Innovation & Invention: How to Tell If Your New Product Idea Is a Winner or a Wannabe

by Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

Author, inventor, entrepreneur and Shark Tank panelist Lori Greiner is famous for knowing how to identify the product “heroes” among a field of “zeroes.” “To me, a ‘hero’ product is something that people need and want, something that serves a function or solves a problem,” she explains. “I also think it's important to have a large market. You have better chances of success when more people can use it or want to partake of it than when you have a very small niche market.”

Greiner has years of experience and a proven track record, but how can you evaluate your own product idea without her assistance? Use these tips from some other experts.

1. Be realistic. The first step in determining if your idea is a winner is to be brutally honest with yourself.

“The most common mistake I see being made by first-time entrepreneurs is having this belief: the strength of the idea will determine the success of the product,” says Mike Finger, executive director of the Innovation Foundation of Western Wisconsin. “Your idea might be fantastic, but if you find yourself believing ‘once people see this they will (fill in the blank),’ you are setting yourself up to fail.”

2. Research vigorously. A detailed view of the competitive and market landscapes is key to avoiding miscues and problems down the road.

Your research should include a patent search (a costly lawsuit could make your bank balance a zero) along with estimates of operating and start-up costs and product pricing. You also need to assess market dynamics. While the Internet is a great tool for preliminary work, deeper and more active research is required to get an accurate picture.

  • Is your product unique? “There’s no reason to work so hard and invest the time in a product that is already in the market and performing well,” cautions Janet McKean, a Hillsborough, NC–based product development specialist and maker representative. “Walk through the stores you would be selling to. Is your product better, different or less expensive than the ones in the stores? Talk with the owners and their buyers — most are happy to talk with you if you make an appointment or catch them at a quiet moment. Ask if your wholesale price is competitive and if they were to place an order, how many would they buy. Go to trade shows and walk every aisle to see what products are already out there, and talk with the stores that will be buying your product. Be really honest with yourself about if there is room or interest in your product.”
  • Are your costs and pricing right? “Your product must be cost effective both for you at wholesale and for the stores at retail in order for it to be successful,” McKean explains. Ask entrepreneurs who make and sell similar products, and vendors who represent entrepreneurs like you, manufacture and distribute to help you create a realistic estimate of what it will cost to manufacture, distribute and sell your product. “Do the math,” adds Rick Hopper, creator of ReadeREST, a Shark Tank success story. “Make sure that on the off-chance somebody is willing to trade in their hard-earned money for your product, you can afford to produce it at a price where there will be enough margin so you will actually be able to make some money.” If the cost to you or customers is prohibitive, your product may be a wannabe.

3. Iterate and test often. Don’t trust yourself! Ask potential customers/users and trusted advisors for insights into making your product better.

When Shark Tank successes Courtney Turich and Christie Barany hatched the idea for the Monkey Mat, they certainly thought they had a great idea on their hands, but they got a lot of feedback on early prototypes to validate their hunch and improve the product.

“It went through multiple iterations as we continued to gather feedback,” Barany recalls. “We talked to a lot of people who weren't biased. It doesn't do any good to talk to people who feel obligated to give you positive feedback.”

“You have to take the good and the bad to actually make a good product and bring it to market,” Turich adds. “You have to know what the pitfalls are. It was an interesting experience, and one that every entrepreneur needs to go through.”

Think Like an Investor

Greiner says sometimes, a hero product may suffer if people don’t understand what it is. She explains, “A live demonstration, like on a TV Shopping channel or in an infomercial, can bring a product to life and allows a viewer to clearly understand all of its attributes. Highly demonstrable products excel in these formats.”

Of course, successful entrepreneurs and investors know that there’s more to getting a great idea to market than having the idea in the first place. By thinking more like an investor or proven businessperson, you evaluate your own ideas more effectively.

“Entrepreneurs need to understand the competitive nature of the market,” Finger says. “They need to see that a great idea is only the starting point, that it only gives them the chance for success.”

Use these insights to increase your chances of creating what Lori Greiner would call a hero product.

Watch Shark Tank Fridays 9|8c on ABC

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