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Murphy's Law and the Entrepreneur

Cliff Ennico on

"My spouse and I recently decided to start a business designing knapsacks for children. We've got a bunch of great designs; they are lighter and more flexible than other knapsacks on the market, can be made with 100 percent organic ingredients, and have a lot more compartments where kids can put their stuff. We both wish these were the sorts of knapsacks we had had as children going to school.

"We've approached a couple of manufacturers here in the United States to license our designs. While acknowledging that our designs are superior to anything currently available on the market, they are not buying, which frustrates the devil out of us. When we press them for an explanation, they become evasive.

"We think they're wrong and are thinking of hooking up with a manufacturer in China and just making these ourselves, but we want to make sure we are not wasting our time and money. What do you think?"

First of all, the marketplace is never wrong. The market wants what it wants, not what you think it should want. Just because you are enamored with your products (like any loving parent, you think your brainchild is the best-looking, smartest, most together kid in town) doesn't mean other people will part with their hard-earned money to buy it.

Selling products for kids is extremely difficult because you have two markets instead of one: the kids (who will wear the knapsacks) and the parents (who will pay for them). These two markets are very different, yet both have to be appeased. If you develop something that will embarrass the parents, they won't cough up the dough, even if it's something that the kids really love. If you develop something the kids consider uncool, the parents won't waste their money, even if they really love it. The teenage guys you want your daughter to go to the prom with are never the guys she wants to be seen with. (Trust me on this one.) As in high school, so in business.

I am assuming the manufacturers you are talking to know a lot about these types of products and sell similar back-to-school products for kids. If so, you should take their warnings extremely seriously. Something is wrong with your marketing strategy, and you need to find out exactly what is wrong before you spend your life savings on making these knapsacks yourself.

It sounds to me as if you haven't spent enough time talking to kids and their parents. Do some focus groups in your community. Let kids and their parents tell you in no uncertain terms whether or not they are turned on by your designs. Just remember to be sure the focus group participants are total strangers; your friends and neighbors will tell you only what you want to hear, not what you need to hear.

If the results of your focus groups confirm your judgment that these are hot products, put some statistics together (perhaps also a video with highlights of one of the focus group sessions) and use them the next time you talk to a manufacturer. It may well be that these manufacturers are out of touch with the market, but they will need to see hard proof before they change their minds.

Also, consider approaching some large media companies and lining up some licensing deals. Putting a manga character, an image of a rap artist or Lady Gaga, or one of the "Bob's Burgers" characters on these knapsacks might get the manufacturers' attention more than the designs themselves. Some kids will buy anything if the pop culture references are on target.

I realize this is hard advice for you to swallow. Like most first-time entrepreneurs, you have a vision of what your success in business will look like and you have fallen in love with that vision. Success in business is a negotiation between you and your market, and you often have to dilute or compromise your vision to become successful -- what we call "stooping to conquer."

Murphy's law ("everything that can go wrong will go wrong") applies to entrepreneurs just as it does everyone else. Here are some examples of Murphy's law in action:

--You launch a new product, but it has to be completely redesigned because manufacturers aren't willing to retool their factories unless you guarantee them a production run of 1 million units.

--Walmart expresses an interest in your product, but it wants you to deliver 1 million units in 30 days, with a full refund on any items it returns to you within six months of delivery.

--You publish a book for college students, but because college students don't have any money, you have to redesign the book from scratch so you can sell it as a "gift item" to their parents and relatives.

--You launch several businesses at once, and the one that takes off and becomes wildly successful is the one you are least interested in doing (or actively dislike doing).

The best entrepreneurs don't fall in love with ideas. They make it a game to find out exactly what the marketplace is looking for at a particular moment and then design the product or service to suit the market's tastes -- even if those tastes are the total opposite of their own.

Cliff Ennico (crennico@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.

 

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