Today I want to get a little further into some of the ideas of the customer perspective. I talked earlier (last episode) about finding a problem, and that solving it could be your next new business.
Another area is: Take a look that problems that are sort of solved. I say, “sort of solved,” in the sense of something else has had an unintended purpose. Whenever that happens, that was a market opportunity that was missed. Do notice over and over again that I say, “customer perspective,” that’s because it’s what the customer sees; not you. Very different. Most people, and very often as an economist, we talk about customer demand, but demand is a function of all the attributes of the products, the characteristics of the person that’s buying it, etc. That’s where it all comes in, but: What is it about that person and what is it about that product that make it a nice fit? I’ve always wondered why most people can’t really see that, and I think I have a theory on it, anyway, and I’ll get to it at the end.
First, let’s talk about some of the unintended purposes of products. Someplace somewhere along the line, baking soda, Arm & Hammer Baking Soda was basically for baking; use it in dough for rising, etc. What happened? Somebody someplace along the line must have stored it in their refrigerator, and noticed all of a sudden their refrigerator didn’t stink as it usually did, so now not only did people get encouraged to use it, Arm & Hammer came up with a version itself that is directly related to the refrigerators. Its purpose is to help reduce odors in refrigerators. They sell that for that purpose that way. They say it is not to be used for baking. So, it is not as pure, my guess is that it’s probably then either cheaper to make or it might have been runoffs or something where impurities have creeped into the process, so rather than throwing that batch away, they make it into the non-edible baking soda, and you stick it in your refrigerator.
People noticed that for grating, people used some of the microplane wood rasps. So, people using microplane rasps for hardwood, literally for grating of things, cheeses, etc. So, what does that do? People then realize there’s a marketplace there, and they start selling graters, somewhat looking like a rasp (long, thin graters) that work great for the kitchen, exclusively for the kitchen. New product, same idea, same concept.
Here’s one that I find very interesting: Q-tips, those cotton swabs that you have. First, what do you use Q-tips for? Most people don’t use them for the purpose that they were made. Most people use them for the purpose that they’re warned against not to use them for, that’s right, Q-tips does advertise and say it has a multitude of uses. Of course they want to say that because there’s sort of an implication, there, of some of the things, like your ear. They even have, let me read this to you, this warning: “If used to clean ears, stroke swab gently around the outer surface of the ear,” then in bold print: “without entering the ear canal.” I think everybody uses Q-tips for cleaning the ear canal; maybe they try to not push it in too far. That’s what they use it for. It’s probably the major use for Q-tips, so of course, they advertise it as: “There is no softer or safer swab than Q-tips cotton swabs, ideal for a multitude of uses.”
Minoxidil was actually for high blood pressure. It was a treatment for high blood pressure. Somebody found out—how this happened, I have no idea—that it would grow hair, and they started selling it as Rogaine. Probably it was just a person taking it regularly, and started to get the fuzz on the top of their head.
What about pie plates? Until I was reminded this, I had forgotten about it. Yeah, when there was a pie plate, the pie was done, we cleaned off the plate, we’d use it as what’s today called a Frisbee. So, somebody took something that everybody else was getting for free, made it out of plastic, made it look a little neater, maybe as a flying saucer, and called it a Frisbee. It’s been a tremendous market.
When the military began research into a military network that could survive any kind of competitors or interruptions, which is now the internet.
This one I absolutely love: Super Glue. Now, it just so happens when I heard about an alternative use for it, I happened to have it anyway. Super Glue used in surgery to seal a cut or a wound, little stirrup strips to hold the cut close together, and then Super Glue on the cut, and that’s used instead of stitches. I’ll tell you, because I’ve self-administered that many times on those random problems in my kitchen where the knife gets too thoroughly into my finger, and a little bit of Super Glue solves the problem; no trip to the emergency room. I’m not a medical doctor, I’m not recommending that for you, but that’s what I do. I happen to know a whole bunch of other people, including doctors, who do it as well.
You could go on and on and on about all the things that had unintended uses that people didn’t realize. WD-40, god, that must be used for just about everything. Even cleaning some things.
The interesting thing is that all of these were used to solve a problem that people didn’t really see a solution. They adapted something to solve that problem. So, just like the wooden rasp to grate something, and somebody sees it, and then creates a grater for the kitchen – you can come up and see things that are adapted. You see things that people jerry-rig to make something work, that could be a potential marketplace. The same thing goes with communications on the internet. There are also many failures that you end up seeing or mistakes that are made.
Interestingly… I’ll talk of a product that’s no longer around, the Pontiac Fiero. It was a nice car. People say different things about it, but it was a nice car. When they were just about to release it, they had a product planning group come out, and one of them was a woman. As she went to get in the car, she looked around because there was no trunk in it, there was nothing really in the back, and she said: “Where am I going to put my pocketbook?” There was no place even to put a pocketbook. They had to make adjustments to the car right there. Why? Because they didn’t think, as a bunch of guys, that something like that was necessary or even came to mind.
One of the Japanese companies brought me to their West Coast facility, not the main office, but a facility that they had to show me their new minivan when they first came out with it. I speak Japanese, so I was communicating well with them. As they’re showing me this new minivan, it was in less than a minute that I was able to show them why their product was a failure. Their first minivan, what was it? It had a high step. I asked them the questions: “Who’s it for? Who’s going to be the driver?” And, of course, the answer was: “A woman.” After they got that, I said: “Okay, now picture a woman in heels and a dress or a skirt getting into your van.” Immediately, they said the Japanese equivalent to: “Oh my gosh,” and that was for them to go back after having spent over a billion dollars on a new vehicle, to go back and create something that would be more appropriate. At that time, the minivan was going to be predominantly driven around by women for the purposes of taking kids to different things, etc.
I realized over time, and it took a while, and I kept wondering: “How come some people don’t see it?” and I have to give most of my credit, if not all of it, to my mother. She’s no longer with us, but she actually used to bring me through the whole sequence of things to make me think always of the other person’s perspective. I mean, everybody says: “How does the other person feel? How do you think they feel?” something like that, or: “How do you think Johnny would feel?” But my mother wouldn’t stop there; she went on and on and on and on to the point that I really felt that other person’s pain, discomfort, shyness, whatever it was – she got me to feel the other person’s feelings when we were talking about something. This was just like the 5 why’s (discussed in an earlier episode) that Toyota came up with to get to the root of a problem.
That’s really what you have to do: You have to put yourself in that perspective if you’re going to analyze a market; otherwise, you just go by research which isn’t easy to do. Rarely do I see very good research anymore; so many biases creep into them, much of it is done in a fairly sloppy way or quick way, which is why there are so many of these unintended consequences or products that don’t survive.
Thank you for joining me. I look forward to talking to you next week. Thank you.