When Better Isn’t Good Enough: An Entrepreneur’s Tale

By Karen Utgoff

2017-06-04 Mousetrap_patent_model_3_-_National_Museum_of_American_History_-_DSC00350

By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons. Exhibit in the National Museum of American History, Washington, DC, USA. Photography was permitted in the museum without restriction.

Many believe that if they build a better mousetrap customers will beat a path to their door, but it isn’t necessarily so. Inventors, small business owners, or startup teams confident that their vision of a better product, service, or technology will automatically lead to business success should balance that confidence with healthy skepticism. Testing product-market fit with potential customers, users, partners, influencers, and others could make the difference between success and failure. Consider this (made-up) cautionary tale.

Howie Ketchum, inventor and CEO of Ketchum Mousetraps, was in a somber mood after reviewing disappointing revenue numbers and similarly troubling web and mobile traffic statistics. Unique first-time visitors were plentiful and many made their way through all of the technical information detailing the advantages of his Internet-of-Things (IOT) enabled mousetrap with smartphone apps to enable monitoring from anywhere in the world. However, pitifully few signed up for more information, or even returned for a second visit let alone ordered the product.

The patented Ketchum IOT Mousetrap added an accelerometer and Wi-Fi connectivity to a traditional mousetrap. When a mouse triggered the trap the accelerometer determined its “status” and notified the owner via the IOT Mousetrap app. The company’s primary target market were home owners, who could buy traps directly from Ketchum. Companies with sensitive facilities could buy traps in bulk and monitor them with the app to provide a system that would be easily monitored by the maintenance staff. In this way, Ketchum planned to disrupt the pest control industry. Apps were available for all smartphones. In addition to notifications, apps kept statistics on all traps in use, allowed users to order new traps, and provided value-added tips on mouse control. If you find Howie Ketchum and his Internet-enabled, Wi-Fi connected mousetrap preposterous, check out this article or this one or this service.

Ketchum’s national product launch had been received with great fanfare including write-ups in top tech magazines and a national tour but did not result in sales. Efforts to improve the marketing and sales process had resulted in more visitors navigating through to the order page but nothing seemed to prompt more lookers to become buyers.

Six months later, Ketchum Mousetraps was out of money and closed for good; the 99,950 of the original 100,000 units of inventory Howie had stocked in anticipation of the product launch sold for 2% of the manufacturing cost. In his final act as CEO, Howie took down the “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to our door” banner from the reception area and left the office for the last time.

This fictional story illustrates what can happen when “better” isn’t good enough in the real world. Here are some of the (nonfiction) reasons “better” falls short:

Not “better” in the eyes of the customer:  A product or service is only better when it’s better in the eyes of enough customers to support a financially healthy business. Could Ketchum have been successful by offering a somewhat different product packages to the target customers? Or by targeting industrial customers directly? Or by concentrating exclusively on sales through established providers of pest control services? Or by aiming to be a rodent control business rather than mouse control solution?

Contrary to current practices, perceptions, or culture: When “better” involves a change in habits or violates the current culture, it raises rational and emotional objections that may have little to do with the problem the “better” solution solves. For the example of an IOT mousetrap, concerns might include users preferring not to have a phone app declaring they had a mouse problem.

Not invented here: When a customer has a homegrown solution that is already in place, there can be considerable resistance to adopting a new one, especially from a stranger. Whether this resistance is the result of ego or a more objective reason, it’s often impossible to overcome. If Ketchum had talked to  pest control companies, he might have found they already offered low-tech versions mouse control services that allowed for routine operations with well planned, efficient servicing schedules and routes rather than creating a need for immediate, unpredictable service calls as the app might have.

Not a high priority: When the problem is relatively unimportant compared to other issues and/or current situations are pretty good, users often will not take the time to seriously consider “better” offerings. In Ketchum’s situation, most potential customers may see their problem as the occasional mouse rather than a serious infestation.

Switching cost: Any additional burden — even a short term one — imposed by a new solution can easily derail consideration of a “better” product, especially for a low priority situation or where “better” does not result in a measurable financial improvement. For the cautionary case, Ketchum’s app adds a number of costs to the low-tech mousetraps, including giving up personal information, time spent on initial configuration, and the cost of buying new traps.

Switching risk: An unproven solution always carries with it the risk of disappointment. Perhaps it will not work or lead to unintended consequences that cause harm. Will an IOT mousetrap be plagued with false positives or false negatives? Will the app distract users from more important matters? What happens to pest control companies using their system if Ketchum goes out of business?

Too far ahead of its time: One of the most frustrating reasons for “better” falling short is when the improvement is too far ahead of its time. It may be that the time will be right for an IOT-enabled mousetrap when home automation systems controlled by smartphone apps become common.

Refusing to be seduced by the myth of the better mousetrap does not guarantee success but can help both established small businesses and new ventures minimize the cost of failure and live to try another way. My next post will offer thoughts on testing and validating assumed value propositions as a way to do this.

Related links:

Listen to the NPR interview with Professor Bill Hammack of the University of Illinois on “When technology bets fail” and watch his  videos on “How the Sony the Betamax lost to JVC’s VHS recorder” and on “Why the DVORAK keyboard didn’t take over the world.”

Read Nicholas Jackson’s March 28, 2011 article in The Atlantic on “Mousetraps: A Symbol of the American Entrepreneurial Experience

 

© Copyright 2017 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

One thought on “When Better Isn’t Good Enough: An Entrepreneur’s Tale

  1. Pingback: Focus Early on the Value Proposition to Help Manage New Market and New Product Risks | Utgoff & Breitner

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