When Dan Eisenhardt co-founded Recon Instruments he knew he had a revolutionary idea. He and his partners had developed the first ski goggles equipped with GPS technology and motion sensors to provide real-time information about speed, temperature, altitude and more through a head-mounted display in the frame.
With this new technology came a major challenge: How could Recon Instruments fine-tune the product to meet the needs of a market that had never experienced this kind of technology before?
Leading organizations hail the importance of listening to customers when developing new products, but it can be challenging with a true breakthrough. With no experience using a similar item, customers find it difficult to articulate what they want because they don't know what to expect or what is even possible.
Recon's proprietary technology was originally inspired by Mr. Eisenhardt's experience as a competitive swimmer. He lamented not knowing his lap time until after a race had finished and says: "It seemed obvious that I'd perform better if I had real-time feedback on my lap time. I'd know whether to ease off and conserve energy or keep pushing."
Mr. Eisenhardt, a trained mechanical engineer, brought that idea with him to the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, where he was working toward an MBA. It became the focus of a group project in an entrepreneurship course and, after graduation in 2006, he and some classmates established Recon Instruments to pursue the concept in the real world.
The group went through a systematic process of assessing ways to apply the technology and identified ski goggles as the best potential market, leaving swim goggles behind.
"We considered ski goggles an attractive alternative because the market for this product is large and the structure of ski goggles requires less miniaturization," Mr. Eisenhardt says.
With the technology in development, the next step was to identify the information skiers would want displayed in the goggles. But how could they get this information from a skiing public that had never experienced this kind of product?
Mr. Eisenhardt's management team believed the best way to optimize the design was to survey skiers. While the concept of a digital display was straightforward, the specific details were hard for people to visualize.
"We quickly found that people's responses were limited by what they thought was possible," says Mr. Eisenhardt, noting that the possibilities often went beyond what people could imagine.
In response, the team spent a great deal of time developing a survey that explained the concept and its possibilities in explicit detail.
"It was not until we gave people specific information about how the product's attributes work and the full range of possibilities made available by the technology that we started to get discriminating feedback on what people value," Mr. Eisenhardt explains.
The team over time was able to use the survey results to drill down to the specific benefits that skiers valued most. They used this information to develop and test different prototypes that focused directly on the attributes skiers reported as important.
Recon's approach was enormously successful. Its GPS-enabled ski goggles were a hit at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a major trade show held annually in Las Vegas, where the world's largest and most innovative consumer electronics firms introduce their latest products.
Recon was recognized at the CES Best of Innovations 2011 Design and Engineering Awards as a winner in the personal electronics category. It also won the Popular Mechanics Editor's Choice and Popular Science Product of the Future awards as one of the top rated products displayed at CES.
The company has also found success partnering with major goggle firms, including Uvex, Alpina and Briko, which are producing Recon-ready product for the 2011-12 ski season that can be fitted by consumers with Recon's technology.
With this momentum behind it, the company is now working on developing its technology for use in a variety of other sports, including mountain biking, scuba diving and skydiving.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tim Silk is an assistant professor of marketing at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.
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