Tektronix was built on a simple but effective market research strategy: An engineer would lean over to the next bench and ask his co-worker what he needed.
Next-bench market research carried Tektronix from a small startup to a Fortune 500 powerhouse. The Beaverton-based company made products that addressed real problems in the emerging electronics industry and created Emmy-winning opportunities in television broadcasting.
When a product to solve a problem or exploit an opportunity didn’t exist, Tektronix invented it, sometimes pioneering and patenting technology that made the product possible. At its best, Tektronix was an assembly line of engineers looking at the bench next to theirs to see what would make work easier and products more reliable. Engineers were less interested in whether they could make a product and more interested on why they needed to make it.
Today, it is fascinating to watch ABC's Shark Tank where countless entrepreneurs pitch their products and product ideas to high-profile investors. The pitches invariably start with a description of the problem their product aims to solve.
Some of the products and problems aren’t monumental. A cooler with a light so you know what beverage you're grabbing in the dark. A smiley-faced yellow sponge that will remove sticky goo on plates, pans and utensils without scratching their surface. Ugly Christmas sweaters to give as gag gifts or to wear irreverently at family celebrations.
Others have more import. A subscription service that will take pictures taken on a smartphone and convert them into keepsake picture books. A smartphone breathalyzer that enables someone to determine whether they have had too much to drink to drive. Ava the Elephant, a medicine dropper that offers a friendly face for kids when taking bad-tasting medicine.
The vast majority of the pitchmen and pitchwomen who appear on the popular TV show experience first-hand a problem and search the market for solutions but can't find answer. So they create their own. They engage in the equivalent of next-bench market research – finding a problem to fix.
Filling a need is the most fundamental reason to make a product or offer a service. If you start with filling a need, your market research will follow a path shaped by what it takes to fill that need. And it will define your market differentiator, what makes your product special and different.
A lot of other factors go into a successful business, but next-bench market research has a proven track record of getting someone headed in the right direction of fixing a problem, big or small, that people face in their everyday lives.
Like Drop Stop, a 17-inch long piece of plastic that acts as a gap filler blocking keys, phones, loose change or your wallet from slipping into that impenetrable crevice next to your car seat. A simple idea and a practical, affordable solution to a perplexing problem. The product's co-inventor came up with the idea after he dropped his cell phone in his car seat gap, took his eye off the road to retrieve it and wound up in an accident. It was painful and embarrassing, but it proved to be invaluable next-bench market research.