but it does promise you'll know within a matter of weeks if you've got a deal with the retailer.

A Winning Strategy

While the $330 vs. $30 price difference would floor most consumers, Hogle was confident that corporations and other organizations would pay the higher price to protect employees. "OSHA estimated that the average cost of computer-related injuries is $22,500 per worker," Hogle says. He reasoned that $330 is a small price to pay to avoid injuries and potential lawsuits.

Hogle's initial distribution strategy focused on corporate end users with 50-plus computer workstations, health-care companies, government offices and contractors, and schools and universities. Active Input Solutions Inc. focused its early efforts on the Southern California region and attended trade shows such as the National Safety Council exposition, the International Facility Management Association show and the NeoCon World's Trade Fair.

Even better, office accessories magazines and trade shows offer annual awards for the best new products in many categories. Winning these kinds of awards could generate publicity for a new product. Luckily for Hogle, his EasyMotion CPM product has won numerous awards in its category since 2001.

The Right Stuff
In the first version of his product, Hogle used an electric motor. But he discovered that users, accustomed to quiet keyboard support systems, wouldn't tolerate the motor's noise. So Hogle decided to switch to a pneumatic air diaphragm system that slowly inflates and deflates to move the platform up and down. The change solved the noise problem. "Now when we demonstrate the unit," Hogle says, "people ask us when we are going to turn it on. It's silent, and the motion is nearly imperceptible. They can't hear a thing."

But Hogle had yet another problem. "Major competitors [at the same price point] offered [ergonomic] products on an articulating-arm platform that swung under a desk," he says. "People didn't want the keyboard on their desktops because it was too high for safe long-term use of the keyboard and mouse." So Hogle started offering an articulating-arm and platform with his product as well.

The final hurdle? Competitive products also claiming to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome offered a range of keyboard positions. Hogle answered by allowing users to select movement settings--between 1 and 3-1/4 inches up and down--with his platform. These changes let Hogle position his product as "similar to the competition, but with more features without [a high] cost." That's the pitch Hogle used at the 2002 NeoCon show, and it's working. Not only is he picking up interest from dealers nationwide, but he's also negotiating with workstation manufacturers to make his EasyMotion CPM product a standard component of their product lines.

Turning the Tables
The three major complaints inventors with unique inventions often hear from retailers and dealers are that their products are too different, cost too much and lack a market. That's certainly what Hogle would have faced if he had tried to sell through retailers to consumers. Rather than butt heads with the market, you're much better off following Hogle's lead: Find a niche where your price is right, and then configure your product so it doesn't seem all that different from what's already being offered.

Your product could end up being perceived the same way Hogle's is--as offering a lot more value for the same price. Today, Hogle's customers include American Airlines, Mattel, Mitsubishi USA, Nike and Sony. That kind of positive perception can turn almost any product into a surefire market success.

READ ALL ABOUT IT
To gain a general understanding of how you can use patents, trademarks and copyrights to increase your business's worth, check out The Patent Process: A Guide to Intellectual Property for the Information Age by Craig Hovey. The book doesn't explain the nitty-gritty details of how to obtain intellectual property, but it does explain when to get patents, how much they will cost, what type of protection they offer and how they will benefit the person who owns them. The book also offers a particularly valuable discussion of trademarks and copyrights, both of which can typically be obtained for less than $300 and are often underused by growing businesses.

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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