Nothing makes more money than a great new product idea. Notoriously, big companies spend enormously in the search for wonderful innovations, but are rarely rewarded. Small firms, though, often come up with the big breakthroughs, from personal computers to Poppops.

What, you might well ask, are Poppops? You won't ask if you're a popcorn addict and like to make the delicacy in your own kitchen, using the microwave. Nor is this a little niche product - Golden Valley Microwave Foods, Inc. sells some 1.2 billion units a year, with plenty of them in Britain, at 69p a pop.

In the beginning, however, there were no sales and no units: only a bright idea. How do you find such inspirations? Above all, you keep your eyes and ears open. Brilliant innovations can spring from anywhere on earth - and even from outer space.

American space technology gave the innovator of the Poppop, Jim Watkins, his marvellous notion. The piece of technology concerned would in theory enable you to put frozen corn in a packet made of thin metallic sheet which would swiftly rise to the necessary very high temperature. Watkins only needed to make it work in practice.

But that's the hard bit - much harder than the original inspiration. Art Fry, the father of Post-It notes, for instance, stumbled on the idea in church, wondering how he could mark the hymns more effectively. It took the Post-It enthusiasts four more years of battling - often against opposition in their own company, 3M - before they had a winner.

The vital adhesive, what's more, had been around for five years longer. Inside a big company, though, you have one big advantage: money. Watkins lacked this vital ingredient, but made up for the shortage by dogged readiness to go to the brink, if not beyond. He was almost beyond when a friend advanced $100,000 to finance a last-ditch, make-or-break attempt. It did the trick.

The first trick, however, is never the last. If at first you do succeed, try, try again. Innovation means 'to introduce as something new.' What happens after the introduction determines the limits of success. Post-It pads were saved, after a depressing introduction into test markets, only when two committed pioneers went back to one of the markets with a marketing idea almost as innovative as the product.

They went from door to door, giving away the pads in banks and offices - sampling of a kind 3M had never tried. Once people used the product, they loved it. Watkins had the same response when he finally cracked the supermarkets: people loved his DIY popcorn. But he, too, didn't stop innovating. The first product was called Act One: the beginning, not the end..

Act Two developed the technology so the corn didn't have to be frozen: the next Act - a demetallised package. But the gold in Golden Valley no longer belongs to Watkins: richer by $200 million or so, he became a top executive in ConAgra, the huge conglomerate which bought his company.

Like the Poppops product, innovation has several acts. One is the idea. Two, financing. Three, the development of a practical product or service. Four, marketing. Five, further development. The sixth act is cashing in - but note that the best idea in the world won't develop or sell itself.

The effort required may intimidate people with less natural bolshiness than Fry or Watkins. Fry was always being told what 'couldn't be done' in the manufacture of Post-It pads. On one occasion, he simply did it himself, putting a machine in his own basement and then handing the proven process over to the 3M engineers.

Small innovators don't have resident experts, other then themselves and their partners. But one lesson of Poppops and Post-Its is the same - small, committed groups of people are the best way to innovate. Within his tiny, over-stretched resources, Watkins was forced to be ingenious, and to do the most with the least.

A long, hard road probably lies ahead even if you plan for the five stages of innovation. The road will be longer and harder without planning - and the goal may keep on receding. So don't count your chickens before they're cashed.



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