Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting

DISPLAY CONSULTING

 

Weather Vanes... February 2000

In the center of Issaquah, Washington, not more than two blocks off of main street, there is a full-fledged operating salmon hatchery. The founders of Issaquah, apparently not being a very creative lot, named this street "Front Street." Today, on Front Street you will find restaurants featuring a cross-section of quasi-ethnic cuisine, a camera repair shop, a musty-smelling used-office-furniture store, and a large commercial dairy with pictures of cows painted on the side facing Front Street -- which also happens to be the side where the large shiny tanker-trucks pull up to pump out their loads of fresh milk.

A few steps further there is a small bridge crossing an offshoot of the creek used by the salmon to get to the hatchery. Next is the Village Theater with its Stage Right Cafe, an art gallery, a dentist's office, several modest variety stores, a dilapidated used-everything store, and a TV repair shop with 50s-vintage sets in the window. There are the obligatory four gas stations at the intersection with Gilman Blvd. If you can visualize all this and add some fir- and maple-tree covered mountains for a background, you will have a reasonably good idea of what you would encounter on a stroll down Front Street. And in keeping with the reputation of the Pacific Northwest you may also wish to include a few clouds and a raindrop or two.

The only disruption to this bucolic sleepy-little-town scene is the day-long traffic jam reflective of the all-too-rapid growth that the Pacific Northwest has experienced over the last few years. The "serious" shopping areas, however, are a few blocks away at the quaint boutiques of Gilman Village and the upscale strip malls that have taken over the adjacent area that not too long ago was a dirt-strip airport.

No matter where you live on this planet, or which country you visit, such fairs seem to be much the same. The food vendors always appear to be the busiest. At the Issaquah Salmon Days, the barbecued salmon steaks are a particular favorite -- for obvious reasons I suppose. The rest of the arts and crafts vendors seem to be mostly providing free entertainment for the wandering crowds. People love to look and compare, but few buy. I often wonder why the vendors come. The business model for such a venture looks mighty shaky. With the cost of the tent and set-up, the rental of the booth space, the cost of inventory, and the cost of putting in at least two days away from home, the sales rate for most of the vendors doesn't seem to make for even a minimum-income operation. A few seem to do it to make contacts for hoped-for future sales.

Yet, there is an occasional exception.

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On that warm and rain-free October Sunday afternoon, as we strolled among the crowds on Front Street, I started noticing a person here or there carrying a weather vane. No, not the kind you mount on the peak of a roof. These were on six-foot black metal poles intended to be stuck into the ground. Most had an animal cutout (a rooster, cow, or dog) on top of the crossbar with the N-W-S-E letters, and immediately below there was an assembly that looked like anemometer cups. A few of them also had a person's name painted on a flat protrusion on the pole.

The more we strolled, the more weather vanes I noted. This was becoming very puzzling. They were certainly not very handy to carry around. The materials from which they were made did not look to be of particularly great quality. So why were people buying them? Was I maybe wrong about the craft items not selling well? No, hardly anyone was carrying a painting, photograph, or other evidence of a purchase. The weather vanes were definitely in the majority.

With my curiosity building, it was time to go take a look at this vendor's booth. I knew it wouldn't be hard to find. I would just go the opposite direction from the weather-vane carriers. When I came upon it, I couldn't believe what I saw. There was a line of at least 50 people, each patiently waiting to get his or her very own weather vane. Why? Of all the hundreds of items at this fair, why a weather vane? Every other vendor (except for the vendors of the barbecued salmon, elephant ears, and kettle popcorn) had to wait patiently for that occasional buyer. Yet, here were a couple of plain-looking guys, with a well-stocked truck nearby, selling weather vanes as fast as they could assemble them. They must have known this would happen because they had come well prepared to meet the demand.

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A partial explanation could be that the price was attractive. The basic matte-black weather vane was priced at $19.95. For an additional $7.00 one could add the non-functional anemometer cups, and for another $7.00, the personalized sign. This came to a typical total of $33.95 plus the Washington sales tax of 8.5% -- not real expensive, but also not pocket change. But why stand in line for an item that doesn't provide much in the way of functional usefulness or, in my opinion at least, decorative value. What was the appeal? Perhaps I should have asked. Would these customers have told me? Was the price of $33.95 perceived as a great value for this type of object? Was the opportunity to choose the cutout figure from a dozen or so examples the appeal? I noticed that this same booth was also selling a black "Victorian" lamp post with a personalized name rider for $30.00. But, I didn't see one person buying that item. There was definitely some special and magical attraction to the weather vanes.

Here was a great lesson in product marketing. In an environment where the typical vendor is happy with a few sales that may barely cover expenses, these guys had struck "gold." How did they know? What distinguished them from the rest? Or did they just stumble upon this by accident?

This led me to think about some of the marketing challenges that I regularly encounter in working with client companies and potential investors. Quantifying new market opportunities for evolving display technologies can sometimes be about as challenging as predicting that weather vanes will outsell every other product by an order of magnitude.

As a result of this Salmon Days experience, I have come to the conclusion that at times I must be trying to sell weather vanes before anyone has realized just how terribly important weather vanes are going to be. Corporations and institutional investors want lots of reassurances (typically known as due diligence) that their investment will not be too risky. However, if the only current examples are the "craft booths" that have hardly any sales, it is impossible to provide the quantitative data that will show that there exists a "weather vane" of an opportunity.

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It takes vision and perhaps some trial marketing to verify that such an opportunity is there and ready for exploitation. Otherwise, by looking only at the existing markets, it is not possible to find the data to show how a new product, based on a new technology, will create an entirely new growth market.

Before there were desk-top computers, what could we say about the market size for desk-top CRT or LCD monitors? Before there was an Internet, could we quantify the opportunities for Internet shopping businesses?

The early pioneers have the most difficult challenges in this regard. Until the new territory has been explored, there is no way to know how big or lucrative it may be. However, once the initial successes happen, everyone wants to jump in. And "everyone" is usually a few too many. I suppose at next year's Salmon Days there will be at least six vendors selling weather vanes. By then, the demand may no longer be there.

How can we desire the successes from "boldly going where no man has gone before" while at the same time hoping to "quantitatively assess the detailed outcome of our journey into the new and untested?"

How can we see "weather vanes" when everyone else is looking for minor variations on existing "trinket themes?" In words no more sophisticated than these, I have at times been asked why I can't just go out and find "low-hanging fruit." As I understand it, this is intended to mean that there must be some immediate, and as yet untapped opportunities, just waiting to be "picked." In many years of working for and with companies and investor groups, I have yet to find one of these fruit-laden low-hanging branches. Have you ever found one? If you did, you were darn lucky. Looking for such niche opportunities, I have decided at least for myself, is a difficult and futile way to go through life.

Market success comes from thoroughly knowing potential customers and their needs. The only way to know those needs is to spend intelligent time in face-to-face interactions with as many of them as possible and, on occasion, doing some real-time inventing while in the middle of such a meeting. It is necessary to be able to interpret the customers' needs better than the customers can articulate them. Only then, by presenting a new technology or a new product concept in a way that clearly shows what needs it meets -- whether obviously logical or sublimely mysterious -- can a new product introduction be successful.

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We in the display industry are fortunate. There are, and will continue to be, so many opportunities that we will have a difficult time choosing the best ones. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that we are impervious to making bad choices. I am sure that each of you can name a couple of recently announced display technologies, or products using displays, that seem to have lost touch with the reality of what users might want even under the most optimistic of circumstances.

The process of marketing new technologies, and products based on them, perhaps has some parallels to quantum mechanics. We can determine some features but others are too fuzzy to see. An attempt to measure can disrupt the phenomenon being measured. The deeper we probe into new territory the more uncertain becomes the measurement. Yet with understanding of the fundamental influences, and with skill at interpreting them, we can predict the opportunities on a grand scale. The process is not mysterious. But just as quantum mechanics combines the behaviors of particles with waves, the merging of technological possibilities with seemingly unpredictable emotion-driven human behavior is comfortable territory for only a few.

Should you wish to share your opinions of what you consider to be the most outrageous recent new product announcements, or other topics of interest, you may do so by contacting me via e-mail at silzars@attglobal.net, by phone at 425-557-8850, by FAX at 425-557-8983, or by way of the downtown Issaquah post office to my home office, at 22513 SE 47th Place, Issaquah, WA 98029.