Tektronix

Tried-and-True Next-Bench Market Research

Think of market research as a map showing the way from a customer problem to a solution, a journey that often starts by experiencing or seeing something calling out for a fix.

Think of market research as a map showing the way from a customer problem to a solution, a journey that often starts by experiencing or seeing something calling out for a fix.

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.

The Breathometer, a smartphone breathalyzer, was Shark Tank's first $1 million deal. All five sharks were sold on the pitch. Now even Richard Branson is investing in it. 

The Breathometer, a smartphone breathalyzer, was Shark Tank's first $1 million deal. All five sharks were sold on the pitch. Now even Richard Branson is investing in it. 

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.

Drop Stop, a long plastic gap-filler, was designed to prevent your personal belongings from getting lost under your car seat.  

Drop Stop, a long plastic gap-filler, was designed to prevent your personal belongings from getting lost under your car seat.  

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.

Connecting Workers and Workplaces

The corporate expansion decisions of a small oscilloscope maker in the 1950s are considered the symbolic spark that ignited the explosive growth of Portland’s western suburbs.

First, the young Tektronix Inc. moved its only manufacturing facility in 1951 from Southeast Hawthorne in inner-city Portland to create its Sunset plant near what is now Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Washington County. A few short years later, Tek opened its landmark industrial campus in Beaverton.

As a high-tech pioneer in Oregon, Tek wanted to locate in a place where workers could find affordable housing, as well as have a short drive to work. That was considered an enlightened and a well-meaning workforce strategy for industry, but — decades later — a commuting dilemma for Oregon.

Here’s the irony. The Tektronix story is a local example of what happened across the nation in the following years as thousands of employers relocated or started up in the suburbs of our nation's largest cities. The legacy is a nation of urban transit systems posing great challenges for commuters trying to get to a job in the suburbs.

By 1960, the Portland area was served by a disconnected network of privately owned bus companies — Rose City Transit in the city and the suburban Blue Lines. Privately operated transit in Portland, as in most other American cities, was in a free-fall toward extinction. The state legislature created TriMet, a tax-supported public transit system in 1969, when a new trickle of public investment began to grow bus ridership.

When I commuted to Tektronix in Beaverton by bus from Southeast Portland, the one-way trip took about an hour. That was in 1990. When corporate headquarters moved to Wilsonville a year later, the trip took 90 minutes. 

It appears I was just an average commuter, according to the Brookings Institution, which joined the discussion on the future of transit with a research report released July 11,  which included a set of recommendations.

“Even though most jobs are located near transit, the typical employer can access only 27 percent of metropolitan workers within 90 minutes,” said the Brookings Institution in a summary of the report entitled “Where the jobs are: Employer Access to Labor by Transit.”

“More than three quarters of jobs are in neighborhoods served by transit, but only 27 per cent of the workforce can get to those jobs via mass transit within 90 minutes,” The Brookings report says

If our inadequate suburban systems are to improve, communities must make a deliberate decision to change, the report says.

“Our research shows that current transit systems are unprepared to adequately connect workplaces with the workforce, but there are several steps metropolitan leaders can take to improve their networks.”

The Brookings Institution study points to Atlanta as a community at the crossroads with a willingness to change. “It’s a city that has a relatively high transit coverage rate, 94 percent, while suburban transit covers only 45 percent of its jobs.”

“This dichotomy highlights the consequences of uncoordinated transportation investments and land-use decisions. An upcoming transportation referendum in the Atlanta region, one of the largest in the country, could help better connect employers to workers by increasing transit investment,” concludes the report.