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How To Assure Failure In a New Venture

by: Geoff Ficke

One of the great benefits we enjoy about the consulting work we do is having the opportunity to review the inventiveness of hundreds of entrepreneurs each year. It truly is amazing how many of these creative talents push the envelope of novelty. There is no such reality as the oft stated: “I have seen it all”. None of us have seen it all, as the volume of freshly executed innovative products and concepts being nurtured, is never ending.

And yet, so few of the projects we review ever make it past our initial critique and pre-product development criteria. They will never become widely distributed products, successfully sold in the contemporary marketplace. There are many reasons for this. One reason seems to occur more than most.

Many entrepreneurs become so enamored of their vision and perceive the markets will have positive acceptance for their item that they suspend rationality. We have a term for this malady: “falling in love with the product”. Love is a wonderful emotion. However, it can blur rational thought. The process of gaining purchase into hyper-competitive markets and successfully commercializing new products requires a steady, realistic, but passionate vision. Total commitment to detail and identifying an unfilled market niche, one with scalability, is essential to successfully selling to retailers and consumers.

Very early in my career as an entrepreneur, I made the mistake of “falling in love with my product”. I had created a unique cosmetic accessory product. I was able to bootstrap distribution into almost all of the major department stores in the United States. Then I expanded and sold the product internationally through country specific distribution agreements. Seeing your novel product creation on store shelves in the world’s finest emporiums, such as Marshall Field’s, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Preciados, Harrod’s and Selfridges was more gratifying than can be described.

However, I did not spend enough time building my Company. I was a single product business. Initially sales were lucrative, re-orders were positive. I was attempting to handle sales, marketing, product development, operations and logistics. I was too close to my product to recognize my shortcomings and the limit of my resources.

Nevertheless, I had penetrated a difficult, sophisticated market. I was a real entrepreneur. I had achieved a modicum of success and had gained the knowledge necessary to launch more companies and products in the future. I learned from my mistakes.

Most of the new product submissions we receive come from first time inventors. Every entrepreneur is a novice at least once. They believe they have identified a need, created an answer to that need and are prepared to sell their item for millions of dollars to big box retailers or investors. It almost never works out that way. Here are a few anecdotal examples that prove this point.

Items like the “arm mitten” are too narrowly positioned to ever achieve mass- market scale. The “arm mitten” is a patented product that is a simple sleeve the driver of a car places over their left arm, to protect the arm from sunburn. Air conditioning, high speed driving with windows closed for wind noise mitigation and safety glass treated with UV inhibitors all posed massive hurdles to the potential for “arm mitten” success.

Consider the “beach boot” for negotiating sandy terrain. This boot, equipped with tank-like tracks attached to the sole and a miniaturized motor roll the wearer over the sandy beach surface. Why walk over sand when you can roll? Why walk barefoot when you can ensconce your feet in hot, sweaty boots at the seashore? Not much upside here!

The “insomniac helmet” was a sleep aid, sort of. There is a small battery powered motor humming in the helmet and the unit massages your head with rubber fingers until you fall asleep. The straps utilized to attach the “insomniac helmet” to the users head look like preparation for capital punishment. Now I like a neck massage as well as the next guy, but this Rube Goldberg contraption would make falling to sleep a nightmare.

The “cup o golf” was the proposed answer to every duffer’s hope for improving the golf swing. A steady head is crucial to a fine golf swing.

The “cup o golf” was a little cup, attached to the bill of the cap. The cup contained a little ball tethered to a string. When the head dropped or moved the ball rolls out of the cup, and dangles annoyingly in front of the golfer eyes, thus conveying that the swing was imperfect. Some players, using the “cup o golf”, could take nine hours to play a round, and they wouldn’t be good company in the clubhouse bar after the experience.

Another example of an inventor’s blind love in their product was the “dad saddle”. This item took the papoose pouch that parents use to carry infants on their backs to new heights, or lows. The “dad saddle” was invented to enable dad’s to carry 10 or 12 year olds on their back without perpetrating excessive lumbar damage. The “dad saddle” is a leather waist strap that the bigger pre-teen can stand on and hold onto padre’s neck. Cool! Bonding forever!

Each of these items is patented. Each of these inventors, and thousands more, spent considerable time, energy and some capital on their ideas. They had really “fallen in love with their invention”. Unfortunately, the inventor’s view of their product is irrelevant in the long run. The marketplace is the final and only arbiter that counts in measuring whether offerings are truly novel, commercial products. Sales equal confirmation of entrepreneurial assumptions about products.

Successful entrepreneurs must treat their inventions as if they are always works in progress, because they are. They will know what the product’s strengths are. These are usually obvious. Aggressively seeking out the flaws in the concept and addressing and improving these weak spots are essential to achieving success. If you are “in love with your product” you will find it much more difficult to edit, redesign or change direction as needed. If this is so, you will fail.