Don’t just “build a better mousetrap”

Sept. 21, 2012
If you have an idea for an invention, make sure it addresses an actual need people or companies have.

The recommendation by Ralph Waldo Emerson to “build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” continues to be followed by many inventors — to their ultimate chagrin.

The better-mousetrap theory is that superior devices or methods, regardless of application, will attract customers. The product will hardly need marketing. People will simply hear about it and rush to buy it.

However, the theory is wrong. Most consumers buy stuff — mousetraps, CAD software, cars, appliances, and so on — in response to immediate needs. An old appliance breaks and repair is too time consuming or expensive. A new client uses CAD package B, but you only have software A. The airline loses your tent at the start of your hunting vacation. Fill in your own tale of need.

Don’t get me wrong. Most engineers scan Consumer Reports, canvass friends, and spend hours reading blogs and review sites before buying a new car, camper, or cell phone. However, most purchases happen as the result of an immediate need, not careful analysis of all the alternatives.

The lesson for inventors? Learn why your target market buys things. Don’t pour your life savings into designing and manufacturing the best, most-efficient waffle iron.

Here’s a real example: I met someone recently who is raising funds to build the first laundry-folding robot. This seemed like a good idea. Folding laundry is a time-consuming task loved by few. So what’s not to like about a machine that neatly folds and stacks clothes and linens hot out of the dryer?

Unfortunately, the robot is nothing but a “better mousetrap.” Users can’t just dump laundry into it. They must first separate towels, sheets, socks, shirts, pants, and undergarments. The bottom line is users have to do so much work to get laundry ready for the robot that they could have folded it all in the same amount of time. Worse yet, the inventor hopes to get the price below $1,500 before going to market, but he’s not sure this is possible.

But what about the iPod, you might ask? When it hit the market in 2001, there were already other music players available — they were just much clunkier and harder to use. The iPod was slick and cool. Despite its $400 price tag, and the fact that it was initially not Windows compatible, Apple had correctly determined that a lot of people wanted to carry 1,000 songs in their pocket. Fast forward to 2012: More than 300 million iPods have been sold. And that does not include the 240 million iPhones that have full iPod functionality.

The iPod was not a better mousetrap. It was completely new. Even though there were music players on the market, the iPod did not try to compete with them. It addressed a desire Apple perceived in the market, one strong enough to get customers to part with lots of cash. And by creating iTunes, Apple leveraged the invention into a real game-changer — one that nobody has been successful in competing with yet.

So, inventors, think about your idea — the one you’ve been tinkering with or planning to prototype. Is it just a better mousetrap, like the laundry-folding robot? Or is it in the same category as an iPod? And if it seems too much like the former, what can you do to make it more like the latter?

The upshot is, if you have an idea for an invention, make sure it addresses an actual need people or companies have. Otherwise, it might join the more than 4,000 mousetrap patents granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office that were commercial failures.

Joel Orr, Copywriter
(650) 336-3937

Edited by Leslie Gordon
[email protected]
Twitter: @LeslieGordon

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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