What we can learn from flashlights

Ya know, I think it’s almost genetic that little boys love flashlights. In fact, it’s probably also true for little girls. There’s something about the power of light that will keep even an adult sitting there turning it on and off. On and off.

Now, we’ve all had the usual inexpensive flashlights that you get at the hardware store. They work for a while, but soon you are pounding or beating the thing to get it to stay on consistently. Then some years back Maglite took their products mainstream, and finally we could get them just about anywhere. A fine flashlight – solid, machined aluminum, and just about guaranteed to work as long as the batteries didn’t leak. It was basically the perfect flashlight, and one could easily see there wasn’t much left to do with it.

Then Surefire came out with their lights, and their 6p showed us what you could do with expensive lithium batteries. That is, totally blow away a normal 2-D cell flashlight with something that looks like it uses a couple of AA’s. Now those lithiums aren’t so expensive anymore, and we have a daunting range of models to choose from.

Now, we have Arc Flashlight, Inova, Longbow, Pila, and many others offering new products. White LED’s that “never” burn out, lithium ion rechargeable batteries to give us guilt free lumens, “intelligent circuits” manage power to get the most light out of the batteries.

A flashlight you used to pay a few bucks for now begs to be replaced by a new technilogical wonder that can costs more than a top-of-the-line cellphone with a two-year contract. You have to ask yourself, how on earth can this much innovation, valuable innovation, be created in such a simple device? You push a button, you get light – that much hasn’t changed. But still, they made a new product that costs 10 times or so more than the old one, and people are buying them. Maybe not in the quantities of the cheapie lights, but at $100 to $200, how many do you need to sell?

You might be asking yourself who the idiots are who are buying these things. All I can say is, well, find one somewhere and try it. They’re just so darn cool I’ll be surprised if you don’t end up carrying one home.

Where amI going with this? Well, my company is like a lot of companies these days. We have a lot of products that were technilogically brilliant 10 years ago. Now everyone seems to be making the same thing and we’re using a new noun – “commoditization.” Like everyone, we’re kicking around ideas, wild to mundane, trying to figure out how to put the value back in our products. How do you get people to pay more for a product they’ve been buying for years? Really, how to do turn a product people have been buying for years into something they are willing to pay more to get?

Let’s go back to the flashlight people. The new lights are smaller than the older models, much smaller when you consider how much light they put out. The beams are more even – free of shadows or patterns. The switch is generally now on the tailcap, which at first seems a very odd place to put it, but seems natural very quickly. Some have a special anodized finish – a military spec “hard” anodizing that is incredibly hard and tough. They often use lithium batteries, though expensive, have a 10-year shelf life. How long can a flashlight sit in a drawer before it is needed? Maybe not 10 years, but more than some alkaline batteries will last.

They’re just better flashlights, in every respect except price. It’s almost as if these people thought “what if we made the best possible flashlight, and forget, for the moment, what it will cost?”

But, how often do we start with price as a constraint when trying to develop a new product? We gather marketing people, sales people, and other folks and one of the first things that gets tossed on the table is “No matter what you do, it’s gotta cost less than x, because x is all folks are going to pay for this!”

Is it a mystery that we have trouble adding value to a product when we start with price? Price leads to limits, limits we have set for ourselves in the past – which are the first limits we start to try to break. “You can’t put reverse ventilation control in a product at that price!” you’ll hear, and then the challenge is to add reverse ventilation control. Reverse ventilation control is probably very expensive to add, and may not even add value, but it’s a fancy or high-technology feature that seems cool, so finding a way to add it within budget becomes the quest. People like me talk about “sizzle”, and others talk about changing the paradigm.

Do you remember the old expensive flashlights? They were the big ones with radios, flashers, tail lights, compasses and all sorts of other garbage that the new, cool, really expensive lights don’t have. You can’t hardly find them anymore. Makes you think about reverse ventilation control, doesn’t it?

Let’s go back to the new lights. They’re small. They put out more light. The switches are handier, and less prone to be turned on accidentally (they can actually be locked out very easily), they are waterproof for practical purposes, and they are reliable. In short, they just more of all the things we want a flashlight to be.

I believe the key is to learn very clearly what the product is actually expected to do, what it’s supposed to be, how it’s supposed to work, in the customer’s eyes. Then make it do more of that, a lot more of that, with less of all the things we don’t want it to do.

We’ve all probably read that in magazine articles, heard it in seminars, and learned it again elsewhere, but it bears repeating. It’s also another reason to buy one of these incredibly cool lights – the next time you are in a product development meeting and someone wants to add reverse ventilation control, pull out your light and tell them a story.

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