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Published: August 28, 2006

 
 

The Case for Long Shots

The world’s most popular camping tent was once a hard sell to retailers, but it ultimately demonstrated the value of an innovative gamble.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru
As the pace of new product introduction increases, corporate leaders are starting to look outside their companies for new ideas. My career as an independent industrial designer and a design professor has given me personal and vicarious experience with a number of such efforts. Not all have made significant money, but each has shown a new direction that has opened up an untapped market.

I’m sure you know the grim statistics: About 90 percent of new products and businesses fail within the first two years. That figure looms large for industrial designers; after all, making successful new products is the heart of our work. All too often, the failure doesn’t seem to stem from the product itself or the timing; instead, it has to do with the ways that companies habitually protect themselves from risk.

Any experienced industrial designer knows that business is inherently risky. Every innovation is a gamble — on the product, on the reaction of the intended customers, and on the pure chance that things will go well. But experience has shown me that the natural tendency to avoid risk altogether can hamstring a company’s ability to effectively judge which innovations it can successfully promote. This tendency seems to be strongest when a company most needs (or professes to need) creative contributions, including those from outsiders. That’s when a company typically ends up rejecting the innovations that it needs most.

Over the course of my life, I’ve been involved with a number of inventions that fit this pattern. At the time, their potential seemed obvious, yet each was treated as some kind of outrageous, unlikely long shot. If companies were willing to learn from the stories of those inventions, they might become more adept at distinguishing which gambles are likely to win.

The first time I was involved with a radical invention was in the late 1950s. Not only did the product break through to commercial success, it became an international recreational institution. Today, it is hard to imagine life without it. The product that started it all was the Pop Tent.

Lightweight, easy-to-handle, bug- and weather-resistant tents did not always exist. One day in 1956, an unexpected squall drenched an artist and inventor named Bill Moss — who was then working as an illustrator for the magazine Ford Times, published by the Ford Motor Company — just as he was painting a portrait of a freshly caught trout by a stream in Michigan. He had no way to shelter his easel, but he did have several fishing poles with him. In a burst of inspired resourcefulness, he punched their handles into the soft soil to form a rough circle, tied their tips together, and spread his poncho over them to form an impromptu dome.

Bill immediately realized that a perfected version of his improvised shelter could transform camping and hiking from a generally all-male, almost masochistically brutal paramilitary exercise into an enjoyable family activity. If family camping caught on, he reasoned, people would be more inclined to support measures to clean up streams and lakes. To someone like Bill, who deplored the post–World War II deterioration of Michigan’s formerly pristine riparian habitat, this would be a welcome change.

How could a mere tent bring about such a major change in public attitude? By being user-friendly. In contrast to traditional tents — which were heavy canvas structures unreliably supported by a maze of ropes, poles, and stakes (lots of stakes) — the Pop Tent, which Bill Moss soon trademarked, could be set up or taken down by one person in about a minute, even in the dark. The tent’s integral floor and screened windows kept campers safe from snakes and insects. The streamlined shape resisted assault by wind and rain. It packed neat and small and was about half the weight of comparably sized traditional tents without floors. The Pop Tent was wildly successful, to the point of overrunning its creator’s tiny sewing operation, yet he failed to convince a major tent retailer that its customers would be interested.

 
 
 
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