A Tale of Two Toilets
“Len, I have an idea for a new toilet! Can we meet this week and talk about it?”
Two days later, Dennis nearly danced into my office bursting with excited. “This is just the coolest thing,” he exclaimed.
“Tell me about it,” I said.
For the next hour, Dennis (not his real name) told me about a new toilet idea he had. And, he saw incredible market potential. Dennis was no dummy; he was a successful entrepreneur who had started and built a successful wood products business. But, he had never developed or introduced a new product. It didn’t matter. His enthusiasm and confidence were contagious; and it grew as the weeks and months passed.
Though our meeting was 20+ years ago, I still remember him telling me how he sized the market. He looked at the population of the U.S., divided it by 1.3 persons per household, multiplied it by the wholesale price of his new toilet, and his eyeballs nearly fell out when he saw the dollar sign with lots of zeros behind it.
“My, my,” Dennis thought. “I’m going to be a zillionaire.”
During the next several months, Dennis spent thousands with the ad agency where I worked, developing marketing literature around his innovative toilet technology. Then he took his new toilet and sales literature on the road, knocking on the doors of retailers, wholesalers and distributors. Disappointingly, the response was not encouraging.
Over the next couple of years, Dennis worked hard. But, the market acceptance just wasn’t there. And, he had neither the resources nor expertise to continue. Finally, he decided to just flush the idea – pun intended.
What was his toilet invention? A handle adaptable to existing toilets where the handle allowed the user to select less water for flushing liquids and more water for flushing solids. Though this idea was from 20 years ago, I now frequently see the same idea as I travel. (Today’s versions are executed slightly different.)
This Tale of the Toilet has several business lessons but I’ll mention just one:
The market is not waiting with open arms for your new innovation.
I don’t want to discourage you; but I must speak the truth and bring some reality to the innovation environment. Most entrepreneurs and inventors are optimists. They see possibilities. They see the glass not only half full, they see it 1/32 full. But, what they don’t readily see are the barriers to entry, the potholes where they could get stuck, the snipers (competitors) who try to kill them, and the long, hard, sweaty, bloody, costly, bruising, discouraging, and painful road ahead before the marketplace finally embraces their wonderful innovation.
Yes, the iPad is a success. But, how many other tablets crashed and burned before the iPad? Lots. Anyone remember the tablet laptops from 10 years ago. Why has the iPad “suddenly” become a success? Was it the genius of Steve Jobs or Apple? Was it the prior success of Kindle and subsequent growth of e-books? Was it the phenomenal success of the iPhone? Yes to all. But, these incremental successes took years to happen. Acceptance doesn’t happen overnight. Think back. How many years before cell phones became ubiquitous? Lots.
Sadly, Dennis’ toilet was ahead of his time. Twenty years ago, our national conservation consciousness for sustainability was not what it is today. We asked, “Why save water?” Today, we feel quite differently. The marketplace is dynamic, constantly changing. What was not important yesterday may be very important tomorrow.
One more Toilet Tale.
A few months ago, an electrician friend was doing some wiring in my house. He knew I was in marketing and one day asked, “Hey, Len, can I get some marketing advice.” He, too, had invented a new toilet. (Side comment: perhaps someone can enlighten me as to why I attract toilet inventors.)
My electrician friend’s new toilet design had a vent outlet just above the water line and below the seat. And, the vent had a fan which exhausted any smells directly outdoors. I still find it difficult not to laugh when thinking about the subsequent cool breeze passing by certain body parts.
“So, where are you in the product development process?” I asked.
“Well, we actually have a railroad car’s worth sitting at my house,” he explained.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” I said.
“I wished I was. We’ve spent thousands of dollars and are having a really tough time selling them. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Stick to being an electrical contractor.”