Innovative new products are the fuel for the most powerful growth engine you can connect to. You can grow without new products--AT&T sold essentially the same telephones for decades while becoming the world's largest telecommunications concern--but most small companies will find it difficult to grow at all, much less rapidly, without a constant stream of new products that meet customer needs.
If you decide to develop new products as part of your growth plan, you're in good company. Small companies contribute at least half of the major industrial innovations occurring in the United States, according to the SBA. At the same time, approximately one-third of all new products are unsuccessful, and in some industries, the percentage of failures is much higher. The way to increase your chances of coming up with good ideas is to follow the tested track to new product development success.
New product development can be described as a five-stage process, beginning with generating ideas and progressing to marketing completed products. In between are processes where you evaluate and screen product ideas, take steps to protect your ideas, and finalize design in an R&D stage. Following are details on each stage:
1. Generating ideas. This stage consists of two parts: creating an idea and developing it for commercial sale. There are many good techniques for idea creation, including brainstorming, random association and even daydreaming. You may want to generate a long list of ideas and then whittle them down to a very few that appear to have commercial appeal.
2. Evaluating and screening product ideas. Everybody likes their own ideas, but that doesn't mean others will. When you're evaluating ideas for their potential, it's important to get objective opinions. For help with technical issues, many companies take their ideas to testing laboratories, engineering consultants, product development firms, and university and college technical testing services. When it comes to evaluating an idea's commercial potential, many entrepreneurs use the Preliminary Innovation Evaluation System (PIES) technique. This is a formal methodology for assessing the commercial potential of inventions and innovations.
3. Protecting your ideas. If you think you've come up with a valuable idea for a new product, you should take steps to protect it. Most people who want to protect ideas think first of patents. There are good reasons for this. For one thing, you will find it difficult to license your idea to other companies, should you wish to do so, without patent protection. However, getting a patent is a lengthy, complicated process, and one you shouldn't embark on without professional help; this makes the process expensive. If you wish to pursue a patent for your ideas, contact a registered patent attorney or patent agent.
Many firms choose to protect ideas using trade secrecy. This is simply a matter of keeping knowledge of your ideas, designs, processes, techniques or any other unique component of your creation limited to yourself or a small group of people. Most trade secrets are in the areas of chemical formulas, factory equipment, and machines and manufacturing processes. The formula for Coca-Cola is one of the best-recognized and most successful trade secrets.
4. Research and development (R&D). Both tasks are necessary for refining most designs for new products and services. If you're already the owner of a growing company, you're in a good position when it comes to this stage--most independent inventors don't have the resources to pay for this costly and often protracted stage of product introduction. But that's not to say if you don't have a business, you can't find the resources to undertake this task. There are plenty of ways to get the job done cheaply.
R&D consists of producing prototypes, testing them for usability and other features, and refining the design until you wind up with something you think you can make and sell for a profit. This may involve test-marketing, beta testing, analysis of marketing plans and sales projections, cost studies and more. As the last step before you commit to rolling your product out, R&D is perhaps the most important step of all.
5. Promoting and marketing your product. Now that you have a ready-for-sale product, it's time to promote, market and distribute it. Many of the rules that apply to existing products also apply to promoting, marketing and distributing new products. However, new products have some additional wrinkles. For instance, your promotion will probably consist of a larger amount of customer education, since you will be offering them something they have never seen before. Your marketing may have to be broader than the niche efforts you've used in the past because, odds are, you'll be a little unsure about the actual market out there. Finally, you may need to test some completely new distribution channels until you find the right place to sell your product.