Inventors Need To Be Marketers: Here’s How To Start

Most inventions achieve little or no commercial success. The problem is often a marketing failure: a promising innovation is never brought to customers in a form that they will buy. Inventors need marketing mind-set and skills to get their inventions into the end zone.

Many inventors, particularly technologists, invent because they see a way create a product that has breakthrough properties: it does something faster, better, or cheaper than ever before, or something that has been imagined but not previously realized. Inventors quickly see ways to use their product. For example, as image-forming chips became small and cheap, inventors created digital eye-shades: a pair of dark glasses that form an image on the back of each lens which the eyes see as a single picture. You can put them on and watch a movie from your phone that appears to be on a big screen.

Inventors have great passion. They demonstrate their product to everyone who might be interested. The message is: “This is really cool. If you like watching movies, you will love these digital eye-shades.” They file provisional patent applications (a 2-page description of the invention that the patent office accepts without commitment). They reach out to investors and talk about their product’s breakthrough performance and their “patent”, proposing a multi-million-dollar investment.

Too often this goes nowhere. Most of the time, customers will not buy technical performance alone, even highly technical customers, and investors pass politely: “This is very interesting but it’s just too early for us. We’d love to track you. Please come back when you have orders worth $1 million.” The invention sits on the shelf, or an established company may copy and integrate it into their product line.

The most successful inventors cross this gap by turning themselves into marketers. Their mind-set shifts dramatically. They focus on solving a problem or making life or business better for a valuable group of customers, and they stop talking about the performance and obvious value of their invention. This sounds simplistic, but in practice it’s profound.

The first task is finding a group of customers for whom the invention can make a big positive difference. The difference needs to be big enough that customers will 1) buy and 2) truly adopt the new product: make it part of their lives, buy more, and recommend it to peers. The problem you solve needs to be on the top-three problem/unmet need list for a person who controls enough money to make the purchase. Solving minor problems is no good: they usually don’t make it to the top of the action list.

The potential customer group must be big enough to make your business worth the effort to you and to investors. To raise venture capital, you need a U.S. market opportunity in the $ billion range. (Angel investors may go for less.)

Next, you need to immerse yourself in your customer’s world. Where does the problem you solve fit into their way of doing business or lifestyle? How high is it on their hierarchy of needs? How do they describe their need? Is it part of a bigger problem from their perspective? The customer may be looking for a broader solution of which you provide a part. If so you need to find a partner who can integrate your tech into a solution. Digital eye-shades were developed, and companies were funded, but few customers wanted to buy another piece of gear for the rare situation when they would put on an eye shade and watch a movie in isolation from others, most likely on a long flight. But digital viewers took off in the form of tablets, a broader solution encompassing communications, multi-media and PC-like functions, and less isolating than digital eye-shades.

How does the customer buy this kind of thing, and how do you get on her/his radar? Every market has its specific workings. Studying customers and thinking as they do will point you in the right direction. I find it very useful to just hang out with potential customers: get to know them as people, understand what their big wants and frustrations are, see how they like to do things. Trade shows can be a good opportunity to do this: lots of customers are there and open to talking, potential partners are there too, and you can often find background information on the market. At first, don’t try to sell anything. Just listen.

You want to design your business so that you will be the best at meeting the need you decide to target; otherwise you could get blown away by established competitors once they see what you are doing. Product superiority is one way to do this. Disruptive innovation is a subtler approach: at first, you attack a part of the market that established competitors think is not attractive, then you boot-strap your company into the mainstream. Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen wrote the book on disruptive innovation. Don’t count on a patent for protection: small companies often have great difficulty enforcing patent rights.

Marketing is a big subject and a career; this is just the skeleton. You can bring marketing expertise onto your team. But your company will be more successful if every important leader learns to think like a customer and feel what they feel.

First posted @ blogs.forbes.com/toddhixon on March 12, 2018.