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chris griffiths

I am just back from my first trip to Walt Disney World with my wife and kids, and I am struck by what the experience reminded me about small-business best practices.

Once upon a time, as the story often goes, Walt Disney Co. was a small business just like yours and mine. Yet, that small business was driven by a vision, a passion and a commitment to a new-product development plan that no one had ever imagined before.

Walt Disney invented the theme park. Prior to his extraordinary investment in this product, he was met with incredible resistance by financing partners, real estate developers and even his own brother, Roy. He had a successful animation and production company and was willing to risk it all to develop this new idea of themed parks on an extraordinary scale.

Disney can teach small businesses a lot about product development. Sometimes, the "if you build it, they will come" approach delivers exceptional results.

What I find most impressive about his expansion into theme parks is the scale and scope of the experience he wanted to craft.

Many investors, business schools and management gurus will insist that, for any new-product-development initiative to be successful, it must be a solution to an existing problem, fill an existing need, or support an existing customer desire.

The problem is, as Mr. Disney knew, most consumers don't know what they want until it is presented to them.

Consumers typically accept many problems or half-baked solutions to problems because an alternative is not obvious to them.

If, in the 1950s, you asked amusement park enthusiasts what could be done to improve their experience, I am sure they would have come up with suggestions such as faster rides, better food, easier games and higher-quality prizes - but I bet they would have never asked for a 510-acre themed park in California, which then led to a much bigger themed, multi-park, resort complex that Disney eventually built, and is continually expanding, in Florida (25,000 acres of developed parks, nature preserves and space for future development)

The average consumer could not make that leap from the existing options to something never before seen or experienced.

That's where you and I come in. As entrepreneurs, we are told to never get trapped in the naivete of "if you build it, they will come."

We are warned that we can get too emotionally attached to our own new ideas and then will lose sight of the realistic market responses and opportunities. We are told that we need to prove a market exists for our product by using surveys and focus groups and competitive analysis.

While I believe in all of these market-research tools, I also believe in the power of true creativity.

Some of the most respected businesses in the world, such as Disney, Apple and Facebook, exist and thrive not because they solved a problem people around the world recognized and for which they were awaiting a solution.

These companies' customers didn't recognize, and likely wouldn't have recognized, the value of the product in advance of its creation. Yet, their customers adopted and loyally supported the product once it was presented to them.

The only way to know for sure is to have faith, passion and commitment to the product and build it for customers, trusting they will appreciate excellence when they see it.

I have been on both sides of this product-development dilemma in my career. At times, I was working on a product whose demand could be reasonably quantified using prototypes, samples, surveys and industry research. Other times, however, I needed to raise a great deal of capital to complete the product, before I could share it and gauge people's true reactions. The latter is more difficult, I assure you, but also even more exciting and rewarding.

Facebook's success in social media was born with little startup capital and grew exponentially as people experienced the product. Disney's theme parks, however, required the product to be completed in its entirety before customer reactions and the true success could be measured.

We learn from Disney that a belief in, and development of, an exceptional product, without compromise, can be an amazing and profitable journey for any small business.

Sometimes, when you build it, they do come. Naysayers, be damned.

Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.

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