I use the same strategy over and over again to develop new product ideas for different industries -- including industries that are largely unfamiliar to me. Yes, it is important to develop expertise, but I think most entrepreneurs fail to realize how quickly they can gain the knowledge they need to begin inventing simple improvements to existing products. In fact, I’ve discovered that when I’m too close to a subject, it actually becomes harder for me to analyze it creatively and think outside the box. Knowing too much can limit you by what you think is possible and impossible.
In reality, becoming an expert is as simple as studying the past and present, and asking, “What’s been done before? What’s being done now?” Tracing the evolution of a specific product has inspired me to come up with new ideas many times. Discovering the thought processes behind other new ideas in the marketplace is also a useful exercise. Consider checking out resources like the New York Times Magazine’s Innovation section where they ask and answer, “Who made that?” about different products.
Do the same kind of research to empower yourself to start coming up with more ideas. You don’t need to take weeks or even days to become an expert. This knowledge can be effectively gained in a few hours -- an hour even. When we think of all we don’t know, we become overwhelmed and defeated. Don’t let that happen to you. Know that you can become an expert in a short time if you concentrate your efforts. I have been doing it for years.
Let’s use the lonely, common coat hanger as example throughout this article.
First, ask, how have coat hangers evolved? Use the Internet, and start Googling. What did coat hangers look like in the past? What materials were they made out of? Amazon, eBay and Wikipedia are all great sources for this kind of research. You could also Google prominent coat hanger manufacturers and read their histories. The USPTO.gov is another excellent tool for research. I always read the claims and look at the drawings of relevant patents. Go back as far as twenty or thirty years. Who were the patents assigned to? How often have new patents about coat hangers been awarded? Try to understand the thought process behind the changes.
Study today’s coat hangers. Do a Google product image search. Observe differences in shape, size and material. Are there any new features? What are the benefits of different coat hangers? What are the different price points? Hopefully, you’ll be able to trace the development of coat hangers from past to present. This knowledge is going to be extremely helpful to you when you begin to exercise your creativity to come up with new ideas. Just a few years ago, someone designed the “Z” hangar, a hangar that is crafted in such a way that it doesn’t stretch out the collars of shirts and sweaters. Genius.
Learn about manufacturing to give yourself an idea of your constraints. An understanding of manufacturing can make or break your idea. YouTube is a good source for manufacturing knowledge.
Stay current with industry trends by reading trade magazines and checking out trade associations. What are people talking about? When I searched for “coat hangers,” I discovered complaints about how environmentally unfriendly plastic coat hangers shipped from China are -- many of them winding up in landfills. So maybe there’s a market for a more eco-friendly yet affordable coat hanger. I wouldn’t have known that’s what consumers are thinking about unless I had joined in on the conversation.
You’d be amazed at how much you can learn from the comfort of your home, in your office chair. If you’re not an expert now, you can become one.