Why better mousetraps fail

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a bath to your door.

This phrase is attributed to the late nineteenth century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson though, in fact, it is a misquote.  Nonetheless, it is an apt metaphor that speaks to the power of innovation.  It is also a phrase frequently cited in introductory marketing textbooks as a horribly misguided belief.  The argument goes that, if there were any truth to it, there would be no need for marketing and even less need for marketers.  In other words, marketing texts contend that word of mouth only goes so far.

Now, I could present the counterargument that, with the advent of social media, word of mouth now travels faster and more broadly than ever before possible.  The notion of “going viral” attests to that.  If there was not validity to this argument I strongly doubt that marketers would be as interested in social media as they are: free words often travel further, faster and more credibly than do paid words.

That is a topic for another day.

Today, though, I have another point to make – one akin to that laid out in marketing textbooks.  It concerns innovators who go on to start up their firms.  I am not referring to founder’s syndrome, but rather to the tendency of innovators of new products to believe that the attributes of their product mirror the needs and appetite of the market to the exclusion of most competitors.

If you’ve watched a few episodes of Shark Tank you’ll know what I mean.  These are the extremes, though … theater for our entertainment.  I only seldom encounter such founders like these.

What I do encounter much more often are founders who view their offering through particularly thick rose-colored glasses.  To be sure, I’d be surprised if a business owner did not sing the praises of her offering.  They need to be their product’s biggest cheerleader.  However, there is a fine line between being an advocate for your product and being so over the top with it that all perspective is lost.

How does one know if the line is being crossed?  In my experience, I have found that the existence of any of these three occurrences is a reasonably good indicator of a case of Shark Tank Fever:

  1. The question, “what is your product’s value proposition?”, cannot be easily or reasonably answered, and often results in an irate founder.
  2. High churn rate in the sales ranks or channels for failure to achieve goals.
  3. A belief that anything beyond a modest amount of marketing or promotion is a waste of money or, worse, that a modest promotional expenditure should yield extraordinary results.

If the value of a firm’s offering is that obvious, then its value proposition is a no-brainer.

If the offering is that good, then average sales reps will achieve above average results.

If promotional spend has a strong revenue multiplier, then big firms will soon be at your door with handsome M&A offers.

If none of these is occurring, then perhaps the competition is better than your thought or you need to ring the gong loudly and more often.



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