Too many inventors make the mistake of inventing in commodity markets. That is, they create something that can already be bought from many other sources and is very hard to differentiate in a meaningful, price-increasing way. Marketing guru Perry Marshall provides some insight on this common mistake….
“What you sell should be re-packaged and re-invented to differentiate it from competitive products and make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult or impossible.
The worst thing a business can do is be just like everyone else. And the worst reason your customer can have for buying your product is that it’s the cheapest. Live by cheapest price, die by cheapest price.
There are many, many product categories that are commodity items. My definition of a commodity is something that can basically be bought and sold by the pound from a half dozen or more companies.”
Perry’s point applies just as much to inventing as it does to marketing. In fact, it’s the same issue: what you invent will, ultimately, have to be marketed to customers who will buy it. If what you create is seen as a run-of-the-mill commodity product, you have one foot in the grave before you even start. This is not what you want to do! What could be worse than slaving over an invention for months or years, only to find that no one is really excited to buy it? This condemns you to what Perry calls “the pathetic life of the lowest bidder.”
“It’s easy to think customers only want the cheapest price, but that’s only true if nobody gives them a reason to pay extra and get more. Another Internet example: I don’t particularly care for AOL, but they have done a very admirable job of packaging their service such that it can’t be directly compared to other Internet Service Providers. Features like AOL Instant Messenger have proprietary features that other providers can’t duplicate. AOL has always made it very easy to install their software and they’ve distributed their CD’s to just about every living creature in North America. This is how they’ve maintained a price over $20 while many of their competitors went broke trying to do it for free.”
There is a parallel lesson here for inventors smart enough to see it: focus on higher level inventions.
The reason is simple. Higher level inventions (such as electronics, software, construction tools, systems, or anything that solves a pressing yet unsolved problem) allow you to stand out. It’s easier to put your unique fingerprints on a product that takes specialized skills or knowledge to create. This is not merely an aesthetic issue, either. It’s not just about the pride of knowing you have a unique product. (Although that’s nice, too.)
It is often literally the difference between success or failure. Like Perry said – if you don’t give people a reason to pay more, they won’t. Let’s apply this thinking to an example.
You’ve decided to invent something that will boost a car’s gas mileage. All else equal, this is a great market to invent for: lots of demand, hundreds of millions of potential customers with a very big itch to scratch. But if you’re not careful, you still run the risk of painting yourself into a “commodity corner.” You probably wouldn’t want to invent yet another bottled fuel additive that “erodes engine gunk to free up lost horsepower and gas mileage.”
Why not? Because 9 out of 10 people who know anything about cars know that those things don’t really work all that well. Plus, there are at least a half dozen different ones you could buy. Instead, you need to think about inventing something that solves this problem is a more clever and creative way. That’s why a very smart man invented something called the <a href=”http://www.tornadoair.com/HowItWorks.php”>Fuel Saving Tornado</a>. Unlike the many bottled products, the fuel saving tornado is a physical device that you strap onto your engine. It fits any gas-powered car or truck and claims to boost your gas mileage by 1-2MPG by making it easier for air to pass through to your engine.
There have been some disputes about how well this actually works, but that is irrelevant for our purposes. The point is whoever invented this product knew he couldn’t risk being seen as a commodity. So instead, he created something that solved a problem on a higher level. By doing this he carved out a totally new image and niche one the bottled fuel additive guys couldn’t hold a candle to.
The overall lesson here is to challenge yourself to think about your invention in a different way. Look at it through the eyes of your target market and strive to think of something that will intrigue them. Something they cannot easily associate with the other products claiming to solve the same problem yours does. Pull this off and you will stand a far greater chance of inventing success.
Eric Corl is the President of Idea Buyer LLC, a new product development company and the parent company of IdeaBuyer.com. IdeaBuyer.com is a marketplace for new technology and products that gives inventors the opportunity to showcase their intellectual property to consumer product companies, , retailers, and manufacturers.