In the baseball movie Field of Dreams, the main character, Ray Kinsella, hears a voice in his cornfield tell him, “If you build it, he will come.” He becomes convinced that he should build a baseball field in the middle of a remote corn field. Shortly thereafter, the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven Chicago White Sox players who were banned from baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series appear upon the field.
The phrase from the movie, “Build it and he will come” has been popularized in the business world as “build it and they (customers) will come.”
Many a visionary entrepreneur has been inspired by that “light bulb” moment and arrived with the next million dollar idea that is going to change the world. Driven by sheer inspiration, they proceed to throw all of their time, energy, and resources (read: ‘money’) at developing their product or service. They think that if they build a better mousetrap, people will flock in droves to buy it. “Build it and they will come.”
Well, speaking of “light bulb” moments, let’s see what we can learn from one of the world’s greatest inventors, Thomas Alva Edison. Although the electric light bulb was the invention, which brought him great fame and fortune, Edison was a prolific inventor, whose efforts also included the invention of the phonograph. Ultimately, Edison received a record 1,093 patents. Of these, his very first was for the Electronic Vote-Recorder.
The electrographic what?
While working as a telegrapher in Boston, Edison transcribed copy about congressional proceedings. During these proceedings, voting on the passage of bills was taken by roll-call; after the name of each senator or representative was announced, each would respond with a “yea” or “nay” and the vote was recorded one by one.
Edison noticed how much time was wasted by this process and decided to build a device that would automatically tally the votes. Based on the telegraph, his invention was a technological success and on June 1, 1869, Edison was awarded U.S. Patent #90646 for the Electrographic Vote-Recorder.
Great idea, but is it time to laugh all the way to the bank?
Curiously, neither the Massachusetts legislature nor the United States Congress was interested in the vote-recorder. As Gene Adair recounts in his book Thomas Alva Edison: Inventing the Electric Age:
“As Edison learned, it was an accepted practice in such bodies to filibuster, a process in which lawmakers who oppose a particular bill use various delaying tactics to block its passage. In one of these tactics, opponents of the legislation will demand time-consuming roll-call votes on one irrelevant motion after another. Edison’s machine, by speeding up the vote-taking process, would blunt the effectiveness of this political weapon—something most legislators were reluctant to do.
Edison vowed right then that he would only make inventions for which there was a ready demand. In later years, he counted his experience with the vote recorder as one of the most important lessons he ever learned.”
Pre-sell: The antidote to being blinded by the flash of the “light bulb.”
In my experience, I’ve seen far too many entrepreneurs and small business owners develop and offer a new product or service, only to find out that no one is particularly interested in using it, much less paying for it.
So, the next time you have a brilliant “light bulb” idea, think of Thomas Edison. Then go out and find out from your potential buyers if they’d want to buy your next world-changing idea. It’s a simple concept called “pre-selling.”
Sell the concept of the product or service before you invest in building it. If no one expresses any significant interest, refine your offering and/or your approach to presenting its value. If there is interest, you’ll have seed money to develop your offering. And you’ll know first-hand what to build into the product/service because your early buyers have told you.
Hell, there are no rules here—we’re trying to accomplish something.
Well, there is perhaps just one rule Thomas: Unless you want to be successful in business by accident, “build it and they will come” works only if you know they want it in the first place!