A recent survey found that $20 billion is spent annually on market research, and yet 80 percent of new items fail, according to Bart Steiner, founder and CEO of Phoenix-based Bulbstorm.com.
"Everyone has ideas, and everyone needs exposure and marketing feedback," Steiner said to a morning crowd at the "Achieving Innovation through Collaboration" symposium hosted recently by the Center for Advancing Business through Information Technology at the W. P. Carey School of Business. But market surveys are expensive, so where can innovators go for this vital input?
How Bulbstorm.com works
Steiner's company, Bulbstorm.com, enables its clients to air their ideas and get precious feedback not only from other inventors, but also from marketers, designers and even manufacturers. Posting your project to the Bulbstorm site is like leaving the isolation of the outside for a lively community inside.
Bulbstorm documents your idea the moment you enter the site, including the actual date the concept was posted -- helpful in the event that you later need a patent. Then Bulbstorm helps connect you to others with similar ideas, who use the site to give their input. This engagement is a powerful asset when approaching investors. You can tell an investor, "Hey, I have 3,800 business people across the country endorsing my product/invention. You need to invest in this."
All of this helps accelerate your innovation process, Steiner said: "The idea is not dormant and is growing all the time."
Bulbstorm received funding this January and its investors, who were in the audience on Friday, are ready to take things to the next level. The company itself is great fodder for a conversation on innovation too.
Where innovation comes from
In his pre-Bulbstorm.com years Steiner was a global manager for Proctor and Gamble. He began his talk with a game of Jeopardy. He asked the audience -- a mix of academics, entrepreneurs and business people -- which companies were the top six in Business Week's list of the 100 most innovative companies?
Nobody picked correctly.
The answers? Apple first, Google second, then Toyota, General Electric, Microsoft and finally the Tata Group. India's largest private sector group of 98 companies, Tata includes Tata Motors, the country's largest auto company and the maker of Tata Nano, the People's Car. The audience had put Microsoft first and then chosen technology companies exclusively. Innovation is not just technology, Steiner said. It is also automation. Nor is innovation purely a U.S. skill. Japan, Thailand, India and other countries are producing new ideas too.
Next he asked who are the true innovators?
A study called "How Communities Support Innovative Activities," conducted by the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration and the MIT Sloan School of Management, showed that 37 percent of people in the U.S. report having conceived an innovation, and 9 percent of these report building product prototypes or even marketable products.
"This means that regular people innovate," he said.
To illustrate, Steiner asked the audience how many could claim an innovation of their own, or know someone who had innovated. More than half of the room raised their hands. "See, there are even more inventors than the studies show," Steiner explained.
If the studies are true, two-thirds of Americans have no ideas, but the one-third who do number 84 million -- 84 million potential innovations. If roughly one-third of these ideas are good, that means that according to this study there are 25 million breakthrough ideas in America alone.
What innovators look like and why they invent
So many ideas, but will people share them?
Literature and personal experience has shown that the mad scientist type -- the crazed person with wild hair, bending protectively over bubbling test tubes in his garage -- is a myth, Steiner said. He agrees with Proctor and Gamble's CEO A.G. Lafley that there has to be a consumer or a customer in order for an idea to be an innovation.
But Steiner does not believe that innovators work in isolation, nor does he believe that financial return is the primary motivation to invent. The "How Communities Support Innovative Activities" study found the following criteria for inventing: it's fun, it's creative, it's lucrative (money is third) and it fulfills an unmet need (for the customer).
Getting customers to innovate
Companies can gain precious insight into customers needs by having them share their stories, Steiner said. This anecdotal research often yields ideas not previously considered, and companies get free "labor" as their customers create content.
Consider inthemotherhood.com, an online community and entertainment site funded by Sprint and Uniliver's Suave. Mothers write up and send in stories about their families and their kids' crazy antics. The site's community of moms votes for their favorite stories, and the most popular are acted out by Hollywood actresses like Jenny McCarthy from films such as "Weiners" and Leah Remini, from the hit show "The King of Queens."
The site is hugely successful, with one billion users and 15 million page views. The corporate owners profit, Steiner noted, from the marketing insights gathered from the users. "This is precious, real insight into what mothers talk about, and the real language they use can be used in marketing," he said.
Not only are consumers a potential source of innovative ideas, Steiner said, but it's risky not to listen. Dell found out the hard way when a blogger created "Dell Hell," where he posted his epic "Ode to Michael Dell" and compiled complaints about the PC company's shoddy customer service. In contrast, the Dell Ideastorm website, an online forum that lets users share ideas and collaborate with each other, allows customers to tell Dell what new products or services they'd like to see the company develop. Dell employees monitor the conversation.
- Bulbstorm.com is a Phoenix, Arizona-based company that helps innovators cultivate their ideas, gain insights from other inventors and take their products or concepts to the patent stage.
- Market research is not particularly helpful. U.S. companies spend $20 billion annually on market research, yet 80 percent of new items fail.
- Bart Steiner, owner and CEO of Bulbstorm.com, thinks that offering people a forum for sharing their ideas is extremely lucrative for manufacturers and consumer companies.
- He cites inthemotherhood.com as a prime example. Funded by Sprint and Uniliver's Suave, the site invites mothers to submit stories about their families and their lives. The community votes to choose the stories that will be acted out by Hollywood actresses online. The site has 15 million page views.