Innovation and the Unknown

It seems that companies are tossing around the innovative word like it's a piece of candy to be chewed on and enjoyed because it tastes so sweet. Maybe some companies can innovate that way and actually benefit from the process. However, I am not quite so sure the innovation process works that way. I tend to think that the companies who launch a product with the innovative label on it are probably entering unknown territory.

In my experience, innovation, once it hits the market has been worked on for years and years behind the scenes. The consumer doesn't see the tireless work that has been put in from the passionate business owner and employees. When the breakthrough product finally hits the market it seems like it went from zero to 100 MPH overnight. "It's an overnight success" right? Aaah, not really.

I have some experience with start-ups trying to launch innovative products and here are a few things that I discovered along the way that I wish I had known before I started the grueling journey.

1. Too Early Means A Lot Of Education: Sometimes products are too early for customers to be ready for them. Not every product is accepted by the masses. In some cases it could take years to enter a market, or not at all. If you realize that your product requires a lot of educational assistance just to bring the market up to speed on what the product does and why, you will need to invest a lot of energy to educate your market before you try to sell. Attempting both selling and educating simultaneously just doesn't work very well.

2. Don't Rely On Early Adopters: This group of people may validate your product but they aren't a large percentage of your primary market. Yes, you will always have the early adopters who "get it." But don't rely heavily on what they say, because they are a very small percentage of your market and they most likely will tell you what you want to hear. Chances are they may only be about 10-15% of your market, not enough to make a big enough dent that's for sure.

"The bad news is that they are not a good test of basic usability and ease of operation, which are always a key to the much larger market of regular customers."

3. Do You Have The Time To Create The Market? You have created a new product that nobody else has. Congratulations you have the innovation label. Okay, now what? Is there a market for your product that will be sustainable? Hmm. Maybe it's time to think about creating the market. I hope you have a big wad of cash for advertising and other forms of marketing because creating your indefinable market can be daunting, risky and costly.

4. Being First Isn't Always Best: Sometimes it is better to let another company spend all the time, money and energy creating the market and educating the customer. The good part with this is the market has already been exposed. This can be incredibly expensive and time consuming. If you have the patience and you think your product can ride the coat tails of a successful brand who already entered the market, why not pump the brakes a little and wait? If you can also differentiate yourself from them, that may be a better play for you and save lots of money as well.

5. Do You Know How To Teach A Foreign Language? Creating the market is like teaching someone a foreign language. Nothing makes a lot of sense until exposure levels reach a level of heightened frequency and understanding. But when does that really occur? It's definitely not market saturation. But it's also not sticking your toe in the water for the first time and waiting for the ripples either. Creating the market requires extreme knowledge, research and a whole lot of bravado. If you want to know of a company that does it quite well, just follow Apple's history of launching products. They are probably the best in the world at creating a market and owning it.

By the time I finally figured out these very important lessons above, I had already gone through the pain and suffering of what the unknown brings entrepreneurs while they are in business. At the time I was in the middle of all this, I wish I had already read Geoffrey Moore's Crossing The Chasm. If I had only known. Hmm, I guess that is what all entrepreneurs say.

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Photo Credit: Paul Bica