How to know if your idea is a good one

I don’t know if it’s due to the need of affirmation from a presumed authority or whether people really meant it but I get a lot of email from people who want to know if I think their idea is a good one. Here are some sample emails:

Sally: I am in the process to manufacture some products I designed. As you are a fashion incubator, would you accept to see these different designs and tell me if you think they would be marketable (I have mainly 4 different products right now).

Tom: I have some copyrighted children images that I have created and I would like to have a line of possibly onesies for babies, or sleepwear? perhaps something else for children. In your opinion what do you think would be a good product line for children to start with?

Jane: How do you know if you should go for it? I have let fear of failure to keep me from pursuing my product idea for a couple of years. People say to trust and believe in yourself but when do you follow your gut?

There are two problems with asking a presumed authority for their opinion on good ideas. First, people who make a living answering this question (I don’t) nearly always say “yes”; need I say more? Second, it’s the wrong question. “Good” has nothing to do with marketable or profitable. Other than that lousy or good can be subjective, lousy ideas can make as much or more than good ones. Be specific. It’s better to ask someone whether an idea has the potential for return considering the costs to develop it. But I digress.

For the sake of argument, here’s a rundown for people who want an answer to the question of how to know whether their idea is a good or bad one starting with research. Searching online to find similar or related products is a given. If there is nothing else like it (be real), you should probably let it go. Everybody thinks that a wholly new product is a guaranteed whiz-bang but they rarely are, particularly in apparel and sewn products. Either they are premature, not marketable or they age. Here’s why:

  1. Premature: Time Magazine recently said the CueCat was an abysmal flop -and it was- but it was launched before its time. Even though the technology has yet to reach its potential, CueCats are in high demand today. A former freebie, they’re at least $20 when you can find one. If you have one, hold on to it. You may need it in a year or two.
  2. Not marketable: All over the web are a plethora of new products that will never return the investment put into them; the internet is a graveyard of failed inventions. Invention agencies will tell you your idea is great but the profit center isn’t in the licensing fees they may capture down the road -which is what everyone worries about. It’s in the fees they collect from you at the outset and any referral fees they may collect from a contractor who will produce the product.
  3. Aging: Sewn and apparel products are seasonal and trendy. Even some utility products are trendy if only because of color -how many people are buying avocado refrigerators? Much is made of uniqueness in fashion but most are following a trend. If you do come up with something wholly new and different and off the trends, it’s hard to make headway unless you’ve targeted your customer carefully and can bypass traditional selling. It is possible that by the time the greatness of your idea takes sway, the color will be out of season and the concept will be re-interpreted for another period.

Then, determining good ideas versus lousy ideas is very subjective. Time Magazine also said Crocs were a lousy idea but the millions of people who’ve bought them are likely to disagree as are shareholders of the company. There is no correlation of profit between the quality of an idea and the caliber of consumer’s tastes. The first question to ask yourself is whether you want a return for your investment or do you want to be an arbiter of good taste? If you care more about making pronouncements of good vs bad taste, get a job as a critic for a newspaper or magazine. If you want to make a profit, it doesn’t mean you have to make junky stuff to make a living but be clear on what your reasons are. Pursue design excellence because it’s a core value but not because you want to make a counter statement about what lousy taste most people have.

If someone is in the business of telling you whether your idea is a good or bad one, watch your wallet. You could lose more than you gain. Many will tell you it’s a great idea because they won’t make any money unless they do.

The solution to sorting out good ideas from bad ones is through execution. Pursue new ideas but pare your product development to bare bones. Do enough research to know whether you can trademark your product’s identity if it should come to that but refrain from spending a bundle on legal fees -or even marketing. Take orders and produce in limited quantities until your idea has proven itself or has become better attuned and refined to your customer’s wants. You don’t want to end up with 50,000 baby bib drying racks just because your mom-friends said it was a great idea and they’d buy that. You will never know if an idea is any good until you try to sell it. Try to get to the selling stage as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

One last way to know if your idea is any good is if a larger business wants to buy it from you. Most people have the wrong idea about acquisition. That’s how larger firms grow. They don’t start new concepts of their own, they buy fledging ones. Unfortunately, I think too many entrepreneurs don’t avail themselves to the opportunity and end up regretting it a few years later after the blush has faded. If they want to buy it, it means it will scale. If you turn down an offer, you’ll either need to have the wherewithal to scale yourself or be able to learn it quickly. If this should happen to you, I think you should sell under the condition that you come along for the ride in some capacity. It will be a learning opportunity to help you launch your next product idea more successfully.

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  1. Eric H says:

    Wow, he really has “copyrighted images”, by which I assume that he intends to vigorously defend them, but refers to his product as “onesies” as if that were a generic term?

  2. Jasonda says:

    I’m definitely an “idea person” and can usually be found annoying the people around me with all my new ideas. This might sound overly simplistic, but I’ve come to realize that a great idea is completely worthless without action. Even some of the most terrible ideas throughout history have been extremely successful because some guy just put a lot of work into them!

  3. Leslie says:

    Fantastic response! Getting to the selling stage-I feel-is key. Make as many mistakes as you can, recover as fast as you can, as inexpensivly as you can to ready the product for selling.

  4. Amen. Your articles are frequently answers to nagging questions in my mind. Oh – the woe of legal fees! It’s a never ending waterfall . . .and for what?! To allegedly protect what can’t really be protected anyway. All it takes is a “dot” in a different place and – voila – it’s all new.
    I don’t have a single sales bone in my body and that’s a disaster. Leslie is right – selling is key. It doesn’t matter how “good” any of my ideas are, as long as I can’t get over my fear of dealing with strangers, I’ll continue to have my items in my office and not in stores.

  5. Kathy Jo says:

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled with this question, I am still muddling through the answer. What I do know is that “Try to get to the selling stage as quickly and inexpensively as possible.” is a gem and one I wish I had been able to comprehend about a year ago.

  6. Renee says:

    I so agree with you about getting to the point of selling as quickly as possible. I got great feedback on my product once I started selling (and by great, I mean useful; both good and bad). I used the first eight months of sales data as my market test.

  7. Elena says:

    Dear Kathleen, this is amazing that I’ve just wanted to ask you this question “How to know if your idea is a good one”, I’ve opened your blog and I’ve found the answer right away.

    I bought your book “The entrepreneur’s guide to sewn product manufacturing” 5 years ago when I came with idea of creating a company that produces clothing for kids, not simple clothing but toy-clothing. I applied for patent for my invention and was thinking about investors to start my company. Friend of mine who had some financial recourse offered me to be a partner of the company. She always wanted to have her own business but didn’t have any idea of her own.

    I made few samples of convertible jackets (converts into toy-pillow and bag) by myself and tested the idea on “Salon des métiers d’art” in Montreal, where I am from. Public seems to like the idea very much. The problem was that these samples I made at home and it required a lot of work: I developed special embroidery programs, Turtle, Frog and Ladybug toy elements was very real and detailed. It was too expensive to manufacture in US or in Canada. The only way to do it was to find contractor in China.

    We found few companies and get samples. But these samples were not in right colors and in right fabric quality. Contractors only tried the style and made calculation for cost, but it was not the product that we can show to buyers to get orders. But we wanted to start somehow. We believed that we will be able to sell it on internet on our website. I can tell how difficult and long and unpredictable was all the process of manufacturing, but it is very long story, it can be a book.

    Finally we got our product (2 months later then it had to be). We started to sell at Bryant Park NY at Christmas holiday shop. People said “wow” when they got the idea and we received a lot of compliments. But we didn’t get a lot of profit. We had noticed that voyagers from Europe appreciate the design and idea much more than Americans. Americans complained about the price (it is 85$).

    During next year we participated in 2 trade show in NY, but got 0 orders. We advertised on different sites for moms. But it didn’t help a lot.

    This year we got an offer from one big company from Canada, who liked the idea very much and wanted to start to produce much less expensive version for mass market. But my partner didn’t approve this deal and we lost the opportunity.

    After this she found some investors and wanted to push me out of business. I didn’t like this outcome at all and didn’t agree to sign new contract.

    Few months later she started to blame me of spending her money on this unprofitable product.

    This is a very short story about my experience in developing new idea.

  8. Laura says:

    Hmm. Well, I know my idea is a good one. It’s not totally unique, there are similar products out there, but mine (the samples I’m currently making) are made from a better quality of fabric, which I think is important for this product because it has a very specific purpose and the fabric I’m using is specifically made for that purpose. My product is not as trendy looking, which I consider to be an advantage, considering my target customer. I think similar products on the market are intended to be more disposable than mine, and I think that is an advantage my product has. The shape I came up with is more suitable for it’s purpose (my idea of it’s purpose?). The pattern is all my own. I started making my product because I didn’t like the patterns available for it, but the use is somewhat different, so the design needed to be different. I’m not a great seamstress and wouldn’t have considered myself a designer before now, and I’m definitely not a pattern-maker. I have been a sewing-machine operator, I’ve sewn a lot over the years (quilts, clothing for my daughters, and I had a small business making drapes and window-treatments), but never really learned to sew from someone who knows how. I have always wanted to learn pattern-making. Anyway, my product is fairly simple and it’s small. I have a couple of different versions, and I would love to be able to make and sell it. I’m trying to get all the details worked out, and if I can make this work, I have a couple of other ideas I may try. Again, not totally unique, but I’m not ripping off anyone else’s ideas either. I want to make sure I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes and creating enemies in production and selling my product. Of course, I’m broke and don’t have any contacts within the industry, so at this point, I think those are my biggest problems. I don’t know a thing about starting and maintaining a business like this. I’m planning on buying your book as soon as I can and enjoy FI.

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