From Concept to Consumer: How to Turn Ideas Into Money
- The invention is often just 5% of all the factors for success.
I remember my first day at Polaroid in June 1967. I took the elevator to the third floor and then entered the secure area behind the frosted glass door with “Product Development” stenciled on it. Behind this door some of the world’s great consumer products were being invented and engineered, and I would now become a part of it. The legend of Edwin Land, Polaroid’s CEO, permeated the area. A modern-day Thomas Edison with hundreds of patents, Land had led Polaroid to become one of the great consumer product companies of all time with the invention of instant photography. I had always loved gadgets and consumer technology products, but had little idea what went on behind the scenes. Now I would have a chance to learn. It was a dream job, my first right out of graduate school.
One of the early products I worked on was Polaroid’s first low-cost plastic instant camera, which took color pictures. Called the Colorpack II, it became a huge success, selling more than 5,000 cameras a day. My contribution was small. I designed a little periscope that lets you view the distance that the lens was set to when you looked into the viewfinder.
I watched the product come off the assembly line at the rate of one camera per minute and then a few weeks later walked into Lechmere Sales, a local discount store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and saw throngs of people scrambling to buy one the first day it went on sale. This is one of the great rewards for those who develop consumer products—to take an idea and turn it into a product that millions will buy and enjoy.
I spent 16 years at Polaroid during its high growth years when it was a star of the high technology sector. I worked in a variety of positions, including engineering, quality control, manufacturing, marketing, product management, and business development, and also managed many of Polaroid’s product development activities in Japan. Each was a new learning experience that took me down the road from concept to the consumer. I learned about concurrent engineering, the value of industrial design, the obsessions of patents, outsourcing, and designing high volume products. It was a solid foundation that has served me well.
Sadly, after 30 years of success, Polaroid was unable to react rapidly enough to the developments in digital photography. Rather than embrace it, they minimized its significance. By the time they realized its impact on their business, they were too late and declared bankruptcy in October 2001.
From that time I’ve worked on scores of products at companies with both familiar and strange names. The products include Polaroid cameras of all shapes and sizes for consumer and industry, Seiko’s Smart Label Printer, pocket electronic dictionaries and gadgets, Apple’s Newton MessagePad and PowerBook notebook computers, Proxima electronic projectors, Polycom’s conferencing products, audio products, computer accessories, hardware, toys, handheld computers, and a full-size keyboard that folded up to fit in a pocket. I’ve accumulated about 30 patents along the way, some valuable and some useless.
I’ve continued to be fascinated with every aspect of product development. In fact, my California license plate reads PROD DEV (see Figure 1.1).
Figure 1.1 My license plate
Build It and They Won’t Come
Coming up with the right idea, turning it into a product, and having it succeed in the marketplace is critical to a company’s growth and survival. A company needs to be successful at it, but there’s a lot more.
I used to believe that a product’s success was based on how good the idea was. Build it and they will come. That’s what most engineers are trained to believe (see Figure 1.2).
Figure 1.2 An engineer’s viewpoint of a product’s success
But the more products I worked on the more I realized that success comes from so many other factors. In fact, the invention is perhaps just 5% of all the factors for success. What are the others? You must get to market at just the right time with just the right product that sells for just the right price and still produces a profit. You need customers who are willing to buy. You need effective marketing and distribution that enable you to get the product into the right locations so people can see, try, and buy. Most important, you need good timing and just plain luck. If any of these links in the chain are broken, it can spell disaster.
All products begin with an idea or concept: a vision of something, a need to be solved, or an improvement to an existing device. At this stage there may be no idea of what the product will look like or how it will work. The first challenge is to take it from an amorphous idea to something that’s real. The path from this concept stage to the consumer relies on a variety of disparate activities and decisions, each of which can result in success or failure.
Think Outside, a company that I co-founded, was formed on the premise of creating a full-size keyboard that could fold up and fit in a shirt pocket. My partner and I realized that with computing devices becoming smaller and our hands staying the same size, there needed to be a comfortable way to enter text. After trying a variety of design approaches, we settled on one that became the Stowaway keyboard for which the company became known (see Figure 1.3). But when we began we had only a rough idea of what we wanted to accomplish, without a practical solution.
Figure 1.3 The Stowaway keyboard
As difficult as it was to design and develop our product, there were many unexpected surprises ahead, some of which had nothing to do with the product idea, that nearly derailed the company.
And that was true with many of the products I worked on. Presentation Technologies, a company I co-founded in mid-1980s, invented a product that created 35mm slides for presentations from a personal computer. After a difficult but successful development effort, we encountered unexpected competition from new color printers, which made color overhead transparencies. This new technology was what’s called a disruptive change, one that obliterated the 35mm presentation market.
I joined Proxima as vice president of engineering when it had only two competitors making electronic projectors that projected images from a computer onto a screen. Less than a year later there were three dozen competitors, plummeting margins from a healthy 40% to a tiny 16%. Polycom, another company I worked for, created a highly successful speakerphone for conference rooms. But the second product that I developed and managed for them, an overhead projector, fizzled. No one wanted it.
After working for and with many companies on many products, very little surprises me anymore. Rarely does a plan unfold as expected or as described in conventional books on product design and marketing.
Coming up with the clever idea may be the easiest part of all. Ideas are a dime a dozen. We all have them. “Why don’t they make...” we say to ourselves. But thinking of a product is a long way from making it and succeeding. And having worked with smart people throughout my career, I can tell you that even the experts fail. Edwin Land failed with instant movies. Dean Kamen, another brilliant inventor, failed with the Segway, the self-balancing two-wheeled motorized scooter. And Steve Jobs failed with his Next computer.
There’s no certainty that an idea will succeed. The Segway was an electrically powered vehicle that solved some of the most difficult engineering problems ever in a consumer product, including developing complex computer controlled gyros and motors to balance the two-wheeled device and keep it upright. It allowed users to lean forward, backward, or to the side to propel the vehicle forward and back and to steer. Yet the product was much too expensive, it ran into opposition from some communities who thought Segway users would run over pedestrians, and it turned out that there was little compelling need for the product. But just before it was announced, those who saw it, including corporate presidents, venture capitalists, and industry experts pronounced it so revolutionary, that it would result in new cities being built. The lessons learned are that no one can guarantee success, and even those that get it right sometimes also get it wrong at other times.
Developing successful products requires a team of people with the correct skills and the ability to work collaboratively. Some of the best-run projects have a strong project leader who manages and motivates the team. The biggest budget can’t make up for a team that works at cross-purposes. I’ve seen some team members try to sabotage products they didn’t like and others that would argue with the president for a product they believed in. People get passionate about products and don’t always agree about what to put in and what to leave out. Some quit over it. Behind every product is usually a fascinating story. Even when you see a nearly perfect product, contentious team members likely were arguing behind the scenes. The decision to seal the battery into the iPhone put many within Apple at odds with Steve Jobs. Developing products is like making sausage. You don’t always want to know what went into the product; it’s better to just enjoy it.
I’ve also learned that success is not dependent on the size of a company. Those in small companies with limited resources can effectively compete and often have an advantage over Fortune 500 companies. While large companies have more engineers, extensive test labs, big marketing budgets, lawyers, huge sales forces, and a brand name, often their teams work less efficiently and make poorer decisions.
Why? They’re attending more meetings, focusing on organizational issues, and often factoring their daily decisions on how they will affect their own careers, rather than on what’s best for the business. Employees in small companies, on the other hand, know the company’s success depends on a product’s success and rarely waste their time on peripheral issues.