How I Built a Great Product... That No One Wanted

Last Updated Dec 20, 2010 2:14 PM EST

By Troy Carroll, CEO, Intava, Bellevue, Wash.
My business partner and I launched our interactive technology company in 2000 with a single product idea: a tool to help business owners develop websites for mobile devices.

We wanted such a tool for our own work, and while we had researched the current market need, we gambled that the market would be growing over the next couple years. After all, Internet-enabled phones were just starting to catch on. It turned out, though, that a year and a half later no one was as interested in it as we were. With the company on the brink of failure we had a choice to make: push harder on a product that we thought the world needed, or scrap 18 months of work and ask our customers what to do next.

A spark of inspiration
My partner, Clay Garrard, and I brainstormed the idea for the product while developing our first company, OmniBrowse, in the late 1990s. OmniBrowse was one of the first Internet services designed to let cell phone users access online data services to check information like sports scores and horoscopes.

We built the OmniBrowse platform through manual coding, plus trial and error. It was a tedious process, and we found ourselves wishing for a computer program designed to develop websites specifically for mobile devices. Indeed, we were convinced that our experience portended a huge new market for such a tool.

So, after we sold Omnibrowse in 1999, we founded Intava, with the idea that it would be solely focused on tools to help small businesses build for the mobile Web. We worked with a team of engineers on the program for a year. It was ready to go in 2000, and we started promoting it at trade shows and online. But no one was buying.

No market
We couldn't figure out why the market was so flat. Our product was priced at $199 a copy, while most popular PC web development tools were going for $300. And the customers who did buy the tool loved it. Trouble was that there were only about 50 of them. Pretty quickly we realized that the market for mobile apps was not evolving fast enough. It was still too small to build a product around, let alone a whole company. This was incredibly frustrating, because we anticipated -- correctly, it turns out -- that the Internet-connected mobile market was primed to explode.

The company was teetering on the edge of failure. We had spent close to a million dollars, were almost out of money and had no new ideas in the pipeline. We were going to have to adjust our approach to the market or die.

A simple spin-off
There was one element of the product in which customers consistently expressed interest: a cell phone simulator that allows you to see what a web page will look like on various cell phone models. Maybe, we thought, there was a demand for this portion of our product. Indeed, several mobile services told us that they were interested in letting their customers replicate the appearance of particular phone models on an in-store touch screen to assist with the buying process.

So we made the tough decision to shelve our original product and split our cell phone simulator off into a separate product. Several mobile carriers and content services bought it, which gave us enough money to stay afloat while we worked on developing a new product. This time, we were committed to listening to what our customers wanted, rather than just thinking about what we would like for ourselves.

Listening to customers
With our spin-off product, we shifted our focus to servicing wireless carriers. From there, we grew our technology into an entire platform for managing in-store product demonstrations using touch screens. We started talking to all kinds of retailers about their needs and found that many were interested in building in-store interactive displays for their customers.

We listened closely to their feedback and kept adding their requested features to our platform. Today, store consumers can use the touch screens to look up information about any product in the store, see a demonstration and more. It's a hit. We've deployed over 8,000 customized touch screens for Sprint, Ethan Allen and other retailers, and we've grown our company to 35 employees.

The number one lesson from our initial failure, which seems so obvious now, is that even a great idea that anticipates a future market niche needs to be market tested. In other words, you have to consult your customers and remember that they're the ones who truly run the show.

Troy Carroll was president and co-founder of Omnibrowse, one of the earliest Internet portals for mobile devices, which became the basis for MSN Mobile.
-- As told to Kathryn Hawkins

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