Questions All Would-Be Innovators Should Ask Themselves
Before you commit to your latest invention, read this
Ideas, like opinions, are universal. But the road from a good idea to a winning product or service is lengthy, winding and full of dead-ends.
Over the years, I’ve met with countless entrepreneurs desperately trying to move their killer concept from a synaptic connection to real-world application. Virtually all of them were motivated, but I was often astounded by how many had not paused to develop a plan and strategy for making their notion reality.
Those moments, when I sat across the table from them and asked a simple question were often heartrending. My words were a pin-prick, puncturing their dreams.
I do not pretend to be an inventor, innovator, or entrepreneur, but a few decades of talking to CEOs, product managers, marketers and engineers has left me with some useful insights into how ideas become viable products, and the questions innovators should be asking themselves.
How strong is the idea?
If you’re like me, then at least a half dozen random ideas occur to you while you’re in the shower. You know, “shower thoughts.” I’ve cooked up many cartoon and article leads (first paragraph) ideas under the steady beat of a shower massage. Sometimes I emerge and think, “Wow, that’s good, I need to get to my computer or tablet ASAP.” Other times, I dry off, clear my head and realize, “That’s a terrible idea.” The thing is, you can’t assume that every idea you have is a good one. Yes, I think there’s something to trusting your gut. You somehow know that, against all odds, this is a fantastic idea and a great product. On the other hand, product strategy isn’t called gut strategy, so relying too heavily on intuition as opposed to information isn’t a good idea.
Accept that every idea is at least worth committing to paper, but then challenge yourself by applying a standard litmus test to your winning shower thought.
How much of need exists?
New product and services ideas are often born out of a personal need. You know, that moment when you say, why doesn’t my phone service, which is tied into my cable service, know that I do not want to be disturbed while watching The Walking Dead? Such a thought might spark product development for a third-party app.
However, I think it’s dangerous to assume that your needs are the same as everyone else’s. You need to scale your idea outside your own home or office and image how it might work for millions of others. Is everyone annoyed about those interruptions? You might find the answer online. A Google search might turn up a TV/Phone interruption support group, or thousands of comments on various cable company support sites begging the service provider to develop a way for customers to set Do Not Disturb on their cable box.
My point is, a product without a built-in market is almost doomed to fail. “What about Steve Jobs?” you might ask. He often built products that had, up until Apple introduced its own version, been near or abject failures in the market.
Just know that you are probably not Steve Jobs and what he accomplished with, in particular, the iPod was unprecedented. He built the portable MP3 player no one knew everybody needed, but soon everyone wanted.
Is there anything else like it?
My least favorite conversations with young entrepreneurs are when I ask them if they know about another product very similar to the one they were about to launch. You’ve never seen the color drain out of anyone’s face so fast. There’s often stammering and then an attempt to recover with, “Well, yes, now, I mean, what we do is different, better, because…”
Look, sometimes they’re right. Their new product is better than what is on the market or even what a competitor is simultaneously developing, but usually, it isn’t.
It was obvious, at least to me, what was happening. These innovators were so singularly focused on realizing their idea that they’d stopped paying attention to the outside world. Granted, this was a lot easier in the pre-Internet 1980s and 1990s when there wasn’t a 24/7 feed of technology and innovation news, and you couldn’t simply hop on Kickstarter to see what the competition was up to.
And yet, I still think that it can happen, especially at the engineering- and product-design level where it pays to keep your head down and stay focused to deliver the best possible product. Looking up could mean disaster for product development, until you realize it’s also a way to learn and make quick adjustments that could lead to a better and, if you’re lucky, unique product.
Quality of the team?
You have the big idea, but there’s no way you can build it yourself. Leave your ego at the door and find the best and brightest in all the key disciplines necessary to realize your idea.
Finding those winning partners isn’t always easy. You can’t simply trust what they tell you. Investigate their previous work and make sure it aligns with the kind of product or service you’re building. Expect and encourage them to bring their own ideas to the table. You started this, but it will be a team that brings it home.
Quality of execution?
Someone once shipped me a prototype mobile phone gimbal. It was a nice gesture, and I’m always excited to try new gadgets, but this was a disaster.
It was an orange, 3D-printed device that the developer hadn’t even bothers to polish, so all the 3D-printing ridges were showing. In addition, the glue and wiring were visible in spots. Okay, I thought, “this product isn’t done.” I put my phone in it, turned it on and it proceeded to spin and yank my phone about in the most awkward and alarming fashion. Finally, it seized up. I was embarrassed for the developer and quickly shelved the psycho gadget. I never heard from or saw the company again.
At every stage of product development, you need to produce your best work and never share what isn’t ready unless it’s with a beta tester who will deliver feedback directly to you.
Also remember that there is no one part of the product or service that is less important than another. Consistent care across all stages of development will ensure high quality design and a solid final product.
Is there strategic alignment between the idea and those who are building it?
One hallmark of successful product design is communication. If you’re working alone, that’s not a problem, but, at some point, most creators will take on partners and collaborators. In large companies, they win by allowing cross-departmental communication. Developing complex products is hard enough without stove pipes of information that lead to confusion and, ultimately, poor product execution.
The challenge with allowing other people to execute your ideas is that they don’t always understand the original intention, especially if they’re only working on a piece of the idea. Every stakeholder should have the exact same understanding of the larger goal. If they want to diverge from that or think they need to make a larger adjustment, then team leaders must agree on the new adjusted goal.
Willingness to adjust on the fly?
When I write a 4,000-word feature story, I often agonize over every single world. I fiddle with the structure, my first paragraph, the quotes and all the details. Then I hand it to an editor, who tears it apart and asks for adjustments. It can be hard to accept that. It was my story, my idea, I conceptualized it and now my editor wants change.
Change is usually about making my story better and it will be the same with your idea. If you’re lucky your get to ruminate over each adjustment, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the changes come fast, and you have to make tough choices in too short a time. But you make them, because, ultimately, they’ll make the product better and ensure it finally gets to market or your audience.
Ability to message?
It was your idea and you want to be the one who tells the world about it. I get that. However, you have to put your pride aside and consider who is really best equipped to deliver that message to your target audience.
Over the years, I’ve met many inventor CEOs. They’re smart and know their product better than anyone else, but they usually struggle when explaining it to consumers. They get lost in the weeds of development or technology. The passion is there, but the clarity is not. Unless you have a background in marketing or public relations, step back and let the professionals do the talking.
How much pain can you endure (mentally, physically, financially)?
Whatever you think it’s going to cost to turn your shower thought into a real product or service, triple it, and then add $50,000 for good measure.
Sure, you might get an angel investor interested or get funded on Kickstarter, but don’t count on it.
Along with the financial costs, there’s the unanticipated mental and physical ones. Product development is filled with frustrations and failures and if you have to juggle it with your real job, it’ll be just plain exhausting. It might also be worth it. Just be prepared.
Do you know how to leverage small success into bigger ones?
The road to product success is filled with more than a few bumps, but there are also transcendent moments when something works, you get a little funding, or someone buys your V1 products. How you react to those moments could help set you up for even greater success. Be sure to recognize the small wins and do what you can to capitalize on them. If you get 90% great feedback on your first product, but also 10% criticism, focus on the critics and figure out how you can improve the idea in V2.