Successful inventors, such as Recon Instruments chief executive officer Dan Eisenhardt, say customer feedback is an often-overlooked part of making a successful product. Creativity and innovation mean little, he argues, if the product isn't responding to what people want.
Mr. Eisenhardt's Vancouver-based company, founded in 2008, is known for its "heads up display" technology, which was initially used in ski and snowboard goggles and had an LCD screen inside the eye wear to lay out data such as temperature, speed and GPS co-ordinates. The company has since released similarly equipped glasses for cyclists and triathletes, while expecting competition from Google's own smart eye wear, Google Glass, in 2014.
This idea was born in a pool. Mr. Eisenhardt, a competitive swimmer, was frustrated that he could not access information about his performance as it was happening.
"I think you should have an interest in improving the world around you, starting off with something that you're annoyed by. It could be not having access to information, or something that you find inconvenient," he says. "And when you get annoyed by it enough times, then you go, 'Why is nobody addressing this need?'"
But filling in a gap in the market is no easy task. According to recent research by Harvard Business School professor Shikhar Ghosh, up to 75 per cent of startup companies in the United States will fail. In order to improve these odds, business schools across North America are emphasizing the need for customer involvement and feedback as part of their MBA teachings on creativity and innovation for future entrepreneurs.
As part of a team in an entrepreneur class at the University of British Columbia and then later at Recon Instruments, Mr. Eisenhardt explored what it takes to bring his idea to market.
"I think creativity is about working with the people and the world around you to come up with a solution to a problem," he says. But, Mr. Eisenhardt adds that just because an idea is innovative doesn't make it a good entrepreneurial venture. Success means knowing, and selling to, a captive audience. "You could be working on something that is so innovative but that nobody wants and no one will ever know of. Or you could be working on something that's not innovative at all, but everybody wants it."
Thinking more creatively and factoring in an audience can be learned in a classroom setting, according to some Canadian business schools.
"As I see it, you don't teach creativity as much as you facilitate creativity," explains Reg Litz, professor at the University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business in Winnipeg. "What you have to do is create a place that calls on students' brains and hearts to think and feel."
"It's not about taking notes, it's not about exams. I would say in broad strokes it's about coming alive. How do I do that? I think it has to be experiential, so what I've done is I've developed a number of exercises."
In his entrepreneur class, Prof. Litz has his students design paper airplanes with the objective of travelling further and longer than anyone else's. "I call it Kitty Hawk in the classroom," he says.
The students also design children's board games as another exercise. But the main lesson comes when the teams have to stand up in front of their classmates and illustrate why their product is the most efficient and best investment. In the case of the board games they are also asked to pitch their ideas to a room full of elementary school students and listen to their feedback. It's this to-and-fro between the seller and the customer that is the real lesson and what Prof. Litz calls "the entrepreneurship portion."
Some academic institutions, such as the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, have redesigned the way they teach their entrepreneurial MBA students, explains Paul Cubbon. He's in charge of the revamped entrepreneurial MBA stream and the new system, introduced in 2012, is not about learning to write a lengthy business plan or theorizing how a product will be received in the real world. It's about experimentation and engaging with potential customers from the beginning of the business planning process.
"This is a systematic approach to the front end of entrepreneurship, so it's basically customer discovery and business model design," explains Prof. Cubbon. "So it's not about execution, it's about working out what you should be doing."
The revamped curriculum is based on the teachings of Steve Blank, a lecturer at both Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. Mr. Blank developed a course called Lean LaunchPad – taken by more than 150,000 online students – and outlines why startups can no longer be considered smaller versions of successful companies.
"It's a methodology called 'the lean startup' and it favours experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional 'big design up front,'" Mr. Blank wrote in the Harvard Business Review last May.
To introduce this methodology to the university, Prof. Cubbon and his colleagues ran an experiment of their own this year. The business school reached out to other departments throughout UBC and asked for innovative creations with marketing potential – everything from 3D printing to concussion diagnostics.
"I don't think anyone really knew about all the other things that were happening. … All the brilliant technical work that was happening in the university was hidden from view," explains Prof. Cubbon.
The experiment proved to Prof. Cubbon and his collaborators, particularly those in the areas of science and technology, that the new model of customer-related business models is not an abstract concept but is actually closely related to a scientific approach.
"A lot of the customer discovery work is about hypothesis, observation and expert interview," says Prof. Cubbon, adding that by adopting this method startups may stave off failure. "Entrepreneurship is messy and difficult, so don't get locked in to some grandiose theory in your head because, you know, you could be wrong."