How long has the world awaited a hoverboard? You can dial it back to 1989, when actor Michael J. Fox's character first hopped on a floating skateboard in Back to the Future Part II.
For inventive entrepreneurs, the more pertinent question is: What would be the consumer demand for such a toy-meets-transport device? Finally, ambitious readers, you have earthbound answers to this elevated query.
Last week on Kickstarter, the Hendo Hoverboard launched a campaign to raise $250,000. In seven days, the effort (as of Tuesday afternoon) had raised $375,380 from 2,211 backers. Ten of those backers--all of whom pledged at least $10,000--will own one of the world's first 10 Hendo Hoverboards. The estimated delivery date of those boards is Oct. 21, 2015.
The Hendo makers are not the only hoverboard minds raising money--and gauging customer interest--via crowdfunding. Others include HoverSkater ($5,665 from 15 backers) and the NeoLev ($14,470 from 114 backers).
Does all of that provide enough proof-of-demand to formally launch a product? Or is it merely evidence that there are affluent Back to the Future devotees seeking thrills? What's fascinating about the world of hoverboard creators is their cognizance of both of these planes: Call them the pragmatic plane and the passion plane. Conor Dougherty's recent New York Times article includes two examples:
1. Greg and Jill Henderson, inventors of the Hendo Hoverboard. While the Hendersons' hoverboard drew Dougherty's coverage in the Times and sparked a successful crowdfunding campaign, they view the hoverboard as more of a means than an end. That is, while they're aware of the passion plane's potential for fundraising and publicity, their long-term goal is "to create new industries" based on the magnetic science that allows hoverboards to hover, Dougherty writes:
Mr. Henderson became enamored of hover technology in 1989. His inspiration was not Back to the Future, but the Loma Prieta earthquake. His idea was that if you could make buildings float, you could build cities to better withstand earthquakes.
Thus the Hendersons' long-term business plan is to develop magnetic technologies and license patents to builders and engineers. The hoverboards--and the $10,000 chunks they've allowed the Hendersons to raise--are fun by-products of the technology and intellectual property for which they have larger aims.
2. Rich DeVaul and Dan Piponi of Google. Last year this team tried to create a hoverboard. "They got as far as a fingernail-size piece of carbon that could hover above a lattice of small magnets," writes Dougherty. Though they believe they could've built an actual hoverboard, they stopped trying, DeVaul tells the Times, because "we weren't sure exactly what big problem we were solving except for this global lack of hoverboard skate parks."
In other words, DeVaul and Piponi could not justify their effort along the pragmatic plane--even though DeVaul dreamed up some long-term applications, such as an "assembly line where robotic machine tools could levitate from job to job."
For both the Hendersons and the DeVaul-Piponi team, it's clear that there's an awareness of what innovation actually means: Solving problems for potential customers. Simultaneously, they're not allowing their pursuit of the pragmatic plane to choke the life out of how beneficial the passion plane can be, in terms of publicity, fundraising, and sheer fun.
Which is wise. Consider what a success the video game of Minecraft has become. Its parent company, Mojang AB, was recently acquired by Microsoft for more than $2 billion. Why is it so valuable? Largely because it has succeeded along both the pragmatic plane and the passion plane. It's both demanded and beloved. Pragmatically speaking, it's hard to please customers more than Minecraft has. In fact, its entire mission has been keenly customer-centric. Traditional games compelled players to operate within defined or scripted settings. Then Minecraft came along and figuratively said: Play however and wherever you want.
When it comes to hoverboards, you can tell this much: The passion plane is strong. Six-digit sums on Kickstarter don't come from indifference. But bona fide consumer demand is another story. Neither the Hendersons nor the DeVaul-Piponi team have staked their visions on it. And that seems like a safe bet.
While gauging customer demand for novel products is seldom an exact science, there are back-of-the-envelope methods for estimating it. Innovation guru Scott D. Anthony, a managing partner at Clayton Christensen's vaunted Innosight consultancy, is a fan of the 4P model. The 4 Ps are the target population of your product or service; your planned pricing points; your expected purchasing frequency (i.e., how often will this target population pay for the product); and the required market penetration you'll need to achieve plausible revenue goals.
By taking five minutes to write down all four of your Ps, you can quickly create a reference sheet of talking points about your idea's potential monetization. And if you, reading this on your phone or tablet or computer, try doing the exercise for hoverboards, well--you'll grasp why gauging consumer demand is, at this early stage, a non-starter. For one thing, the whole notion of "purchasing frequency" is off the table for a seemingly one-time purchase. For another, it's hard to figure what the pricing points would be. Paying $10,000 for the first 10 editions of a novelty is one thing; when the novelty wears off, customers will want to know if their hard-earned money is buying a souped-up skateboard or a watered-down Harley.
But that, to be sure, is tomorrow's problem. And when it comes to game-changing consumer innovations, there's no shame in waiting. It took a whopping 17 years for the Ziploc bag to go from idea to a product on retail shelves. And the case of Ziploc's slow-burn innovation is in no way exceptional. In fact, the Ziploc mirrors many other decade-spanning innovation sagas, including the barcode, e-Readers, and HDTVs.
That's worth keeping in mind the next time you feel like it's taking forever for your own cutting-edge products to reach the marketplace. If you're lucky, there'll be a slew of fervent enthusiasts awaiting it anyway, supporting your beta versions with their cash and passion.