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Archive for November, 2008

How to Start a Gourmet Food Product Business (Or Any Product) on a Shoestring

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

The first issue we see nascent entrepreneur’s almost universally attempt to address is the perceived need for working capital. When we ask how much investment they believe is required to get their product to market, they never can justify what they identify as their magic number. I have yet to read a business plan that can justify the assumptions that are utilized to support the capital investment being sought, ever, and I read dozens of business plans each month.

My consulting firm reviews hundreds of new product ideas every year. Many have wonderful commercial prospects. However, almost none of the entrepreneurs offering these opportunities for funding have considered all of the possible avenues available to launch their idea. Funding is the “Holy Grail” in the eye of most entrepreneurs, and yet, a capital raise is the single hardest route they can attempt to utilize.

Investors, unless family or friends, demand a very high level of due diligence before they will stage a capital investment. Strong management, a clearly identifiable Unique Selling Proposition (USP), first mover advantage and a 35% return on invested capital kicking in between months 24 and 36 of operation are the basic guidelines typically utilized when underwriting opportunities. These are standards that very few entrepreneurs and inventors can achieve.

There are many ways to “bootstrap” new products or services before seeking a financing round. They are not glamorous, more like the old parable of the tortoise and hare. These strategies require the oldest trait known to inventive man: simple hard work!

Here is an example of a product that we recently “bootstrapped” to a successful market launch, and subsequent funding relationship. I received a call from a gentleman who owned a construction business. After initial platitudes, he advised me that he had created the world’s greatest barbecue sauce. We receive a lot of food products for review, and every single one is accompanied by the old bromide, ” it’s the best in the world”. I was wary.

Mr. Barbecue Sauce sent me a box of his three sauces to sample. They were very tasty. I advised him that the taste was surely excellent and potentially commercial but that he would have to utilize more of a “guerilla” marketing strategy than his hoped for investor funding round. We wrangled for several months. He approached other consultants and food industry experts before finally coming back to us and agreeing that he needed to utilize a “plan B”.

We contracted to write and execute a business plan for the launch of the sauces. We engaged the services of a dietician, a licensed food product private label source, a graphic designer and a packaging resource. We perfected the label statements and content values of the product. Then we conducted a focus group, obtained testimonials for attribution, and prepared sales collateral.

When the product, packaging and sales materials were market-ready we approached independent and regional purveyors of high-end gourmet food products. These types of retailers are much easier to work with, barriers to obtaining shelf space are small and they are keen to enjoy exclusive distribution of select items. Each door that was initially opened agreed to a schedule of product samplings. We set up a table on an aisle end cap, cooked top quality sausages and asked shoppers to choose which of the three styles of sauce they would prefer on their taste sample. We had an inventory of product on the end cap gondola with a special introductory price.

The results were gratifying and confirmed our assumptions that the barbecue sauces were truly commercial and consumer acceptance would be strong. The samplings lead to strong initial sales, but much more importantly, in subsequent weeks repeat sales began to grow without the aid of sampling.

Geographically, the client fanned out to the nearest markets and repeated the same limited, controlled roll out strategy. The results were always the same, a bit of a cult product was beginning to germinate.

For most of the first year of distribution we utilized the “tortoise and hare” approach. We then identified a gourmet product trade show in Orlando, took a stand and sampled the sauces just as we had in the first local gourmet products stores in the owners hometown. The difference is this instance, was that we were sampling, and taking orders from retailers from all over the United States and internationally, key decision makers in the gourmet product industry. Also, because the product was positioned as a gourmet foodstuff, price points reflected the sauces higher perceived value and the products were not buffeted by mass market discounting.

The entrepreneur had invested some reasonable amount of his own money, but this was mitigated by the go-slow approach we had undertaken. His initial sales funded the controlled rollout of the sauces to additional regional markets. He had not diluted a single percentage of his ownership by taking on investment partners. The growing order book from new retailers and repeat purchase orders were valued by his bank and he was introduced to the merchant bank division to establish a line of working capital.

Mr. Barbecue Sauce came to us with the notion that he needed $350,000 to fund the launch of his enterprise. As we initially quizzed him, he realized that he would really need to raise more like $1.2 million to realize his goal. By being open to alternative ideas, he avoided a huge pitfall that most entrepreneurs fall in too: raising $350,000 and failing is expensive, raising $1.2 million in order to insure success is cheap.

In this case, Mr. Barbecue Sauce was fortunate that there was an alternative strategy readily available to customize for his product. He mitigated risk, limited financial exposure, test marketed the product, extrapolated market potential based on real sales numbers and enjoyed the secure knowledge that the product was commercially viable without being at the mercy of investors demanding strict performance markers be constantly achieved.

Most entrepreneurs with truly commercial projects have many more options available to them than they ever consider. It is amazing how few projects are really fundable, and yet, investor funding is almost always the preferred route they choose to undertake. “Bootstrapping” is almost always the last alternative considered. Successful inventors, entrepreneurs and small businesses will always do whatever is legally necessary to achieve success. Anything less is the equivalent of dreaming.

Golf, Pet and Hunting Products Share an Amazing Entrepreneurial Quality

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

My marketing consulting company reviews hundreds of new product submissions every year. We specialize in consumer product development. The items we analyze run the gamut of product categories. The most creative, prolific and many times, the most commercially exciting are golf, pet or hunting and fishing products.

The reason I have come to believe that there is so much creativity in these areas is passion. Golfers, pet owners and outdoorsman are among the most ardent aficionados in their interests in these hobbies. They will spend almost any amount of money to improve the benefits they derive from their chosen pleasure.

Golfers are manic in their desire to improve their games. We receive numerous training devices, stroke control, bag accessories and novelty golf products annually. Each entrepreneur seems to have developed their innovation based on a perceived need they have identified from their personal play experience. The result is a flood of truly novel devices, some very commercial, that pique these golfers creative juices.

Hunters and fishermen have similar passion for their favorite pastimes. Hunters are driven to get closer to prey, obtain better shot sight lines and get more shots with their rifles or bows. They invest heavily in any gizmo that offers the promise of more action while on the hunt. Fishermen will go to abnormally heightened lengths to catch more fish. Exotic lures, fish finders, bait scents and rod accessories that are new, and offer the angler a possible advantage over the fish are must have items for the tackle box.

Pet owners are especially unique. People that will share the interior of their homes with one or more pets are indeed committed. Recently we introduced a new pet product at the largest pet trade show in the United States. The casual observer could easily imagine the types of products that would be featured in such an exposition. However, walking the show floor was an education. To view the luxury, comfort, fashion and expensiveness of the thousands of specialty products on display was staggering.

Entrepreneur’s that we have worked with over the years are always most passionate when they are trying to commercialize a product that they created to fill a need that they have identified in an important area of their life. Whether it is from employment, a hobby or sport in which they participate or from their household experience, the best ideas seem to evolve from the inventor’s life experience. Passion is to the entrepreneur as fertilizer is to agriculture, essential!

The pet category is huge and growing, There are over 70 million licensed dogs and 45 million cat owners in the United States alone. A niche product that creates demand among these pet lovers has huge upside potential. The market in this product category can be penetrated relatively easily, if the item is truly unique.

Products that are commercially desirable in the categories of golf, hunting, fishing and pet care/accessories also enjoy huge international distribution potential. Distributors, partners and licensees are available for country and continent distribution pacts. These parties will buy the products in bulk quantities from inventors and handle in-market sales, warehousing and business operations.

In many product categories there are 800-pound gorillas (competitors) that present daunting hurdles to new entrepreneurs. The golf, hunting/fishing products and pet product areas are much more sliced up. They have lower barriers to entry and the main players are typically more specialized in their product strengths. This provides greater opportunities for entrepreneurs to secure shelf space and promotional features.

The time has never been more exciting for the market to absorb truly fresh, innovative new specialty products in these and many other categories. The inventive mind, driven by zeal for a hobby or identified need, can be successful and significantly change the course of their life while providing real product performance benefits to consumers of their inventions. The best time to move is always now.

The Real Perfume Creators Are the Great Artisan Noses

Monday, November 10th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

The stunning growth of the high-end luxury perfume business in the last two decades has been centered in the celebrity endorser, designer category. Actresses, athletes, models and fashion designers have introduced dozens of new scents; each seeking to lure consumers based on the aura created by the endorsing personality.

Whether you admire Michael Jordan’s basketball skills, Narciso Rodriguez’ modernist Spanish designs or Jennifer Lopez’ singing or acting talents, the marketers of these fragrance brands seek to profit from the perceived lifestyle allure of their licensee’s. What very few people realize is that branded fragrances are rarely, if ever, actually created by the endorser.

The perfume industry is a multi-billion dollar international enterprise. The marketers of branded fragrance products, however, rarely, if ever, develop and produce their own scents. This is a specialty business handled by large essential oil houses like IFF, Robertet, and Givaudan. These companies not only formulate scents, but they harvest and source the flora, fauna and the exotic natural ingredients that provide the base for their fragrances. Many of these biologically diverse plants and animal by-products are rare, expensive and fragile, requiring a great deal of special handling and knowledge.

An example is the whale by-product ambergris. Whales are not harvested to obtain ambergris. This is skimmed from the surface of the ocean, above swimming pods of whales, Ambergris is simply whale vomit. It is exceedingly valuable and crucial as a component in many exotic scent bases.

The high cost of perfume is attributed to the expense of obtaining essential oils from rare and expensive plants. Rare orchids can yield only a few drops of oil per plant harvested and processed. The processing of essential oils is it’s own industry.

Companies like Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden and Lancome do not produce any of their own fragrances. They typically meet with perfume houses such as Givaudan, provide guidance as to their desired scent direction, and then await and evaluate submissions from the integrated houses chosen to bid on the project. Once a favored prototype scent is chosen then the perfume house is contracted to perfect the scent and produce the oils.

The creation of perfume is part science, part marketing, part branding, and a whole lot of art. The art of designing unique, commercial fragrances is entrusted to the “nose” retained by the perfume house. “Noses” are rare, coddled, gifted and possess a talent so unusual that there are only a few recognized “noses” in the world at any given time.

I have had the good fortune to work with one of the greatest, most successful “noses” of the second half of the 20th century. Francis Camail is a legend in the world of creative perfumery. The list of his achievements is stunning. Watching and experiencing his work is to view the efforts of a “master”.

Mr. Camail, working from his laboratory in Grasse, France has been the creative genius behind Annick Goutal, Revlon’s Charlie (at one time the most popular scent in the world), Giorgio (the most profitable brand of the 1980’s), Estee Lauder’s Aliage, Eternity (Calvin Klein), Ivoire (Pierre Balmain) and Bond #9. These are only a few of the brands that have germinated from his ability to create scents that consumer’s desire and loyally purchase on a repeat basis.

Mr. Camail is unique in that he is an independent contractor hired out by large, international perfume houses on a per job contract basis. His reputation is so powerful that he has the ability to be exceedingly selective in the clients he chooses to work with. To view the process he utilizes to layer, build and nurture various top notes, dry notes and a final bouquet is to experience a true artisan master at work.

The creative process necessary to produce luxury perfumery is an old-world, artisan craftsman skill that can not be taught. Francis Camail does employ assistants and interns, as do most other “noses”. However, very few of them, if any, ever go on to successfully conquer the mystical world of exotic fragrance. His skills are apparently God given.

In a world of mass production and industrialization, it is reassuring to know that skills such as those provided by perfumery “noses” are still extant, and essential. The world still has nooks and crannies that appreciate and value craft and artisan skills and abilities.

The World’s Greatest Flacon Designer Pierre Dinand

Monday, November 10th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

I was most fortunate to work as an executive in the cosmetic and perfume industry in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the “Golden Years” for creativity in that wonderful business. That was the era before the immensely destructive wave of retail consolidations and corporate mergers and buyouts that has severely crimped innovation in the years since. My experience was blessedly timed to coincide with an explosion of entrepreneurial activity.

The beauty industry gave me an opportunity to work with retailers, artisan craftsman and component vendors from all over the world. One of the most rewarding and enjoyable collaborations I experienced was working with Pierre Dinand to create an original perfume flacon for a new scent I was launching.

In the world of perfumery, Pierre Dinand is a living legend. Over half of the perfume units sold around the world to this day are packaged in customized, crafted bottles designed by Mr. Dinand. He has uniquely sculpted over 500 flacons for some of the most successful and famous perfume brands in the world. Opium (Yves St. Laurent), Eternity (Calvin Klein), Fendi, Valentino, Azzaro Pour Homme, Rochas, Armani, Guerlain and Givenchy are only a tiny sample of the brands he has designed for.

Pierre Dinand works in a light, airy atelier in Paris. When Mr. Dinand accepts a commission to create an original flacon he initially receives a sample of the scent to be contained in his creation. He interviews the perfumer, seeking to ascertain the notes and moods the perfume is meant to convey to the consumer. Dinand lives with the scent until his mood has been piqued and he forms a creative template for the initial silhouette he imagines.

Mr. Dinand is an internationally acclaimed sculptor. He uses favored sculpting techniques to generate initial concept pieces. The production of molding tools for the glass and the manufacturing process must be considered when crafting the prototypes. After drawings, clay models and initial acrylic pieces are sculpted the client is brought in to critique and review the early prototypes.

The process is continued until all issues regarding aesthetics, design, tooling, production and breakage are satisfactorily addressed. The closure is often the most difficult, detailed component in a perfume flacon. The closure must have the most exact tolerance to contain the liquid (which is prone to leakage) and can add significant costs to the bill of materials.

Mr. Dinand remains involved in all aspects of the packaging of the scent until the product is on counter. He appears at press presentations, will attend key trade shows for launch purposes, meet with major buyers and lend his considerable personal network of associations whenever necessary to assist a brands success in the international marketplace. He is a true professional and the roster of hugely successful brands he has creatively inspired is testament to his genius.

Pierre Dinand has also enjoyed great success as a mainstream, consumer product container designer. One of the most famous packages he crafted is the world famous orb bottle for the popular soft drink Orangina. The ubiquitous Orangina shape is renowned around the world and is further proof that this design giant digs deep to understand the needs of every client he services.

The world of high-end perfume is populated with artisans that demand the highest levels of quality, craftsmanship and creativity. Corners are never cut in the pursuit of delivery of the perfect scent. Closure, bottle, box and coffret graphics, tester units, sales collateral, sampling and signage are all absolutely essential elements necessary to present the scent in the most exclusive presentation possible.

I have launched a number of fragrances, skin care lines, hair care programs, color cosmetics, bath and body ranges, nail care, hand and foot care brands over the years. Collaborating with top craftsman is essential in order to properly position and differentiate new products. Working with an old-world artisan such as Pierre Dinand is rewarding, and refreshing in a modern world where attention to luxury, detail and styling is almost a lost art.

The Simple Elegance of Elsa Peretti’s Heart is Educational For All Product Designers

Monday, November 10th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, the historic “Big 3” American automobile manufacturers are on a deathwatch. Their collective futures appear to be solely dependent on the political whims of the United States Congress. As they burn cash, are strangled by huge legacy labor obligations, confront perceived quality issues and offer cars that are out of step with consumer tastes and needs, the future looks bleak for each.

There are many reasons for the demise of these legendary manufacturing behemoths. I believe the most important cause is that for too long they did not emphasize unique, elegant design. It does not cost any more to make an ugly car than a handsome car. When I sit at a traffic light today I cannot differentiate one American model from another. As a child growing up in 1950’s America, I clearly remember going for Sunday rides and identifying every car make by the rake of the fenders, the unique headlight treatment, grille fascia and the vivid two-tone sherbet colored paint jobs specific to each model. What happened?

Design in product development is crucial to product desirability. A Krups toaster is more aesthetically pleasant than a pedestrian Emerson model. An Italian leather sofa is typically more stylized and desirable than a chain store sofa offering. Apple computers are more visibly enticing than their competitors units. Who would not rather drive a Smart car than a Geo Metro?

The most desirable design features are usually simple. In industrial design the term “elegantly simple” is used regularly to denote product improvements that are not overbearing or complex. This concept is a modern adaptation of “Occam’s Razor”, a theorem proposed by an ancient monk that the most useful solution to problems is almost always the simplest solution.

There are many wonderful examples of designers of that have enjoyed great success by employing “elegant simplicity”. One of my favorites is the classic modern jewelry designer and artist, Elsa Peretti. Her body of work is a classic collection of “less is more”.

Ms. Peretti, born in Florence, but residing in New York, has been a fixture on the international jewelry design scene for over 30 years. She became a principal designer for Tiffany in the 1970’s and famously collaborated with fashion designers Halston and Giorgio de Saint Angelo to accessorize their most famous haute couture fashion collections.

Her most recognized and lasting design is the “Peretti Floating Heart”. The simplicity of the piece is enhanced by the undulating wavy cleave that is inherent in the object. The heart seems to float and engenders a feeling of warmth that connoisseur’s have valued for decades. The ” Peretti Floating Heart” has been a mainstay in Tiffany’s stores and catalogues and been offered in dozens of styles, pieces and combinations since it’s initial presentation. The timeless influence of this design alone would insure Elsa Peretti’s place as one of the great artisan designers in history.

When Halston began work on his eponymous fragrance brand he turned to Elsa Peretti for inspiration. Her adaptation of the “Peretti Floating Heart” into the stylized sculpture that became the Halston perfume bottle is considered one of the classic designs in the history of the fragrance industry. It sells briskly to this day.

Ms. Peretti, like Raymond Loewy, Pininfarina, Felini and Erte created design, art, and fashion that is timeless. These artists realized that form and function are actually one joint element that can insure commercial success. We forget this at our peril. Just look at the current situation of the “Big 3”.

When we review new product submissions at our marketing consulting firm we apply a simple methodology to measure potential commercial success. Does the item adhere to the basic principal of “Occam’s Razor”? Are the features and benefits inherent in the submitted item an advance over existing products in the space? Is the form and design distinctive enough to clearly differentiate the item from competition? These are only a few of the elements we review when grading opportunities.

Product designers, inventors and entrepreneur’s need to study history’s successes and failures. Businesses come and go. Brands soar and decline. You are never the greatest, only the latest. Unique design is invaluable to long-term product success. Do not dismiss this crucial product component. Elsa Peretti has built a lasting success and legacy by focusing on design, quality and “simple elegance” that defines her work.

The World’s Most Successful Board Game Was Created As A Metaphor for Hard Times

Monday, November 10th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

Successful entrepreneurs are people that always see opportunity in any situation. By nature they are positive and constantly seek innovations that address wants and needs that they identify in their contemporary environment. Currently we are in a dark economic period, and this will prove to be a fertile time for the introduction of novel innovations that will reward their creators with significant profit.

The world’s most famous, widely played and sold board game is Monopoly. Lizzie Phillips created the first version of the game that was to evolve into modern Monopoly. Her game was meant to promote the single tax theories of Henry George, and the play rules were heavily influenced by his populist philosophy. Ms. Phillips filed several patents on versions of her game around 1904. She enjoyed modest commercial success.

The game and its play rules were tweaked through the years. Subsequently, the various forms of Ms. Phillips rudimentary game that were introduced never enjoyed great sales but the game never quite disappeared. Then came the Great Depression.

The many causes of the Great Depression have been well chronicled and today most people are aware of at least the broadest reasons for the implosion of the world’s economy. Greed was the cause most often stated at the time to assign blame. Society was highly segmented by wealth, education, geography and class. Charles Darrow recognized opportunity in the misery of so many and crafted his classic version of Monopoly to address the perceived social sins of the times.

The play rules and component elements of Monopoly, little changed to this day, reflected the deep divisions in society. Darrow’s game, launched in 1935, displayed the whole range of opportunities for failure and success that could occur in a capitalist society. You could go to jail, be taxed, be fined, go bankrupt or land on owned property and have to pay rents to the hated landlord if the dice were unlucky for a player.

Likewise, you could “pass go” and collect $200, win dividends, buy property, build houses and hotels, own railroads (the classic metaphor for greedy capitalists) and collect rents if the roll of the dice favored you. Also, you could bankrupt your opponents and this occurred with frightening regularity in real life during the 1930’s.

Clearly Monopoly was a game that resonated during the darkest days of the Depression and still works as a leisure activity to this very day. Darrow attained great wealth from the sales of his version of monopoly. Monopoly was licensed by the British Secret Service through John Waddington Ltd. during World War II. The International Red Cross forwarded Monopoly sets to British war prisoners incarcerated in Nazi camps. These games included hidden packets of real money, maps, communication devices and tools for use in escape attempts.

Parker Brothers secured the rights to Monopoly and succeeded in internationalizing the game by assigning country-specific play features. For instance, in the American game, the most prized real estate deeds to own are Park Place and Boardwalk. In the British version the most prized blocks of real estate to own are the very tweedy Park Lane and Mayfair.

The game’s origins, history and ownership are surrounded by significant controversy. Parker Brothers attributes all of the creative, copyrights, play rules and component design of Monopoly to Charles Darrow. This lead to decades of legal wrangling over the true ownership as Lizzie Phillips and others claimed creative ownership of the game. These legal issues were not settled until the 1980’s.

There are a number of lessons for modern inventors to be taken from the profitable, but stormy history of the simple board game of Monopoly.

If the game has play rules that anyone can easily understand, play is fluid, play pieces are simple and attractive; then there is potential for commercial success.

You must protect your game with copyrights, trademarks and patents where applicable. Not properly protecting these valuable assets lead to much disagreement and expensive, extended legal wrangling in the case of Monopoly.

My consumer product development and marketing consulting company sees more toy and game submissions than almost any other product category. The barriers to entry in this class of trade are reasonable if the inventor is willing and able to bootstrap their offering. We recommend a play focus group to confirm that target players affirm the attractiveness and commercial appeal of the game or toy.

Recently, for a class project, a third grade teacher let us borrow her class of 23 students to play a new sports board game for half a day. We filmed the session. We also had the kids answer a series of simple questions of their play experience. Based on their reactions, we were able to adjust one basic play rule to further simplify and expand the appeal of the game. The change resulted in the final result of the game becoming much more closely contested, therefore exciting.

The perfect time to launch a new product is always now. Time is never the friend of the entrepreneur. If you wait for the perfect time, the best market conditions to appear, someone can beat you to market with a product that cannibalizes the best parts of your idea. This happens all too often. Waiting for a better climate is an excuse for inaction and a sure path to mediocrity. Charles Darrow’s launch of Monopoly in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression is a wonderful example to study.

Many Aspects of Modern Travel Were Pioneered By the Ancient Romans

Monday, November 10th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

Modern travelers take the open road for granted. We can hop into exquisitely engineered modern vehicles, pop onto smooth, straight freeways, well lit, with excellent signage and many roadside conveniences. We can cover as much ground as we might like in any direction, in relative comfort and safety.

Much that we love about modern road travel was actually available 2500 years ago to the ancient Romans. They created the template for a system of interconnected roads and conveniences that we have simply adapted during the 20th century as the automobile became the mass method of conveyance. The road system that they built to connect their far-flung empire is still in use in many places.

As the Roman Empire flourished, conquered and consolidated new lands and needed to efficiently administer these territories the necessity for a durable network of roads became obvious to the ruling class. Prior to Roman ascendancy roads around the world were simple unpaved paths cut into the landscape by pack animals, carts and people moving goods to trade, barter and local markets.

The Romans prospered by trading in the lands they conquered, but they also needed to move great armies, control supply lines and have the ability to quickly transport edicts, orders and news to the far corners of the empire in a timely manner. To build this essential intra-state network of highways the Romans utilized the manpower always available in their army legions.

The quality and durability of Roman roads still amazes. Depending on topography Roman roads were famously straight for as far as the eye could see. This engineering feat was accomplished without any of the modern surveying equipment used by road builders today. The Romans invented a simple device called the gromma and this became the principal tool utilized for accurately surveying roads and thoroughfares.

The gromma ingeniously uses two strings with a weight tide to the end of each. The strings are attached to the ends of a length of wood. The surveyor would simply line up the strings until they appeared as one, and would have assistants plant stakes approximately every 100 yards apart . The surveyor, using the gromma as a guide, would have the assistants slightly adjust stake placement until the strings of the gromma and the line of stakes appeared as one. The result was a roadbed that was true, precise and easily utilized by the construction crews.

The Romans laid rock above the roadbed so the surface was higher than the land next to the road. This enabled water to drain off to the side and meant that roads did not wash out in inclement weather. Gravel was placed on both sides of the roadway to act as a sort of gutter to carry away runoff.

This system, when viewed on a modern map, appears much as the present day system of interstate highways is constructed. Spain, Gaul (modern France), Italy, Germany, the British Isles, Greece and Northern Africa all were tied closely together by this amazing transport network. Modern roadways parallel this grid in most countries where the Romans built their highways.

The Romans built over 2000 bridges. Many are in use, carrying traffic to this day. The arches they crafted were amazingly strong, with strategically placed keystones supporting the massive weight and pressure of these utilitarian edifices. In addition, these bridges are some of the most beautiful structures ever built. The Roman word for bridge was “pontificat”. Today we apply the descriptive name “Pontiff” to the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, as the Pope acts as the bridge between heaven and earth.

Hundreds of tunnels had to be built through the rugged topography of central Europe in order to move traffic to the most expeditious routes. The Romans had no power tools to gouge through rock. They had no dynamite. The technology to construct these tunnels was primitive, but most effective. Engineers would build massive bonfires right against the rock face of the surveyed tunnel. Then they would boil vinegar and have this splashed against the burnt rock face. While the effect of the heat and vinegar was greatest sappers would begin to chip at the weakened surface with chisels and hammers. Some of the tunnels took 20 years to complete.

As the road system grew, the need for roadside services became acute. Travel was typically undertaken in approximately 20-mile daily chunks. As a result every 20 miles or so, along the breadth of the massive Roman network of roads, there were roadside inns, workshops to repair transit vehicles, and stables to care for livestock. Maps were prevalent and indicated not only place names, but distances, accommodations, levels of luxury, services, and military garrisons.

As distance was crucial in planning itineraries the Romans perfected the odometer 2000 years ago. They utilized a 42-inch diameter wheel and a series of gears that engaged each time the wheel made a full turn. The interlocking gear system was calibrated so each gear turned as it was activated until a Roman mile (approximately 5000 modern feet) was covered. Then a gravel pellet would fall into a container as holes in the gears came into alignment. This amazingly accurate measuring system enabled the Romans to mark their maps, and place stones alongside the roadsides marked with precise distances covered and to the next town or service stop.

Today, travel has become a hugely popular experience enjoyed by millions of people around the world. Whether a brief weekend road trip, a cruise or an international vacation, people love to go. So did the Romans. The Romans were the richest people in the history of the world to that time. The system of roads they built were heavily utilized for recreational travel, the first time in history that people had the wherewithal to move freely about for strictly leisure purposes.

Travel guidebooks were omnipresent in ancient Rome. The travel guidebook for the many attractions of Greece, for example, was 20 full papyrus pages long. Inns and eating establishments were rated for economy, luxury, cleanliness and safety. The modern Michelin and Fodor guidebooks are simply successors of the Roman travel guides.

At most major crossroads on Roman roads there was a sign offering directions, distances and recommended stops for repairs, refreshments or relaxation. Many also included a news board with recent proclamations, travel warnings and local notices. These were the world’s first billboards.

As travel grew in popularity so did the menu of services available to the traveler. Chariots, sedan chairs, carts, wagons and covered wagons with swivel seats and dice tables (for the rich) were available for rent. Accommodations varied widely in cost and quality. Hostels, servants quarters, private sleeping rooms, luxury quarters with fire, bathing and mattresses were on offer depending on one’s pocketbook. Food was offered in similar variety.

The world’s first fast food was also available from some purveyors. The cart simply pulled to a door or opening, the menu card was reviewed and the order placed and delivered to the vehicle to be consumed as the journey continued.

The Roman Empire began to consume itself around the 5th century. The pursuit of luxury, greed and laziness made the Empire corpulent, vainglorious and decadent. The same roads that had been so crucial in their military, recreational and commercial enterprises came to haunt the Romans. Their many enemies utilized this road network to attack their former masters. The Visigoths, the Franks and the Mongols used the Roman roads to carve back lands formerly taken from them and to attack Rome mercilessly. By the end of the 6th Century Roman hegemony was long a thing of the past.

The demise of the Roman Empire meant that the maintenance and continued construction of the roads came to a halt. This had the unintended consequence of leaving huge swaths of the system in areas where there was no effective government. Trade came to a halt. The roads were deserted. In many areas, especially North Africa, Britain, Spain and France the Roman highways disappeared beneath weeds and fauna.

The result was the commencement of the Dark Ages. People stopped travelling for almost any reason. Until the Crusades there was almost no interaction between peoples and cultures. The insularity of tribes and fiefdoms lead to a reawakening of ignorance, disease, superstition and hate.

For six centuries the Romans ruled the known world. Their ability to create, invent and improvise has served mankind ever since. The vast Roman network of interlocking roads, tunnels, bridges, mapmaking, services, commercial enterprises and exploration is the guide we utilize to this day in communication, logistics and locomotion. We have much to thank these brilliant Romans for as we utilize so many of their inventions to this very day.

Our Demise Is Greatly Overstated The United States’ Future is Incandescent

Friday, November 7th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

As we slog along under the full weight of the current financial calamity, there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth about the future of the United States. Many of our countries fiercest enemies and critics are gloating over their perception that our wave has crested and we have entered a period of steep decline as an economic, military and cultural power. Amongst the citizenry, there is a palpable sense that the country is on the wrong track. In reality this has ever been so.

The 19th century Canadian politician Wilfrid Laurier once famously spouted, “the 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century”. Oh really! Now I love Canada and Canadians. They produce wonderful comedians like Jim Carrey, John Candy and Rick Moranis, great hockey players, the moose hunting is amazing and Labatt’s is a terrific brew. The Canadians prospered nicely in the 20th century, but by any measure Mr. Laurier’s observation was classic balderdash. He is but one of a long chorus of critics that prematurely dismissed American prospects to their regret and embarrassment.

The current President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev has blamed the United States solely for the global financial crisis, assigned blame for Russia’s thuggish unilateral military invasion of tiny Georgia on American policy and stated that America would descend to second tier status as a global power. This from the leader of a country with a declining population, staggering levels of alcoholism and drug abuse, clepto-capitalism, a military hobbled by desertion and archaic weapons systems, declining productivity and a complete lack of innovation. How bright is the future of the average Russian eking out a living in Vladisvostock?

There are always doubters and cheerleaders fueling the notion that America is in decline. The Soviet and Eastern European Communists, for 70 years predicted they would overcome us. Nikita Kruschev famously shouted at the United Nations, “we will bury you”. Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda believed that we would never stand and fight; shedding blood and treasure, just to preserve our freedoms. Hussein is dead and Bin Laden is hiding in a cave as a result of their misjudgments and fundamental misunderstandings of our resolve.

American uber-leftists like Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky travel the world trashing the United States. The capitalist system that has enabled the country to prosper and made the Moore’s and Chomsky’s rich, is continually denigrated and blamed for every perceived malady we face. Capitalism is not perfect. It simply is the greatest engine for economic prosperity ever yet developed.

Why will America emerge from our current difficulties with a brighter, stronger future outlook than so many of our critic’s project? Simply put, America has the ability to adapt and re-invent itself like no other country or culture in history. We are more receptive to immigrants than almost any other country and they constantly infuse the land with energy, creativity and continually stir the stew that makes the United States so unique. Our society is the most fluid in the history of the world. New ideas are always emerging. America’s unique vitality separates us from most other countries that have static state centered economies.

There is no place on earth, at any time in history, where entrepreneurial activity is so valued and pursued as in America. This constant blast of creativity bears fruit in so many beneficial ways. Through hard work, novelty and inventiveness, utilizing the capitalistic economy, rule of law and property rights, entrepreneurs have the potential to build enterprises that provide products and services, profits, employment and social benefits that make America uniquely dynamic. Times are tough, but the will to succeed is irrepressible.

Another reason the future for America is so bright in my estimation is our ability to laugh at ourselves. This country has many sourpuss types, doomsayers, negativists and self-haters. However, these “nattering nabobs of negativism” are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Americans that revere the country, appreciate her innate precious goodness and have the ability to laugh at our collective foibles and faults. This is a trait of which we can, and should be proud. It is a trait that is found almost nowhere else in the world.

We have survived wars, depressions, natural disasters, and terrorism. The fiscal difficulties we currently confront are in large part self-inflicted. We have not been diligent in demanding that our government act prudently over the last 75 years. We spend too much and save too little. We want much more than we need. We confuse greed and envy with comfort and safety.

The country also just elected a black man, a minority, to be President of the United States. This could only happen in America. Could a North African rise to such heights in France? Could a Turkish immigrant achieve the equivalent office in Germany? Could a Filipino laborer rise to these heights in the Middle East? Of course not! This country, its values and opportunities, is the beacon of hope that ordinary people all over the world aspire to emulate.

This is a wonderful time for each of us as citizens to take stock of our personal and societal situations and adjust to a reality that is based on real needs, not the irrational pursuit of materialism. We must demand that politicians stop bribing us for our votes with promises of benefits that some future generation will be saddled with paying for. This is the best possible time for Americans to reflect, adjust and re-energize this wonderfully dynamic country.

The Simple Road Reflector Saves Lives And Provides A Great Teaching Template

Friday, November 7th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

One wintry night in 1933, Percy Shaw found himself driving his automobile on a remote country road in England. The night was moonless; the fog hung densely and there was a persistent mixture of rain and snow belting against his windshield. The road was little more than a lane, with no signage, no shoulders, winding and curvy. Any error in judgement would be very costly indeed.

As Mr. Shaw slogged along he suddenly came upon a rise in the road and was startled when a small Morriss Minor automobile appeared right at the crest of the grade. The approaching car was headed directly at his vehicle. He was on a slight curve, it was pitch dark, the road was slick and unmarked. In the split second he had to make a decision a small housecat scampered across the road. The headlights of Mr. Shaw”s car illuminated the eyes of the cat, and the reflection from those iridescent orbs provided Percy Shaw with just enough perspective to gage his distance and edge safely around the Morris Minor.

As Percy Shaw gathered himself after his close call, he began to think about what had occurred. Why were roads of the time so dangerous? What had just happened that he could take advantage of in a way to help all motorists? He became motivated to improve road safety for every driver everywhere. But how?

The reflection from the cat’s eyes was the key to the solution Mr. Shaw sought. He began tinkering in his garage workshop. After a number of attempts, he perfected the first “cat’s eye road reflectors”. Today, the ubiquitous illuminated reflectors implanted in roadbeds and placed strategically along roadside rights of way are part of the driving experience that we take for granted. They provide safety and guidance at night, and in horrid weather conditions. In the 1930’s they were considered an amazing safety advance.

The British Government immediately endorsed and implemented the installation of the reflectors on roads across the British Isles and then across the Empire. Millions of Percy Shaw’s “cat’s eye road reflectors” enhance driving safety around the world to this day. Mr. Shaw was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth and profited mightily from his invention. He was always most proud of the safety benefits his simple invention had provided mankind.

Modern entrepreneurs and inventors can take a simple lesson from this seemingly elementary invention. Percy Shaw was not thinking about inventing the “cat’s eye road reflector” that stormy night in 1933. An event occurred that made him consider possibilities. He sensed a need. He addressed that need. He profited from his answering the need he had identified, and all motorists realized the benefits of his inventiveness.

Creative entrepreneurs are always seeking to offer products and services that provide improved features and performance benefits not available in current items. The simplest of ideas and concepts are often the most commercial. The example of Percy Shaw’s invention of the “cat’s eye road reflector” is a wonderful template for aspiring inventors.

Opportunity can appear at the most unexpected moments. Be aware, be flexible and be opportunistic if you want to enjoy the fruits that come to successful innovators. The market always is open to new, novel products.

What Would the World Be Like Without the Simple Screw

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

We take the simplest devices for granted in our modern technologically advanced world. We turn a tap and water is delivered, hot, temperate and cold. We hit a wall switch and darkness is overcome by light. We open the refrigerator door and peer into a compartment that contains climate controlled stored foodstuffs. These conveniences are omnipresent in the developed world in the early 21st century.

And yet, we reflect little on the simplest, most important inventions that make all forms of product possible. Consider the humble screw. Yep, the little fastening vehicle that is ubiquitous in every tool-box, do it your self pre-pack, or kitchen catchall drawer. The ability to affix two opposing elements or surfaces together and insure that their attachment is permanent is essential to the structural integrity of virtually every non-consumable product we use today.

No one knows who invented the screw. We do know that wooden screws were in use during the time of Christ. They were widely used in the Middle East in pressing grapes for wine, olive oil production and woodworking. The applicable uses for screws really did not change much until the 18th century. Englishman James Ramsden invented the first “screw cut lathe” to mass- produce steel screws in 1770. This advance made screws more economical and their usage in industrialization processes began to increase exponentially.

In the 1930’s, Henry Philips, in response to the booming automobile industry’s need for closer tolerances, invented the Philips Head Screw. This square headed screw was a significant advance as it enabled machine tools to apply more torque to the screw head, thereby providing much tighter fit and finish between conjoined parts.

Billions of screws are now used every year in millions of applications. Screws of all sizes and metallic composition are essential to every product that we manufacture. As useful and universal as the common screw is in our lives, we never really reflect on it’s importance, it’s efficiency, it’s economy and what the world would be like without these ingenious little linkage devices.

There is a contemporary lesson here. The simple screw has made life easier and more comfortable for every consumer. Jobs are created to produce screws, distribute screws and utilize screws. Prosperity is enhanced by the usefulness of this simplest of inventions.

Many entrepreneurs and inventors seek to improve life and profit commercially by creating new innovative products. The lesson we can all learn from the plebian screw is that sometimes the most valuable, most useful concepts are the simplest. It is not necessary to re-invent the transistor or discover a new system of water desalinization to profit. Looking into your universe of work, family or play and finding a simple improvement that will benefit consumers is the easiest path to commercial success.

In my consumer product development and marketing consulting company we review hundreds of product submissions each year. The best, most commercial are inevitably the simplest. They offer the most utility for the greatest number of consumers. These concepts typically do not require re-educating the consumer, which can be a difficult and expensive proposition.

So keep it simple and apply the simple “screw” test to determine simplicity, facility, cost effectiveness and applicability. This is a wonderful template that can be transferred from an ancient product to modern inventions to determine prospects for success.