Building a Better Mousetrap

Innovation vs Quality

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Is there any more familiar quotation related to innovation?  I doubt it.  However, “build a better mousetrap” was actually a misquotation. What Emerson really said was…

“If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

So there you have it.  The original quotation wasn’t about innovation at all.  It was about quality… no mousetraps either 🙂

The thing that strikes me most about this quote is the last bit about “though it be in the woods”.  I think the implication here is clear.  You may not be a marketing genius or have the best location but if you build quality products that people need and want and you can get people sharing their experiences with your product, you’ve got yourself a winner.

Unfortunately building a product that users NEED and WANT turns out to be a massive challenge.  Many fabulous examples of innovative products that lacked  a “broad hard-beaten road” (to name just a few) are … Google Wave, Apple Newton, and don’t forget the undeniably innovative Segway, but there are many many more.  What goes wrong?  Why does such innovative and useful products go unloved and underused?  Easy, they are revolutionary instead of evolutionary.

I know what you’re thinking… “Revolutionary products are great.  They take us into previously undiscovered areas. They advance mankind.  Yada, yada, yada”.   And that is certainly true but in the context of users, revolutionary change is hard.  To successfully introduce revolutionary products means you have to educate, educate, educate, and one more thing… educate.  For startups this is especially difficult.  Not only do they have to contend with the building a company and product but they also have to spend considerable capital to educate their potential users on the benefits of a product that user’s may not even know they need.  Ouch!

I submit that it is often better to follow an evolutionary path to customer discovery than to jump on the innovation bandwagon with a revolutionary product that consumers have to make a giant mental leap to understand.  Startups should focus on finding the unmet needs of their targeted segment and then simplify, simplify, simplify.  The three S’s.

1)  Simplify customer acquisition

Customer acquisition refers to how easy it is for a customer to get started with your product.  Obviously free products have a very low hurdle to getting started.  Contrasted with the Segway’s price tag of $5000.  Getting people invested quickly and easily is the key to future growth and success.

2)  Simplify usability

We’ve all heard this one before but the art of usability is just that… an art.  Some people have the knack for creating user experiences that work consistently (Apple) and some don’t (Microsoft).  Making sure your users are never confused is a major accomplishment and one that should be worked extremely hard on.

3)  Simplify messaging

Stop talking about the features of your product!  Nobody cares!  What users care about are themselves.  They want solutions to their problems, not features in your product.  Your messaging and positioning should reflect that.

I may be way off base here but I don’t think so.  I’d love to hear your ideas for successfully introducing revolutionary products and overcoming the education hurdle on a shoestring.

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