Business Innovation

A Better Mousetrap?

A Better Mousetrap?

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a couple of entrepreneurs that apparently came up with a better mousetrap--make that pen. For how many hundreds of years have we as human kind been using writing utensils that are straight like a stick? Been a few at least and before that the quill. Then in 1987 Colin Roche, a high school student at the time, gets sent to detention and dreams up a new design for a pen to relieve his writer's cramp (any guesses as to what he was writing 500 times?).

The first prototype was built in his dad's garage (see picture-first prototype on far left) and the company, called PenAgain, did nearly $2 million in sales last year. Now, according to the article, they've been given a shot at the big time--thirty days to prove it will sell in Wal-Mart. If 85% of the 48,000 pens ordered by Wal-Mart and placed in 500 test stores sell during the first thirty days, they are in. If not, they may stay on in some of the trial stores or be completely dropped.

Getting into Wal-Mart is a big deal. They have 138 million customers every week! Competition to get a product into that channel is stiff. According to the chain they see about 10,000 new suppliers every year. Of those only about 2% make it to the trial run stage and that is just the beginning. Suppliers to Wal-Mart have to adhere to strict packaging and shipping requirements, monitor the sales of the product in each store, and drive customers into Wal-Mart to buy the product.

So what is PenAgain planning to do to drive customers into Wal-Mart to buy their pen? Unable to afford print or TV ads they plan to do viral marketing. Over the past several years they have collected an email list of 10,000 customers who regularly buy their pens. Mr. Roche describes them as "people who really want to know what the heck is going on with us."

I hope they succeed. Next time I'm in Wal-Mart I'll look for one of their end caps and drop $3.76 to see how it works both because I'm curious but also because I learned a few things from them:

  1. It is possible to improve everyday things that we take for granted. I'll never look at a pen again the same way. A good paradigm shift.
  2. Though it would be easy to summarize this story by saying, "A kid came up with a new kind of pen while in high school detention and now it is selling in Wal-Mart," the fact is a lot more than just a better mousetrap has gone into their success so far. The article doesn't say how many small retailers they work with, but $2 million in sales is a lot of pens and I'm betting a lot of retailers. That's a lot of selling to get to this point.
  3. It doesn't matter what kind of business you are in, building a database or list of customers that want to know "what the heck is going on" with your business is vitally important. The world may not beat a path to your door if you build a better mousetrap, but your loyal customers will if you have a way to let them know. I checked out PenAgain's website, you can join their mailing list right on their front page.
  4. Public relations efforts do work. PenAgain is doing something right as far as PR goes. I was impressed they were in the Wall Street Journal, then I took a look at their site. They've been in Newsweek, Wired, Entrepreneur, and San Jose Mercury News just to name a few. Whatever they are doing, it works and their odds of selling 48,000 in the next 30 days is going up.
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Best Post of the Week, Anywhere!

Best Post of the Week, Anywhere!

One of our posts from last week got some recognition and we couldn't resist tooting our horn a little.

Innovation 101, an entry posted on May 22nd was selected from multiple small business and entrepreneurship blogs to be included in the Carnival of Entrepreneurship hosted by Pam Slim's Escape from Cubicle Nation. Pam selected seven posts from all those submitted. Of our post she said, "The lead picture is worth the visit!" Check out the lead picture and rest of the post here here.

In addition, the same post was selected as the "The Best Post of the Week, Anywhere!™". This is from a blog called Political Calculations that does a review of the 10 business blog carnivals each week. Here is what they had to say:

"Dave Free shows off the process of innovation in a home drywalling project he took on with his son. The engineer, economist and entrepreneur in me all agree that this is, hands down, The Best Post of the Week, Anywhere!"

Like I said--tooting our horn just a little. You can visit the Political Calculations blog here.

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Innovation 101

Innovation 101

I've been doing some house repairs lately and faced one particular challenge that I think illustrates how the innovation process works, see what you think.

The Problem: Figure out a way to reduce the dust storms generated when sanding drywall "mud." This problem is especially frustrating when the mud guy (that would be me) lacks any recognizable skill, resulting in a process that must be repeated several times before arriving at an acceptable level of quality.

Constraints: This is strictly a do-it-yourself, teach-your-sons-how-to-work, project. Hiring professionals is not an option.

Any ideas? Here is what we came up with.

Idea #1: Contain the dust. Plastic sheeting is pretty cheap and we reasoned we could use it for a ground cover on future camping trips, so we bought plastic and hung it from the ceiling around the area we were preparing to sand. Remember the movie ET after the government guys moved into the house? It looked something like that.

Results: A whole lot of dust trapped in a very small space. Because the space was limited but the dust generated was not, it very quickly became impossible to even see the surface to be worked on. This, of course, added to our quality problems. Also, despite the use of breathing masks, our lungs are probably still coated with white stuff.

Idea #2: Instead of using an electric sander which generates a lot of dust and tends to "launch" the dust into the air, return to the old fashioned way and do it by hand. In theory, at least, the dust would gently fall to the ground and not coat surrounding areas.

Results: Depending on how you look at it, this is either a "wimp out" solution or a "muscle building" exercise. Either way, time commitment went way up and son involvement tended to drop off. Also, it didn't really solve the problem. Dust still settled everywhere just not at the volume or rate that the electric sander generated.

Idea #3: This idea came in the shower while attempting to wash the white dust from my hair. I tell you that only because that is where the best ideas seem to come. Here is the thought: what if you could connect the output of the electric sander to the hose of a shop vac? The dust would be whisked away before it could float or settle on anything.

Results: With the concept of attaching the sander to the shop vac in mind, the next challenge became figuring out how to hook the two together. It turns out the hose of the vacuum was of a much wider diameter than the output of the sander. We also wanted the attachment to be flexible enough so that it could handle various angles, but strong enough to keep the two firmly joined throughout the back and forth motion of sanding. Duct tape immediately came to mind. Unfortunately, my sons had recently made wallets out of duct tape and none could be found. So we settled for a masking tape prototype.

The masking tape prototype worked admirably and proved the concept. We did have to use two hands to keep the two together because the tape wasn't strong enough on its own, but the dust was immediately whisked away completely solving the original problem.

As we waited for yet another layer of mud to dry, we hit upon the idea of using an old bicycle tube to join the two together. What if we cut off a piece of the tube, attached one end to the vacuum hose and the other to the sander? Initially, we left the tube long for added reach and flexibility. But we quickly discovered that the inner tube kinked easily and blocked the air flow. We solved that problem by shortening the tube so that it was just long enough to go over the end of the vacuum hose and the output of the sander.

Eureka! The thing works like a dream. No dust launched in the air, no dust settling on the counter top. Everything goes straight in the vacuum.

Did we invent something new? Depends on how you look at it. After we got our sanding done we did a quick search and discovered several dust free sanders on the market. Everything from a hand sander that attaches to your vacuum for $17.89 to professional "systems" that cost up to $1,000. One thing we haven't found is anything that let's you hook up the electric sander you already have in your garage to the vacuum cleaner in your closet.

So how does this apply to your business? Innovation is an absolute necessity for growing a successful business, but it can be difficult to turn into a repeatable process. Here are some principles of innovation that, if applied consistently, will deliver breakthrough innovations:

  1. Identify the need clearly and in a specific way. Defining the problem may seem like a no-brainer, but it is in fact the most important step. It is best if you and the others working on the problem can experience it yourself. For example, be your own customer. See what it feels like.
  2. Identify and question your constraints. No sense wasting your time and resources on solutions that aren't an option. Having said that, don't allow assumptions to become constraints. List what you think are your constraints and then question every one of them to make sure they are real.
  3. Find as many perspectives as you can. If you think you, or anyone else in your organization, is the only source of all ideas worth pursuing you are doomed for failure. Involve everyone you can in your problem solving/brainstorming sessions and listen to what they have to say. Different perspectives combined is where the creative fireworks start.
  4. Prototype, prototype, prototype. The quicker you can try things out, the quicker you will learn and get on the right path. Many grand solutions have been planned and worked on for months or years only to find out that they will never work. The quicker you can test, the more likely you will get to a real solution quickly.
  5. Think about something different. Once you have identified the problem and spent some time trying to solve, don't be afraid to take a break. In fact, make it a point to take a break and think about something different. Our brains are amazing things. Some of the best ideas come when we're not focused directly on a problem but have thought about it and then stored it away for consideration. So go play with some toys, go for a run, take a shower, wash the dishes, mow the lawn, go for a drive. I've found routine activities that don't require my full attention provide the most fertile ground for new ideas.
  6. Have fun. As humans we do our most creative work when we are happy. Buy some toys, use crayons to doodle, do what ever it takes to remind yourself to relax and let the right side of your brain do it's work.

Oh, I almost forgot. To get your Amazing Dust-Free Sanding Coupler, send a check for $9.99 made out to Dave Free to P.O. Box....

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Your Customers: Les Miserables?

Your Customers: Les Miserables?

I took my three teenage sons to see Les Miserables last night at the Gammage Center on the ASU campus. I've seen it several times now. Besides being awed by the amazing talent of the actors, I love the story told by Victor Hugo. Man can change and can make a difference (not to mention the fact that Jean Valjean was an entrepreneur that went from 19 years of corporate--sorry I mean jail--life to found a successful bead factory.) But I digress, what got me to thinking was I would have loved to be able to tell the cast how much I enjoyed it. Sure I stood up and clapped, but I would have liked to be able to tell them specifics.

We also had a local election here in Mesa, Arizona yesterday. The two main issues had to do with increasing sales tax and adding a property tax. It got me to thinking about exit polls. BTW, the sales tax measure passed. The property tax measure didn't.

My point--and I apologize for taking so long to get to it--is that there is real value in the concept of an exit poll for customers. The exit poll in the election world is meant to give an early indication of how the election will be decided. It is certainly not always accurate, but it is helpful. Wouldn't you like an early indication of what your customers are thinking before they vote with their feet and never come back?

Not only would you gain useful information so that you could make operational adjustments, it is also one more opportunity to build the relationship with your customer. I noticed in the Les Mis program that several of the actors had their own websites and were promoting their own CDs. What if the production had a website where I could go give feedback and in the process click on links to cast member products, maybe send a message to my friends telling them how much I enjoyed the production, etc.? Now I'm engaged. Based on the final ovation, I think several who attended would go give feedback and take the next step.

So will an exit poll work for your business? Lot's of ways to find out. You could position yourself at the front door of your business and ask customers as they leave how happy they are with the service. Or you could hire an independent firm to send some folks over with clipboards to ask for you--sometimes people will be more honest for a third party though you may lose something in the translation and it will certainly cost you something. Another option is to put technology to work for you (blatant plug coming) and use a tool like PromoterZ to collect feedback, email addresses and referrals online.

Remember two goals for the exit poll: get feedback and build a bridge to a more engaged relationship.

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Listen First!

Listen First!

Listening is hard. Let's face it, we are all problem solvers. If we weren't, chances are we wouldn't be in business for ourselves. We don't have a lot of time to spend listening to long stories. So we quickly pick out the "important facts," develop (or should I say jump?) to a conclusion, and move on to the next problem. According to Laurent Flores , the founder and CEO of, crmmetrix not listening enough to customers is exactly what is wrong with most marketing today. Here are his steps to go from marketing to consumers to marketing with consumers:

First: Listen to conversations. Learn from consumers and leverage the words consumers "recognize themselves in": a message is about an idea, and the words that support it best.

Second: Listen and engage the consumers who matter in your category. Leadership is not universal, but category related. Look at natural touch-points with your customers, such as the brand website, to find the influencers who want to engage with their favorite brands.

Third: Test the words. As stated earlier, evolving the message with influencers is key. Indeed, rather than just testing the message idea, test the words consumers will recognize themselves in. Let them have a say with a simple online VIP vote, for example.

Fourth: Seed trials and give them the ability to spread. Engage influencers further in trying and testing your product during an exclusive special VIP invitation. Give them the means to spread the word by making samples and campaign materials available (that they actually developed themselves, remember), and they will drive sales for you.

Fifth: Continue listening and keep involving them. Because markets are conversations, continuous listening to consumers during and after the campaign is key. Listening will not only provide the necessary measurement to better manage WOM, but will also naturally boost consumer engagement and relationship with your brand for your next campaign.

Some really great ideas here. When was the last time you asked your influencers or promoters (you know who they are don't you?) to vote on one of your advertising ideas? Modern technology makes the logistics easy. How about exclusive previews and samples for your promoters? You want them talking? First listen and then give them something to talk about.

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Seeds from the blogworld
We search the business blog world looking for posts that illustrate principles, or "Seeds", that if followed, or "planted", will help small businesses grow. We list them here for your convenience. Enjoy.

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