COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

So you think you have good idea for a product ...?

Did you ever see a new product and say, "Why didn't I think of that?" or "I had that idea years ago, if only..." Well, I have news for you. It's not that simple to take a product idea and make it successful. Take some comfort that your unfulfilled ideas would probably not have made you a millionaire.

Based on my experience in bringing dozens of products to market, the invention is less than 10 percent of the total contribution to a product's success.

Every successful product needs to start with a good concept, but a good concept alone is a long way from success. Like a good recipe, it needs a lot of ingredients combined together in just the right way. Leave out any key ingredient and you have failure.

Obviously you need funding, a high quality product, a talented team and a positive attitude. Here are some other key ingredients for success:

Perfect Product -- Going from concept to a finished design requires many tradeoffs to ensure the product performs well, is affordable and meets the needs of the marketplace. Every product is a balance and a compromise. Knowing what not to include is as important as knowing what to include.

Dollars & Sense -- The retail price must match the customers' expectations and needs. A product goes through multiple markups. Everyone along the food chain needs to take his or her cut, including the manufacturer, the distributor and the retailer. The product's cost must fit the formula.

Competition -- Many products can take years to go from concept to the marketplace. Your competition will be what is being sold when your product ships, not today's products. You can't count on patents to protect you because you don't know what's not yet issued. All you can do is conduct thorough searches and apply for patents and hope no one else is working in a parallel universe doing just what you are, or worse, something better.

Timing is Everything -- There is a bias for schedules and plans to be highly optimistic. Pad your real schedule by about 20 percent, keep it to yourself, and get everyone else to work on your most optimistic schedule.

The Numbers Game -- So many decisions are predicated on expected sales. If the volumes do not materialize, then you can face increasing costs, excess inventory, cutbacks in resources and even breaking the company. Forecasting is very difficult and few ever get it right. Just remember, few products of any kind ever sold a million a year, yet that is the most common number mentioned when you ask an inventor how many he or she will sell. The opposite can also happen; there is so much initial demand that you spend for higher volumes and are then stuck with huge expenses. My advice is do your best forecast and cut it in half. It's hard to be totally objective about a product you are intimately involved with. It's better to have too little than have too much product.

If you build it, will they come? -- You can have the best product in the world, but if you don't have the money to tell people about it, no one will know. It can be costly creating awareness because you are competing with so many others to get the attention of the consumer. Smaller companies have a big problem getting their products into stores. The larger retailers don't want to work with one-product companies. If they do take your product, they demand huge fees to put them on the shelf. Look for proven ways such as using experienced marketing companies to sell higher volumes, even if you have to sacrifice margins.

Luck is Everything -- It's getting the important things you can control right, and hoping the things you can't control will work out. When the product is introduced, does anyone care? Is the economy ripe for it? Did you make the right feature tradeoffs? Did you hire the right employees? Is there a recession around the corner? Is there a new competitor? An immense amount of skill will help, but the odds of getting everything right are low, and timing and luck play a big role.

Taking a great product concept and successfully bringing it to market involves lots of skill, and attention to a wide range of disciplines, as well as an immense amount of luck.

So why bother? Because there is nothing more exciting or rewarding than starting with an idea and seeing it end up on store shelves, reading the reviews, and having people buying and enjoying it. And you may even make money at it! Maneuvering through all of these issues makes the journey exciting, challenging and sometimes even fun. Perhaps Thomas Edison said it best: "Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration."

In future columns we will be exploring some of these issues in more detail as well as focusing on the business side of products, companies and technology.


Baker is San Diego's Ernst & Young 2000 Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year for successfully bringing to market Think Outside's folding keyboard for the Palm and other PDAs. In addition he has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents.

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