Our ability to innovate and fast prototype appears to have accelerated with ever more ingenious products being launched. Yet many of these ‘fail’. That failure has many causes which stem from behaviour, psychology, ethics and a simple lack of understanding of marketing. Time for innovators to always ask a few key questions.

Here are some tips from the October Threads Meetup, a discussion and sharing of experiences among founders of scaleup technology firms.

What real need for people or businesses does your product fulfil?

Need here is that of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from the physiological of survival through safety and social to self-development. We all have perceptions of need. When we invent we may discuss our new product with those close to us either in our business or at home.

Sadly those closest may feel a social need either to agree with you to prevent your disappointment or to disagree as a matter of principle and to stamp their authority. What is required is someone to objectively review the product and whether it’s likely that for the desired target market there is an existing state of felt deprivation for a basic satisfaction. This is real need.

And if they have the abilities to ‘want’ that need to be filled, how do you know?

But need alone is not enough, there has to be a want and a demand. Want is the desire for specific satisfier of deeper needs. It is not just I want a drink but rather I want a beer. And for there to be actual demand not only do we need to want the specific product, but this has to be backed by an ability and willingness to buy them.

Again it is the objective adviser using research to question the market. At its simplest it is the market trader asking the direct question- do you want apples or qualitative research which demonstrates the likelihood of demand for a genuinely new product.

A great example of needs, wants and demands is the humble fax machine. Invented in 1843 and patented by Alexander Bain as the electric printing telegraph. Clearly a me-too product it failed to gain traction. Over the years technical advances improved the capability of the machine to include signatures (1888) and long distance copying (1964). It solved various needs and satisfied various wants.

True demand came in the late 1980’s when every business got a fax machine. Why because the need had fundamentally changed. The world and communication had got faster and was becoming more individualistic. Fax meant anyone could send messages they had written themselves anywhere at any time. It was the individual communicator. There is no demand now as that need is satisfied by the computers we call our smartphone.

Do all your customers understand the full picture of what you’re selling?

Genuinely new technical innovation often does not have the accepted vocabulary to describe it. Yet we all need a psychological anchor by which to compare products or verifiable claims.

It is increasingly rare that customers understand the full picture of what they are being sold. This is because they are only interested in some, not all, of the benefits. And some of those other benefits may have downsides that turn demand down to wants. I want the beer but not the hangover so I don’t buy.

The obvious recent technological example is Facebook and Analytica. How many were truly aware that the downside cost of engagement was giving away so much data that the information they then saw was tailored specifically for them. How many questioned what a ‘free’ internet really meant and what the real cost?

Does GDPR make this ‘selling’ easier or harder?

GDPR goes some way to modify the abuses of big data and poorly thought through strategies. It can also act as a barrier. The insights of a disgruntled client or prospect can be marketing gold on how to communicate and design the product more effectively. GDPR doesn’t cover everything now possible as they weren’t apparent when it was being drafted.

But GDPR should not alter the basics of effective marketing. These are about open conversations with those who might wish to buy to inform them of the full picture of the new product.  

Is 90% of a perfect product good enough to launch with?

In most cases, the answer is probably yes. The exceptions are those where safety is compromised such as a 90% perfect nuclear power station!

By launching early and failing quickly within controlled circumstances, the necessary pivots can take place in the product development that enables a viable product with significant demand to be launched with most of the support resources intact. This increases the likelihood of success by tapping into real needs identified by real buyers.

Essential to success long term is the ability to realistically scale the production of the new product. A 90% launch gives room to change the way it is made and may allow a better understanding of scale. Something that works perfectly in a university proof of concept lab may not make it to pilot production left alone full-scale production. Understanding issues and gaining feedback enables control to be maintained.

The flipside of 90% perfect is greed. The true aim is still to make the 100% perfect product in as short a time as possible. Lymeswold, the first new English cheese for 100 years, demonstrates the danger of high demand and cutting corners. Doubling production capacity and reducing maturing times fatally affected demand; the accountants then cut all production based on the demand numbers and the investment costs in production facilities. A 100% perfect product on the one line would probably mean we’d still have an English soft blue cheese.

Given the world is full of intelligent villains, who could abuse your product and how?

This is a key question for all innovators. By solving a technical problem we can create ethical issues and potential exploitation by others which was never previously conceived. By tagging all bins in Dacca so they are IoT enabled may solve the initial problem of bin disappearance and resale of the same bin to the authority; it may also enable easier tracking and switching of bins by those who benefit from the theft.

The perfect example of many of the issues discussed is My Friend Cayla. Launched in 2014, this ‘living doll’ was a great educational toy and to recognises a child’s speech and conduct simple conversations. It was internet enabled like an early Alexa and designed to sync with smartphones so that there could be parental control to block naughty swear words and naming of body parts. In fact some would say there was almost no need for friends and the social interaction could be with the doll.

In 2017, the German Watchdog told all parents to destroy the doll immediately. Why? The doll was bluetooth enabled and easily hackable. It can easily be made to issue instructions that the young child might act on- e.g. ‘open the front door’- thereby abusing young trust. The doll (or robot version) could connect with any bluetooth phone such as those in a business meeting like Threads and with its voice recognition software begin a profiling process of the extended ‘family’.  With data, it could then modify messages so the conversation that starts with ‘are you going on holiday’ ends with ‘ask daddy if you can go to this place’.

Three Critical Questions

In conclusion, there are three critical questions that any innovator or new product design must be able to answer:

  1. Can I articulate the real needs easily?
  2. Can I make this at scale easily?
  3. How many different ways can this be abused and how do I stop them?

By answering aloud all three means that products currently being designed can, will and should sell effectively.

Andrew Callard