Marketing/new product marketing
QUESTION: Mr. Pierce:
Thank you for taking my question. I am an independent inventor in St. George, Utah. I have developed a new kind of school notepaper that is intended to encourage students to outline and otherwise manage and work with their class notes, leading to more effective study habits and, hopefully, better grades. This device is protected by US Pat. D667,497. Attached are files showing the notepaper leaf, applications sheet, and the patent publication.
This product will compete with conventional school notepaper in either loose-leaf or spiral notebook format; however, conventional notepaper does not offer the unique features of my product. I believe that students from middle school through college level and beyond can benefit from this product. The potential market is substantial.
At present, I am in the process of test marketing this product online in loose-leaf format. You can find my adds at ecrater.com and atoncer.com. My price point is $5.50 for 100 sheets and $6.50 for 140 sheets.
I do not have a background in marketing or business and I am wondering how to best promote and commercialize this product. I'm concerned that web-based marketing is not the optimum venue for this item and I may be spinning my wheels trying to sell it online.
I would appreciate your ideas on promoting this product to high school and college students. What are the chances that a major retailer would agree to stock this item, since it has no track record? Do you think this is a niche product that would appeal to only a certain demographic of students?
Thanks in advance for your input.
The first thing I do when I receive a question is to analyze how it was delivered. It's a process I created called 30-30. Within thirty seconds of reading something or meeting someone I should be able to derive 30 things about them that helps me best offer a solution or an answer. Stay with me as this can be real eye-opening. Some will be obvious, some will not be. Some will make no sense to you and some will absolutely speak volumes to me. I'll offer up ten just to give you an idea.
1. Either you are a perfectionist or you are really good at proof reading your own work with finite accuracy—there are no errors in your question (except adds in lieu of ads). Even words like "loose-leaf" are hyphenated in both instances, something most people would overlook
2. Polite and respectful, at least in your elevator speech—whether you are in real life or not, it lets me know that you sell yourself
3. Very ready to admit weaknesses—thank goodness. The moment you said you do not have a background in marketing and business you shared your weakness. This takes courage, even if to you it seems trivial
4. Passionate about your product—if you're not passionate, then you're simply an entrepreneur. I don't help entrepreneurs when two weeks later they'll have yet another idea. I like focus
5. You use terms like "demographic" and "promote and commercialize"—if you do not have a background in marketing or business this tells me that you have at least been doing a ton of research to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible in addition to picking up the lingo along the way
6. You got a patent before you figured out how to market—common mistake, yet it still embodies passion
7. "Spinning my wheels"—ah, my favorite. An eloquent question with a little bit of personal flavor that can't be subdued; fighting windmills, chasing rabbits, weathering the storm. It shows the human side and that's where real progress is made
8. "Does not offer the unique features of my product"—as long as you understand that features are 10% of your battle and benefits are 90% of securing victory. You highlight some real benefits.
9. You gave two websites where I could see your product—you put the cart before the horse. Firstly, I had to find your products. Secondly, you had them there before asking your question here. Just the wrong order is all. Not crucial, but does support your "I don't have a background in marketing or business" statement :)
10. Your price point and the ".50" for each—I'll explain this one more below
I easily have about 50 more insights. I won't overwhelm you with them all, but the reason I share is that you will know I take every question seriously. Anyone that helps you should be doing the same. Remember, after they answer your question or help you with a few paragraphs, they still have their job. They still get a good night's sleep. They aren't in your shoes realizing how much your are hoping for that answer that will make perfect sense. I get it. I understand your question and I have some real answers for you. Let's go!
Firstly, yes, there is a HUGE demographic. You're just choosing the wrong one to focus on. The demographic isn't the students. Movie production companies aren't selling their movies to the ticket buyers. They're selling them to the cinemas that will then be selling tickets to the ticket buyers—hence, the very expensive concession prices. Granted, the ticket buyers will ultimately be spending the money, but it starts with the cinemas. That's why different cinemas offer different movies sometimes. They're outrageously expensive and the cinema has to take into consideration if they can afford to show the next "Harry Potter" and sell enough at the concessions with the other movies they will definitely have a hard time affording to recoup their costs. Now take this to your product. We don't need students to buy into it. We don't need retailers to buy into it. We need teachers and professors to buy into it. How do we do this?
Set aside some money. Easier said than done, right? Not really. You haven't discussed what weight your paper is. What stock it is. You have what's called an indefensible idea. You have the images of your paper (not even watermarked) that could be printed. You've created a fill-in-the-blank that any student on any campus, much less teacher or professor, can easily re-create themselves and hand out for free. How can they do it for free? Because they usually get unlimited copying afforded to them. To make an idea indefensible, you have to find ways to make it unique. Since your idea can absolutely not be done uniquely, we then need to make you and your belief in your product indefensible.
First, let's get your costs down. You came up with an arbitrary dollar amount for your price points. $5.50 or $6.50—why? I can duplicate your idea in less than 30 minutes, patented or not, and go to Kinkos (if I can't get it for free) and make thousands of copies at a time for pennies on the dollar. Or, I could set aside about $40 for a printer cartridge that yields about 2,000 printed pages. What it really comes down to, however, is how much you need to make.
Does your patent allow for you to make changes and still remain protected? The reason I ask is because you might want to make changes to stay ahead of the competition. You may also not want to print too far in advance in order to change with the times.
Let's figure out how much you need to make. Most people don't invent things because they want to only have their product in their hometown, so think BIG (just not in price). Bring your price way down to about $2.00 for 100 and $3.00 for 150. If anyone is going to compete with you, make them really think through if it's worth it. Those numbers might be low, but if they get picked up across the country and abroad, they'll be more than adequate. Plan for 5 years, not 5 weeks.
Now, pick 5 local high schools and meet with the principal. Explain your passion and, by the way, it's exceptionally easy to get a meeting with the principal. Offer about 10 packs of 100 for them to disseminate to your teachers for free in return only for feedback. Here's the thing—feedback will never be all good so take it with a grain of salt. When you ask most people for feedback, they instinctively feel that it needs to be negative or they're not helping. I know, it's ludicrous, but it still happens. The goal is to remember that, by agreeing to make some concessions, the bigger picture is that they are telling you they'll use your product if you make changes. That's good. You're giving them the gateway drug. Doing this at 5 different schools allows for 5 very different sets of real feedback. It's a great litmus test of your product and five new opportunities to get people using it. The dreamer in you will be rewarded, but the inner money-maker in you will begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Remember to sell the benefits, not the features.
Eventually, you will need this in notebook form so you can brand yourself. Loose-leaf just won't provide that. But again, that's where you can have more fun and set yourself apart from other would-be competitors.
Phase 2? Take your time (REALLY take your time) and find the 10 most influential trend-setting students you can find and have them swear by your product. Have them using it for free and ONLY sell on your own website. Let THEM tell their friends where they can get it. Don't have a website? Get one. Take your product down from any other place online immediately. This all needs branding. If you keep at it, maybe I'll work with you (but I don't come cheap :) I just think you have a good idea.
I know this is a lot of information, but it's to let you know two things—one, you're on to something with some real potential and two, to have a new excitement commensurate with your original love for your invention. Speaking of which, let's not call it an invention. It's an idea. A brilliant one at that, but avoid invention. I'm a branding specialist... trust me on this.
Good luck and please feel free to leave a review! Ask any questions you have at any time!
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Mr. Pierce:
Thank you for your analysis. I appreciate the prefatory remarks. I chose this product to try my hand at commercialization because it is cheap and easy to manufacture, the market is uncrowded and there are many potential buyers, among other considerations. I realize I am thinking small at this point, but I never intended to market this item long-term online. Online retailing is just a stepping stone but one that could be skipped. I want to sell massive quantities of this product – truckloads. But before I approach Walmart, Kmart, or Target, I figured I needed some sales.
Your suggestion to contact local school principals is interesting; I had considered this but was skeptical of how it would be received. This would be an effective way to get some valuable feedback. Would you suggest a letter or personal interview as an initial contact? I also thought I would try to get into the bookstore at the local college.
With regard to pricing, I'm basically winging it. At this point I have little idea what the optimum price should be and I'm not in a position to conduct surveys. I believe it can be retailed at a higher price than conventional loose-leaf (or notebooks) because it offers unique features which students might be willing to pay for. If the price is too high, people may be tempted to copy it. Under patent law, making this product without my permission is unlawful; however, I am not naïve to think it won't happen. (I am placing a patent notice on every sheet!; also a copyright notice, for what it's worth) With offset printing it can be produced for under a cent per sheet. With offshore (i.e., Asian) printing, even less. Notebook format would be expensive at limited production, but I have noticed some conventional brand name notebooks retailed for ca. $10.
As far as branding, would you suggest I give this product a name (trademark), rather than referring to it as “outlining notepaper”?
Further comments would be welcomed. Again, thanks for your time.
Here is PRECISELY how to approach principals:
Go in person in the middle of the day and ask to set an appointment with the principal. A secretary may ask what it is regarding and you will simply say you are a potential educator and wanted to ask a few questions before altering your entire career path (You want to disarm them).
Take a couple hundred stacks of paper and have ready. You are NOT selling to them and you are NOT asking them to use your paper. RESIST the urge at all costs, no matter how well the conversation goes! All you are there to do is to say, "I drive by this school every day and in the last few years I've been working on something for educators and figured I have nothing to lose in coming to pick your brain." You show what you created without describing what it is other than a way for students to more effectively take notes and you just got it patented. Then you say, "As a principal, I just wanted to ask your thoughts on what is the best way to GIVE this away to teachers at other schools simply so they will try it?" Then you say, "I've spent a great amount of time on this and it's not about the money, although my wife (or whomever) says she'd like to have hot water for her showers, so..." THEN you say, "I just want to hand out some packs and be able to ask teachers after a month or so their thoughts on its effectiveness. Do you know how best to get this in teacher's hands so that it's more personable? I want to help students and I think I'm on to something that could be quite useful and it's as affordable as regular paper and I'd just really like some feedback before I go further."
The goal is to NOT make the principal feel that you are selling anything (because you aren't). All you want him or her to believe (which is true) is that you want their opinion on how to best approach teacher and principals at other school. It disarms them and makes them almost feel like a consultant.
IF you want to be REALLY BRAVE... you can get the email address of 10 principals (you only get one shot at this email so be sure) and send the same email out one at a time that says you've created a great product that just got patented and you are looking for ONE principal to go into business with. Nothing else. Anyone that is interested can respond. The great thing about this is that principals usually cap out with what they can earn and they know this. If they want to ever have a boat payment, this could be there chance. Again, nothing wrong with going into business with someone anyhow and the validity of a principal might be a boost for your product (at that point I'd then encourage you to hire me professionally to brand it for you so no one screws it up).
Yes, you need a name. No, it is not your place to come up with one :) When I create names and identity for businesses, a ridiculous amount of research goes into the process. If you hire someone to create a logo for you for $60 you may as well take out all the cash from your wallet right now and rip it to shreds and then flush it in the toilet. You need to consider who will be saying the name, how they'll abbreviate it, who will make fun of it, what it rhymes with, how it translates into other languages and other accents, how it looks in black and white, reversed, two color, four color, monogramed, embroidered, screen printed, on brick buildings, wood buildings, three dimensional, variations, digital, etc. How will it play out if it does go big? So, if you love your idea, protect it. Your identity is your biggest revenue generator.
With regard to pricing it too high... you're still going the wrong direction. You want to price it too low so it's not worth doing themselves. If you can just pull a few bucks out and have it, then it's not worth someone trying to duplicate on their own. And outsourcing it overseas is not a problem. As far as a notebook, you can get unit prices down considerably low if you know how to negotiate it (something my company does and any company should be good at). But, you do need a notebook eventually. You also need to consider oh, about a million variations you can do based on subjects (music, math, science, etc). Do not keep placing your patent on it. That's real estate. And it's not good branding. You want to give the impression as if you've been around forever and a day.
Just a final note. I am not sure how other experts back up their words. I just happen to be the best at marketing and consulting of anyone I've ever met. If I give advice it's because I can see it playing out in my head so many steps in advance that I feel I've always had an unfair advantage. Take that for what it's worth. My goal is to never steer anyone in the wrong direction, but to be adamant about what I know works. I know what most answers could be like on any site and they bore me. Just like the books that offer no real-world practical advice to the people desperately seeking some. Thank you for the positive feedback. I'd appreciate more if you feel so inclined!