Innovation: Who Needs It?

Monday, 11 February 2013 06:31
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In dealing with would-be innovators, I find that many share a common trait: they seem to focus on the "what" and the "how" (what the product or service does, and/or how it works) and are less attentive to the "who" and the "why" (who the customer(s) are who need it, and why they need it). This approach can have some definite drawbacks.

Curious to learn more? Read on, dear friends...

Innovation: Who Needs It?

The following account is fictional, but is based on true elements.

My friend and business colleague, Bob Goehrke and I sat at the booth at Panera, sipping our coffees. The inventor we were planning to meet was running late. Just then, the front door opened and a bespectacled, bearded gentleman walked hurriedly into the coffee shop. His eyes and face had a searching expression, which suggested he was seeking individuals he had not previously met. Bob raised his arm and motioned to Henry, guessing that he was looking for us. The fellow smiled sheepishly, and came over to our table.

Henry Blanken, a hair salon professional sat down. He was eager to show us his invention, as he was interested in enlisting our help to license or sell it to an attractive corporate partner. He proudly removing the product comp from his briefcase. He described his invention: a novel hair brush design that was very simple to clean. Its design would help prevent transmission of communicable diseases and would also offer users convenience versus cleaning a traditional hair brush. He claimed its features would make it appealing to barbershops, salons and to consumers, in general.

After praising him on the cleverness of his design, Bob politely but pointedly challenged his premise: "Do barbershops and salons currently have a problem with maintaining sanitary hair tools?" Henry replied that this issue was important to these businesses and that most had procedures in place to help ensure proper sanitization. I asked him if this meant that there were still unmet sanitization issues that his brush could address. He paused thoughtfully and said, "My brush would be used on top of existing methods and would reduce employee down-time that could otherwise be used to service customers."

I pulled out my smartphone and did a quick search on "easy to clean hair brush" and learned that while it is true that many consumers identify with the problem of hair/dander build up in hair brushes, they also perceive it as a fairly low intensity problem. Further, I learned that there are already some hair brushes with retractable bristles currently available in the market. They make similar convenience claims to those that Henry is envisioning. I wondered how Henry's design compared with these brushes.

While still considering this question, Bob suggested that Henry's design could potentially represent a unique solution in the pet grooming business. He explained that according to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spend over $4 billion per year on pet grooming and boarding. He suspected that removing hair/dander build up in grooming tools would be a common challenge and could be fairly time-intensive. He suggested that Henry explore this topic with groomers and then to reconnect with us to discuss his learning, once he had done so.

The lessons in this tale are:

Inventions best chances for success are when they offer a distinctive solution to real and intensely felt customer problems...and that there are a sufficient number of such customers to support a business. Unique solutions are critical to success. Be aware of and knowledgable about other possible existing entries and ensure that your solution offers clear advantages versus these. Robust technologies may be applicable in multiple categories. While focus is important, try to avoid thinking too narrowly.

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