Innovate With Existing Products

Looking to innovate on a concept that already exists? Ordinary products get new life when they find the perfect blend of form and function.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the May 2006 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

A stapler that staples up to 60 pages with even the lightest touch of a pinkie finger, a transparent tea tin lid that keeps out damaging UV light, a diaper bag that's runway-ready--they all point to one trend: In even the most seemingly ordinary product categories, there's room for extraordinary design innovation.

"I looked at the stapler market and [saw that] there hadn't been any functional changes in over 100 years," says Todd Moses, founder of Newtown, Pennsylvania, office products company Accentra Inc.Moses' core product, the PaperPro, packs the power of a staple gun into an otherwise traditional, nonelectric, sleek-looking line of staplers. The response has been astounding. "We've grabbed 20 percent market share in two years," says Moses, 32, whose "aha!" moment happened when his stapler jammed before an important meeting--and he chucked the stapler against the wall. Founded in 2003, Accentra now sells millions of units per year in more than 100 countries and has sales well into the eight figures. Retailers selling the PaperPro have seen a 30 percent increase in stapler sales.

Accentra's story is proof positive that consumers want function and fashion in everything they buy--right down to their staplers. "Both functionality and aesthetics are necessary to create a successful design solution," says Davin Stowell, founder and CEO of Smart Design, a New York City-based product design firm whose client list includes giants like Corningware, Hewlett-Packard and OXO International. "If it looks good and doesn't function, the consumer will have an unfavorable experience with a product. Likewise, if it functions but doesn't have visual appeal, a product may not attract consumers at retail."

Steve and Catherine Granville found this phenomenon to be true in January 2001 upon the birth of their first child--and they decided to do something about it for the sake of new parents everywhere. "When my wife and I became parents, we entered a parallel universe of really bad brands," says Steve, co-founder of Fleurville, a maker of high-end diaper totes. "People having babies now are very different from what [new parents] used to be. But typically, there's an assumption that the kid is buying the products."

In other words, cartoon characters and fuzzy bunnies might ap-peal to youngsters, but it's adults who have to carry the diaper bags--and the Granvilles had a hunch that something fashionable would be a hit. They were right. Their first product, the MotherShip diaper bag, struck a chord with parents who wanted something stylish--and didn't mind paying $155 for it. "We're the generation that buys a new spatula every three weeks just because we think it's cool," says Steve, whose San Rafael, California, company had sales of $2.5 million in 2005 and projects sales to reach $5 million this year. "Generations X and Y are entering their prime spending years and [are] using modern design as a prime attribute in evaluating a product."

With baby products in particular, the purchasing options can be overwhelming--so the Granvilles, both 37 and now parents of two, have to exceed expectations. Durable yet stylish, the MotherShip and other Fleurville products feature all the essentials parents need, including an insulated bottle holder and an ergonomically designed shoulder strap. Fleurville products are carried at more than 1,000 boutiques and department stores worldwide and have even attracted celebrity moms like Sarah Jessica Parker and Gwyneth Paltrow.

For Michael Cramer, founder of Adagio Teas, making his gourmet tea products stand out comes down to design details such as a bottom-dispensing teapot that simplifies preparation of loose teas; transparent, UV-blocking lids on tea tins to give customers a glimpse of the product prior to purchasing it; and pyramid-shaped tea bags that combine the taste of loose tea with the convenience of a disposable bag. The company--which sells primarily through its website ( heavily on product design to attract and reel in customers. "There's not much you can do to the product, because it's an organic product from overseas," notes Cramer, 39, who began the Clifton, New Jersey, business in 1999 and now brings in more than $1 million annually. "The only way to differentiate the product is [with] packaging and presentation."

It's a trend that's trickled down to--or perhaps derived from--universities nationwide, with many design students working with small businesses to create innovative design solutions. And according to Craig Vogel, director of the Center for Design, Research and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati, such successful designs are conceived early on, not as afterthoughts. "Get a complete look as early as possible at what a product is going to be," says Vogel, who teaches courses in integrated product development with companies such as Ford and New Balance. "An integrated approach allows you to develop a comprehensive product early and see if it's what consumers really want."

Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance writer in Southern California specializing in small business and education.

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