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A screen grab from a Damn Heels promotional video.
A screen grab from a Damn Heels promotional video.

Consulting

Idea to market: Do it alone, or get help? Add to ...

Hailey Coleman’s initial run at business wasn’t exactly rooted in strategy.

“I just threw everything against the wall and waited to see what would stick,” recalls Ms. Coleman of her approach to launching her Toronto-based company, Damn Heels, straight out of university in 2007.

By December, 2009, Ms. Coleman had her product on the market -- ballerina-style flat shoes folded up in an expandable bag that women could swap for their high-heeled shoes when their feet had grown sore and tired of them.

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Ms. Coleman believed in what she had created, but knew she didn’t have a crystal-clear picture of her target client, and that would eventually hold her back. “I knew I wasn’t where I wanted to be,” she recalls.

She realized she needed to step back and re-examine her idea. Recognizing she could use some help, she turned to a Toronto-based company that she found online by chance. That company, called Ideal Samples, is an “end-to-end” consultant that helps entrepreneurs with their journey taking ideas to market.

“I thought, oh my God, this is exactly what I need,” Ms. Coleman says.

A helping hand to turn concepts into realities sounds like a dream for every entrepreneur. Like Ideal Samples, many companies exist that can help entrepreneurs with all facets of the process of developing ideas, from conducting market research to uncover a target demographic to assisting with the creation of drawings and a prototype, sourcing manufacturers, creating branding, identifying sales channels, and everything in between.

But is seeking out such an end-to-end consultant the best way for someone with a good idea to get it to market?

Brian Anderson, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business, is wary of such services because he believes the first-hand experience of hustling to achieve all of these things is the single best way to learn how to run a successful business.

“This is where we use the line, ‘Entrepreneurship is a contact sport,’” he says. “There is no substitute for the entrepreneur going out and talking to customers and people experienced in the problem they are trying to solve.”

Bridget Field, products and services co-ordinator at Small Business BC, also cautions against simply having someone else do it for you.

“We have clients come in and say, should I pay someone to write my business plan? And I say ‘no’ because then it’s not your business. You haven’t put blood, sweat and tears into it,” she says.

But she acknowledges that every aspiring business owner needs help along the way, with everything from legal advice to financial know-how to the logistics of creating a product.

“Entrepreneurs need to supplement their own skill set with experts,” she says. “They try to wear a lot of hats, but they’re one person and can’t be experts in everything.”

She and Prof. Anderson agree that end-to-end consultancies can play a valuable role in certain cases.

“The clearest area for value is if the firm has specific sector experience, and the principals behind it have background in a particular industry,” Prof. Anderson says. “If they are willing to open their network to you, that can be particularly valuable and it can open industry doors.”

In that way, Ideal Samples was a solid match for Ms. Coleman, thanks to founder Sheena Repath’s background: a decade-long career in the fashion industry before launching Ideal.

To help Ms. Coleman get on the right track, Ms. Repath began by helping her identify her target market.

Ms. Coleman originally pegged that as university-aged women, but intense market research revealed that her ideal client was actually a professional woman between the ages of 25 and 35.

“Every single person who comes to us says, ‘I know who my target market is,’’ Ms. Repath says. “Nine out of 10 times, they’re wrong. You can’t develop an idea if you don’t know who it’s for.”

Once she realized who she really ought to be aiming at, “everything else spun out from that,” says Ms. Coleman, who, as a result of her assistance from Ms. Repath, tweaked her product to create a more sophisticated design suitable for slightly older women with more disposable income. The newest incarnation of Damn Heels is due out next spring.

Ms. Repath is cognizant that the entrepreneurs she works with need to take the lead.

“When we work with each of our clients, it is critical that we work through our process of developing an idea and business…It is even more important that they work through the program themselves,” she says. “Me telling you that the market is this big and can support this price point isn’t enough. You work through the program to identify where you fit.”

Elie Kochman, founder of Optimal Upgrade Consulting in Toronto and the author of Advice for Small Business Owners, focuses his end-to-end consulting business on online gaming companies in the European market, and defines his role as “facilitator.”

“Clients always have to be hands-on in process,” he says. “It’s their business, not my business. I’m an adviser and a mentor with a Rolodex.”

Working with a consultant can save much grief and even money.

“I’m not saying the cost is cheap but it will pay for itself,” he contends, pointing out that working with a consultant can help entrepreneurs avoid making costly missteps while they’re learning the ropes.

Ideal’s services typically start at $5,000 and go up to $15,000 for a package that encompasses the entire process, which takes about a year (after that, the company can be hired on retainer).

For Ms. Coleman, it’s money well spent.

“I remember Sheena saying, ‘We’ll save you a lot of money,’ and I thought, ‘how would you do that?’ And then I thought of all the mistakes I’d made in the first year.”

Having gone through the idea-to-market process twice now, once on her own and once with help, Ms. Coleman has learned what she’d do differently next time around.

“I’d take more time to develop the idea, I’d be way more focused and have a plan, instead of just tossing everything to the wall,” she says.

“I finally feel I’m on track.”

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