Five Crucial Questions to Avoid Business Failure
Watch for the Oops! Sign
For far too many entrepreneurs, with or without social media expertise, business failure is just a matter of time.
There are many reasons for this startling reality, but a core problem is that they never asked themselves five crucial questions — until it was far too late.
According to the Harvard Business Review, the five crucial questions are:
1. Do you have a plan to ramp up quickly if the product takes off?
As an example, take the product launch of an otherwise splendid product, Mosquito Magnet, eleven years ago.
American Biophysics thought they had a tiger by the tail. Their product used carbon dioxide to lure mosquitoes into a trap during the height of the West Nile virus scare. All indications were that they had a sure winner on their hands.
There should have been an “Oops!!” sign.
Despite the fact that both the Frontgate catalog and Home Depot were selling huge volumes of the new product, the company started to run downhill with the speed of a bullet train. The reason? When they moved their manufacturing from Rhode Island to a mass-production facility in China, quality suffered irreversibly. They had believed, erroneously, that their primary problems would be marketing and sales … problems that evaporated overnight when mosquitoes went from being a nuisance to being potential killers.
Instead, they had missed the “Oops!!” sign, warning them to consider ramping up as a potential problem.
Sales success became their near demise as a company. The company’s much-heralded $70 million dollar per year revenue dropped precipitously, their customers became angry, and they eventually were sold to Woodstream for a paltry $6 million.
What a catastrophe! Woodstream solved the ramping up problem and are making considerable profits today from a product they bought for pennies on the dollar.
Ironically, had the original product launch occurred in today’s social media world, where bad customer reaction spreads like mosquitoes at a picnic, the results might have been even worse.
Their error was a strategic one. Someone should have asked what would happen if their fledgling product skyrocketed.
They failed to see the “Oops!!” sign before it was too late.
2. Should you delay your launch until the product is really ready?
Microsoft Corporation, long the King Midas of the software industry, missed an equally obvious “Oops!!” sign when they launched Windows Vista a few years ago.
The market was primed, potential buyers were lined up excitedly, but the product simply wasn’t ready. Apple, led by perhaps the most media savvy management in the industry, swept the proverbial floor with Vista.
The release was filled with compatibility problems and bad went to worse.
The television commercial, “I’m a Mac,” became iconic.
The hemorrhaging would have been even worse had Twitter and Facebook been the Leviathans they are today. As Bill Gates once described our modern business environment, prophetically as it turned out, we are doing “business @ the speed of thought.” When that thought is negative, it can spread through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube with mind-numbing speed.
Their error was also a strategic one. Someone should have asked the question, “Is Vista really ready to be released?”
They too failed to see the “Oops!!” sign before it was too late.
3. Did you test the product to make sure its differences will sway buyers?
This is a common problem, even for the seasoned business.
An apt example is the Coca-Cola Company, arguably one of the most accomplished marketers in the world. Coca-Cola identified a new and potentially lucrative market — men between 20 and 40 who liked the taste of Coke but didn’t like the carbs and calories.
To complicate matters, this burgeoning market also liked the “no-calories” feature of Diet Coke but disliked both the taste and what they believed to be a feminine image.
Into this product vacuum, Coca-Cola poured $50 million of advertising spend and launched its newest product, Coca-Cola C2. (Does anyone even remember it?)
Here the “Oops!! sign was the way they formulated C2, while partially ignoring what the market actually wanted. The product had half the calories and carbs of Coke, and tasted great, but the market demanded zero calories and carbs.
The company who doesn’t listen to its market is committing an unpardonable sin.
The core problem was that C2′s benefits were not distinctive enough.
As is often the case with new products, particularly in small entrepreneurial companies where the product creator and prime decision-maker is the same individual, the problem is that the obvious “Oops!!” sign is hidden from view by the entrepreneur’s rose-colored glasses.
Even in larger organizations, new products build their own culture and following and soon there is no turning back. Fortunately, Coca-Cola is large enough to absorb the occasional product mistake, and out of the C2 ashes Coke Zero was eventually born.
Coca-Cola’s error was also a strategic one. Someone should have asked the question, “Is C2 really distinctive enough to capture the market?”
They too failed to see the several “Oops!!” signs before it was too late.
4. Can consumers quickly grasp how to use your product, without substantial consumer education?
This problem, though not as common, is also a real deal-killer.
A good example is Febreze Scentstories.
Actually a highly innovative product, Scentstories was a CD player look-alike that emitted scents instead of music every 30 minutes.
In this case, the primary “Oops!!” sign that was overlooked was the inherent confusion that the product created in the mind of the consumer. “What does this new product actually do?” seemed to be the question on everybody’s mind. Most thought it played music and emitted scents. And the confusion was compounded when P&G decided to hire Shania Twain for the product launch commercials.
A singer-celebrity reinforced the misconception that music was part of the deal. The upshot was that the ambiguity and confusing message killed the product. Too bad, I would have bought one.
P&G’s error was also a strategic one. Someone should have asked the question, “Will the customers understand this new product, or do we have to educate them first?”
They too failed to see the “Oops!!” signs before it was too late.
5. Who will buy this product and at what price?
In recent history at least, the Segway ranks among the biggest product missteps in memory.
We have all seen the inventor’s brainchild, albeit infrequently, cruising down the sidewalk or in the aisles of large warehouse stores, with its rider perched precariously on top.
It’s hard to find fault with this one, since its prelaunch scuttlebutt was more-or-less an accident. The public heard the rumors about it a year before it was planned to hit the market.
Dean Kamen, the product’s creator, was a renowned inventor even before the Segway. His inventions were classic examples of products that could really make a difference in people’s lives. As just a few examples, before and since, he invented a revolutionary water purification device, a compressed-air apparatus that would launch a human into the air which was intended to assist SWAT teams and other early responders to reach the top of otherwise inaccessible buildings, a mobile dialysis machine, the first insulin pump, and an all-terrain wheelchair. In short, he was the kind of product genius that everyone wishes success.
Sadly, like the rest of us, Kamen was not immune to this last “Oops!!” sign.
Revolutionary or not, the public was simply not willing to fork over $5,000 for his new transportation system. Kamen had promised sales north of 10,000 machines per week. Instead, after five years of trying, only 24,000 had been sold.
Kamen’s error was also a strategic one. Someone should have asked the question, “Will the market abide a $5,000 price tag?”
They too failed to see the “Oops!!” sign before it was too late.
Social media is an amazing phenomenon. Despite its power, however, social media cannot transform a lackluster or poorly conceived product into a success.
So before you initiate a social media campaign, be sure all of the traditional problems have been eliminated or at least recognized and ameliorated. In reality, social media is merely an information engine.
If the information is positive, there is no better way of getting the message out. If the information is negative, it merely hastens disaster.