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Starting a New Business - Is There a Big Enough Demand?

Dec 24, 2007
In our investment banking business we are often contacted by business start-ups asking for our help in raising money. I am sure that we were not the first organization that was contacted and that these hopeful entrepreneurs had been searching for months for funding. I try to be helpful and spend time on the phone with these people asking what I consider to be basic Business 101 questions. What is your product or service? What unmet need is it designed to fill? Who else is in your space? How does their product or service compare to your product or service? What is the size of the potential market? Why would a customer switch to your company? How do you plan on selling your product?

Often I am amazed that the entrepreneur has focused inwardly on his hobby or invention or software and has given very little thought to the potential market. Why build a business to sell to a small market segment? Every once in a while, an entrepreneur contacts me and the product or service really hits me as a winner. That is what happened when I was contacted by Russ Notestine, an inventor with a unique product. He had many of the elements mentioned above going in his favor but was still struggling because he had little experience in actually marketing a product. One of the reasons I got interested was that Russ had created a product designed to help back pain sufferers.

Well, that was me, so I was all ears. I had tweaked my back in an athletic event, still approaching the competition with the zeal of a college athlete but trapped in a 50 year old's body. I was in significant pain and took the usual over the counter pain killers that only reduced the pain by 10%. The next day I could hardly get out of bed my lower back pain was so intense. I called the local chiropractor and began a treatment routine that involved 3 visits per week, heat, electric stimulation and adjustments. I bought my kneeling chair so I could actually work. I even bought the inversion boots so I could hang upside down in an attempt to provide some kind of relief.

My chiropractor got me to the point where I was at least able to be productive at work, but I continued treatments for almost a year. The medical bills were expensive, totaling about $6,000. The really expensive part was the one and one half hours I took out of my work day 2 and 3 days a week. If any of you run your own company, that expense dwarfed my medical expense. Nothing was working for me and I was ready to eat spiders if I thought it could make this problem go away.

Well, Russ tells me that I am not unusual and that 50 million Americans will suffer from at least one bout of serious back pain in their lives. He had passed test number one. There is a huge market for this product. He is explaining how his Vacupractor works and I am thinking (having seen or heard it all from start up companies), oh come on. He says he has this molded plastic shell that is about the size of your back. He tells me that you spray the device with water and then lay down on it. You then pick up your legs and slowly lower them and this creates a vacuum suction as the air is expelled. The device sticks to your back almost like a hard contact lens sticks to your eye. He explained that the suction stretches your back muscles and gently aligns your spine. Given that I was ready to eat spiders, I asked him to send me the Vacupractor.

My back had been OK for a few months so the thing sat in the box for a couple of weeks with little attention from me. I then strained my back again in my next event and I was feeling the beginning of another bout of back pain. I got home and got out the device and sprayed it with water and followed the instructions to expel the air and create the vacuum. I laid on it for about 15 minutes and could feel my back muscles relax. When I got off it, the pain was not completely gone but was considerably reduced. The next morning I got on it again and as I worked that afternoon I suddenly realized that I was not thinking about my back because the pain was totally gone and the start of a potentially long and painful lower back pain bout had been avoided. I couldn't believe it. I called Russ to tell him about my experience and he said that is pretty much what he hears from other users.

I was so grateful that I told Russ that I would try to help him with his marketing and sales. We still do not have that solved, but in terms of the other elements for a start up succeeding our entrepreneur has several things going for him:

Huge potential market
Totally unique solution to a painful problem
Cost competitive - the device costs less than 1 chiropractor visit
The potential for a big word of mouth viral marketing boost
Good product gross margins

I don't think Russ consciously thought about the Business 101 issues when he started. He was a back pain sufferer and an inventor and he had an unmet need because none of the existing products solved his problem. He set out to create a lower back pain remedy for himself and when he got the solution, he thought, wow, I really have something here and there must be a huge market for it. I think he is right. Now if he can figure out how to generate meaningful sales with a limited marketing budget, he has a chance to turn a great product into a great business.

Here is an examples of a business idea that did not pass the Business 101 start up test. I was contacted by a software company that had built the best system for managing the sourcing of clothing to overseas contract manufacturers. They spent $1.5 million in development before doing any research on the competitive landscape. It turns out that for them to be reasonably profitable, they would have to sell the software license for a minimum of $50,000 per company license. The competitive systems in the industry, although not as robust as this one, had 85% of the functionality. They charged a monthly license fee of $300 per month. Our guys were priced way out of the market and literally shut this division down.

What an expensive lesson that should have been avoided before the start. If you are thinking of creating a company, make sure the economics are in your favor before you start. Are your margins going to be high enough to make the company viable? Another huge oversight by these very optimistic entrepreneurs is they figure like in Field of Dreams, if you build it they will come. Save that one for the field of fiction. In business, if you sell it they will come. Even the best ideas and the best products will die if you are not able to achieve meaningful distribution in a cost effective fashion. Go through this little exercise before you start. Who is in my space? How do they sell their product? Is it through a direct sales channel? What does it cost for a salesman to sell the product? What volume can a salesman reasonably expect to sell in a year? What revenues and profits are generated by a salesman at 100% of quota? What is the company's cost for a salesman at 100% of quota? Does it make economic sense?

The Internet has been a game changer for start-ups with very few barriers to entry. These companies are very easy to start, but almost impossible to scale without some big funding. The sad truth is that the guys that are starting these businesses and getting the funding are guys that have done it before. A great article was recently published in Fortune Magazine about the original founders of Pay-Pal. Well these folks have made investors a lot of money before and the odds are very good that if they did it once, then they can do it again. That theory has been validated with these wizards founding Digg, LinkedIn, Slide, Mozilla, Technorati, and having a significant investment in Facebook.

The VC's line up to give these guys money. For others it is a painful process of endless meetings and presentations and no money. As a start up company, you have many things going against you. Make sure you are not blinded by your great idea. Think about the market demand, your competition, your margins, your sales and marketing, and getting your company to break even. Do not get distracted trying to attract VC financing at this point. If you can generate enough sales to fund your operations through bootstrapping, you have passed a big test of market validation. If you now need financing to take the company to the next level, then the professional investors will start to listen.
About the Author
Dave Kauppi (davekauppi@midmarkcap.com) is the editor of The Exit Strategist Newsletter, a Merger and Acquisition Advisor and President of MidMarket Capital, representing owners in the sale of privately held businesses. We provide Wall Street style investment banking services to lower mid market companies at a size appropriate fee structure.
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