Say what you will about the importance of computers, fax machines, printers and cell phones to do business but one of the most valuable tools is particularly low-tech: the whiteboard.
Yes, the whiteboard makes business happen. Whiteboards fuel creativity, they generate ideas and they organize your thoughts. For many start-ups and small businesses, whiteboards are a key tool used on a daily basis.
People have become very creative at making their own rather than purchasing one from a retailer such as Grand & Toy or Staples. A 48-by-36 inch whiteboard, for example, starts at more than $100.
For the do-it-yourself crowd, a popular option is shower-tile board, melamine. For less than $20, you can make a five-by-eight foot whiteboard. Melamine, however, isn't perfect because the whiteboards become less pristine unless they are diligently cleaned on a regular basis.
Another option that sits between DIY and buying a whiteboard is IdeaPaint, which lets people create a full-fledged whiteboard by applying a coat of paint on to any smooth surface. I'm a huge whiteboard fan but I had never heard of IdeaPaint until meeting recently with a client, who enthusiastically showed off his new whiteboard.
IdeaPaint seems like such a no-brainer you wonder why it hasn't been around for a while, or why IdeaPaint is one of the few companies offering the product.
IdeaPaint took more than five years to develop before it launched to instant acclaim in 2008. The idea got its start in 2002, when a group of students at business school Babson College, held a weekend meeting to create new business opportunities.
Not surprisingly, traditional whiteboards were initially used but there were so many ideas that the students went searching for another way to capture everything. The initial idea of cobbling together a giant whiteboard by purchasing a bunch of regular whiteboards was dismissed because it would have cost $3,000.
One of the students involved was Jeff Avallon, who realized that if chalkboard paint existed, there should be whiteboard paint as well. Armed with youthful enthusiasm and entrepreneurial determination, Mr. Avallon and his IdeaPaint co-founders, Morgen Newman and John Goscha, pursued the idea even after being told by two laboratories it wasn't possible.
They doggedly carried on before finally unveiling the product in 2008 at NeoCon, a large trade show that attracted architects and designers. IdeaPaint was a smash hit and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mr. Avallon says patience has been a core part of IdeaPaint's operating philosophy. Before IdeaPaint was launched, the company spent a long time making sure the product worked with every dry-eraser marker and every colour of every brand sold. As well, the company wanted to be sure that any professional painter could install IdeaPaint, and that it met environmental regulations.
IdeaPaint, whose investors include Reebok founder Paul Fireman, was initially targeted at businesses but it soon became apparent that it also had huge potential in the residential market. Mr. Avallon says IdeaPaint saw the opportunity but once again embraced its walk-before-running approach to avoid being spread too thin. The company eventually launched IdeaPaint Home – a product that has been fuelled by tremendous enthusiasm from bloggers and on Twitter.
Much of IdeaPaint's time in the market has happened during the global economic downturn, including a financing round it completed last year. Mr. Avallon says the recession has been a mixed blessing because it has kept competitors at bay, while the company has grown its customer base to more than 25,000 companies.
"Other people will be entering the market, which will get more knowledge to the category," he says. "We will always be the longest-standing [player]but having additional entrants will help us get the word out. One of our biggest challenges is a lot of people know about [IdeaPaint]now because of the customer base and great amount of PR, but we're not well known. I am surprised by how may people have never heard about it."
Given IdeaPaint's cool factor and how it provides such a compelling option for anyone who uses whiteboards, IdeaPaint's low profile may be a temporary situation.
Special to the Globe and Mail
Mark Evans is a principal with ME Consulting , a content and social media strategic and tactical consultancy that creates and delivers 'stories' for companies looking to capture the attention of customers, bloggers, the media, business partners, employees and investors. Mark has worked with three start-ups – Blanketware, b5Media and PlanetEye – so he understands how they operate and what they need to do to be successful. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshUniversity and meshmarketing conferences.