Busy building a “better mousetrap?” Inventions usually take months, even years, of concentrated work to be market ready. But all the research, design, testing, revising and trial production runs can be wasted — if market research isn’t done first.

That’s the word from AURI advisor Michael Rich, marketing professor at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minn. “Making a great product and getting it into the hands of the buying public are two very different things.”

A product will not sell without the right customers — or the right pricing, promotion, distribution, merchandising — in short, without the right marketing.

With nearly 30 years of industrial sales and marketing experience, Rich exhorts entrepreneurs with bright ideas: Ask the tough marketing questions before — not after — you develop a new product.

An arm’s length look

Rich says the aphorism, “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door,” captures the outlook of many who come to AURI for help. “They’re focused on the product. But a good product will not, by itself, ensure success.”

Rich helps entrepreneurs take an arm’s length look at their ideas before they commit their time, money and hearts. Among his first questions:

Have you bought the competing products? Have you analyzed their strengths? Rich says it’s surprising how often clients say, “No.” He urges them to consider how their product differs from those already available and whether that difference matters in the marketplace. Some of his questions:

How is your product significantly different from the leading sellers? How will that difference be conveyed?

Will your product appeal to different people than the leading products do? Who are these people? What are they willing to pay for a product such as yours?

Why would a consumer buy your product instead of a similar one? What existing product will yours displace?

Confronting these questions is often discouraging, Rich acknowledges. It is only natural to believe that “everyone will be as excited about your product as your Aunt Lillian is.”

Start with research

It is also important to do detailed market research up front, Rich says. Check out the competition. What is the market share of each competitor? Do a few leaders dominate the sector? The region? Where are their products sold? How are they distributed? What do the market leaders spend on promotion?

Novices often fix on national product trends and consumption statistics, Rich says. But that data is rarely useful in the beginning. Instead, Rich suggests doing detailed interviews with local players. For example, if you have a new food product, begin by talking to the grocers, wholesalers, brokers, distributors and processors in your region.

Got drive?

A crucial marketing factor is often overlooked, Rich says. Can you do what it takes for a reasonable chance of success? Are you willing to commit the money, the time, the travel? Can you stand the risk? Are you ready to pitch and sell nonstop? And can you keep it up for years until your market is established?

“People come in with ideas, and when we talk about what it’s going to take for commercial success, they’re surprised. Often, they’re not really interested in doing all that.”

Think marketing, everyone

Rich has taught AURI scientists to explore these marketing questions with clients before product development begins. That was a shift for chemist Rose Patzer.

Patzer, 37, has worked on many new ag products at AURI’s Fats and Oils Lab in Marshall, including alfalfa pellets for hydro-seeding, soy oil candles, soy lotion and biodiesel fuel. Before her training with Rich, she didn’t think much about who might want to buy the products she helped create. “I figured that wasn’t my area — I’m a chemist.”

Now, “I have a better awareness of marketing needs,” she says. ”Somebody may have a great idea for a product, but without a market, it won’t go anywhere.”