It's a common hurdle: an entrepreneur conceives of a product but doesn't have the technical expertise to develop it and take it to market. Cultivating a knowledge network paves a much easier path to successful commercialization.
Tanya Heath was a management consultant at a strategy firm in France in 1998, when she came up with an idea for an innovative product. Like many North American women – she was born and raised in Ottawa – she walked to work in comfortable shoes and changed into high heels at the office. But it was an unconventional practice in France at the time, and she says her co-workers teased her relentlessly.
Ms. Heath tossed comfort aside to try to fit in and spent 15 years and three pregnancies walking in high heels. The perfect solution, she thought, would be a pair of shoes with adjustable heel heights, to reconcile mobility and comfort with style and glamour.
After thinking about her dream shoe "incessantly for 10 years," Ms. Heath decided to go for it in October, 2008. "The idea had germinated to the point where I thought I had enough professional experience and knowledge of French business practices to take the risk."
She ran into some problems immediately. Ms. Heath had initially assumed she could buy a shoe factory, but the technicians she approached thought her idea was technically unachievable. "I got kicked out of the meeting, and didn't know what to do."
Robert Mitchell, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., says he advises his students to fall in love with a problem, not a product, to avoid being wedded to a specific solution. "The approach of 'there's a need out there and I want to fill it' may be indicative of a lack of knowledge about the problem," he explains.
Prof. Mitchell says networking is vital to entrepreneurship, something you have to be strategic about. "Don't wait to do your networking when you need the funding or the technical expertise. Set the groundwork early."
By a stroke of luck, Ms. Heath, 41, had cultivated a network of people who could help from her part-time job teaching innovation at an engineering school for a decade. But it took her a while to take advantage of this resource.
First she spent nine months and more than $40,000 of her savings on industrial engineers. But the shoe was still far from being reality.
Depressed, she turned to the school for help and some professors took up the challenge. They reverse-engineered the mechanical part of the heel, improving the parts that didn't work, then handed it over to a school that specialized in micro-engineering.
"We threw a lot of expertise at the problem: mechanical engineers, mathematical modelling and testing, shoe expertise, material expertise … I divided the problem into five distinct parts and there was no communication between the different teams, so they couldn't demoralize each other," Ms. Heath says. "By July, 2011, I knew it would work and I was in a state of shock."
All told, it took 14 engineers and shoe technicians, several designers and master boot-makers, the sale of her family's apartment and some Christmas mornings without toys to produce the world's first shoe with adjustable heel heights, which can range from a 4.5-centimetre walking heel to a nine-centimetre elegant heel at the click of a button.
Printemps Lyon, a luxury French department store, started selling Tanya Heath Paris shoes on Feb. 15, for around $370 plus tax. She hopes to have her own Paris boutique set up by the middle of the year and though she has no plans for a store in Canada, she is accepting orders from shops. Only time, and sales figures, will tell whether Ms. Heath's solution-based approach will prove fruitful.
Like Ms. Heath, Linda Pond and her daughter Rhonda were inspired to create a product through personal experience, in 2005. One night after a women's fastball game in their hometown of Carleton Place, Ont., the mother-daughter duo had a light-bulb moment – or, more accurately, a lack thereof – when Rhonda, 37, reached for a beverage and asked: "Why does a fridge have a light but a cooler doesn't?"
After making sure no patent existed for such a product, they set out to find a solution. And again, like Ms. Heath, they were lucky enough to have access to people who could aid in product development. Ms. Pond, 56, ran a company called Customer Connects, a local networking events business for high-tech professionals. "Within that circle of influence were companies that did almost everything we needed to have done," she says.
During an event to brainstorm and identify new market needs and potential products or projects, Ms. Pond used Rhonda's observation – a cooler "needs" a light – to illustrate the kind of need she hoped the group would come up with. Suddenly everyone wanted to help them develop the product. An engineer offered to assist them for nothing and figure out royalties later, telling Ms. Pond: "It's the coolest product, and I really like you."
He showed up with a prototype two days later.
Chris Castillo, president of Master Entrepreneur International Inc., a consulting business providing services to new and experienced entrepreneurs, says it pays to get a prototype made as soon as possible. That way you can take it to would-be buyers or customers to get user feedback to improve it if required, and ideally secure a purchase order.
The Ponds benefited from both when they took the prototype to Coghlan's, a Winnipeg-based outdoor accessory company, which they hoped would become a distributor. The vice-president of the company immediately saw the product's potential.
"And this was the golden part," Ms. Pond says. "He said: 'You need to change this, this and this,'" and agreed to buy it if the specifications were completed. The only other hitch was that they had to sign a three-year exclusivity agreement with Coghlan's.
The FAB Light hit stores as The Cooler Light in late August, 2008. In hindsight, Ms. Pond says she's thankful Coghlan's got the product to market, but an exclusivity agreement "really ties your hands. You miss out on other opportunities."
Now that the agreement has ended, the Ponds will continue to supply Coghlan's, but they are looking to expand through other avenues, such as large manufacturers who can build the FAB Light right into their own product.
Special to The Globe and Mail