Right on Time

Dec. 1, 2006
A magic formula doesn't exist for launching a new product. But it's easier to fulfill an existing customer need than to create a new one.

Victor Hugo was way ahead of his time when he said there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. While the author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame made this statement at least 150 years ago, he just as easily could have been talking about what it takes to successfully develop a new product or service in the 21st century.

Way too many new products and services miss their mark because the developers want to wow the world with the next Big Thing, rather than first learning what customers want and then crafting a product or service to fulfill that need.

This problem seems to be particularly acute with Web-based products, where developers too often attempt to force-feed customers new technologies they don't understand. If the potential customer's level of technical expertise is way out of whack with the requirements of a new product or service, it's going to be a tough sell with a long and potentially crippling learning curve.

On the flip side, when the timing is right for a new product or service, the customers grasp the technology fast and immediately understand why they want it. For instance, fax machines, e-mail cell phones were immediate hits because their advantage in speed and mobility were totally understandable.

Unsuccessful inventors have a tin ear when it comes to listening to the needs of customers, while the zillionaires who hit it big invariably are singing the same tune as the people to whom they want to sell their products. They have a knack for harnessing available technology and using it to deliver a product or service that satisfies the wants, needs and technical proficiencies of the intended audience. The spectacular success of the iPod and more recently of YouTube are the best examples. Steve Jobs used a very simple elevator speech to sell the iPod: portable music that you can download for 99 cents per song. Since the iPod hit the market in 2001, it has revolutionized the music industry and captured at least 70 percent of the market for digital music players. More than 67.6 million iPods have been sold and 1.5 billion songs have been downloaded from the iTunes music store.

YouTube is the latest craze, and it may have an iPod-like impact on the online video and entertainment industry. At www.youtube.com, viewers can watch or download video clips for free. While much of the current content is the creation of amateur videomakers who want to expose their work to the world, the concept of a Web-based “viewing room” for videos is in tune with the younger generation's affinity for computer-based entertainment and their innate need to express themselves.

Recently named Time magazine's Invention of the Year for 2006, YouTube was started in a Silicon Valley garage by three ex-PayPal employees in 2005. The site now attracts 20 million visitors each month. According to www.wikipedia.com, 65,000 new videos are uploaded to the site each day.

Before you dismiss YouTube as just another Web obsession, consider that Google recently bought the company for $1.65 billion. In a press release announcing the acquisition, Google said it believes YouTube will offer “new opportunities for professional content owners to distribute their work to reach a vast new audience.” The major television networks and movie studios are now offering promotional video clips of upcoming shows and movies for download, and Google and YouTube are loading the Web site with thousands of music videos to attract younger viewers.

While you may not have another YouTube or iPod under development right now, you can learn from their incredible success. Their market timing is perfect in that the technology is easy-to-understand and their benefits are immediately apparent to potential customers in their intended audience. When you are selling a new idea, product or service, you also must offer compelling reasons for your target audience to buy in.

Victor Hugo was right. There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. Just ask Apple's Steve Jobs or Chad Hurley and Steven Chen, those two very rich guys who just sold YouTube to Google for more than a billion dollars.