The Mousetrap Myth

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door!”


As a marketing man I am often contacted by inventers of new products or systems who are astounded that their new invention has not been snapped up by the market and turned them into multi-millionaires.

Often they have spent their life savings and or mortgaged their property in the naive belief that they will be overwhelmed by the rush of customers, beating a path to their door.

The “Build a better mousetrap....” saying has cost people billions of dollars in wasted effort and bankrupted many of them on the way.

So where did the saying come from, what prompted this flawed advice?

I looked it up on the internet and everything suddenly made sense.

American philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, coined the phrase somewhere between his birth in 1803 and his death 79 years later in 1882.

In fact the original quote was a little longer...

”If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”

All is explained. The world of the mid 1800’s is very different from the world we now live in. Largely agricultural and a much slower pace, despite the industrial revolution and almost everybody was affected by pests like mice.

To put this in perspective, the first motorcar was patented by Carle Benz in 1886, four years after Emerson’s death. The Wright brothers made the first powered flight onthe 17th of December 1903, 21 years after Emerson’s departure.

In the first decade of the 21st century the world is different in almost every way.

No matter how good your invention or idea, no one beats a path to your door. You have to beat a path to their door. That means “marketing”, from initial market research and product development through to ongoing promotional activity.

How so I go about Marketing a New Product?

Ideally you should start with a market need that is not being satisfied now, then build your product or service around it. In the real world it pretty much happens the other way round, with a bright idea for a product or service chasing after a market that may or may not actually want it.

Do not at this stage rush off and engage patent lawyers and or start building prototypes.

The long road between an idea and first sales.

1. Seriously think about whether your product has a big enough market and sufficient margin to get it through the distribution chain and still make a good net profit. Selling direct also has costs, including advertising, delivery, and staff costs, so don’t assume that a big Gross Profit translates into a good net profit.

2. Find out everything about the market or industry you are targeting. If you are already in the industry it is much easier. What are the competing products, how many do they sell, who are the distributors, who are the retailers, what UNIQUE position would your product hold in the market that would be sustainable long term? What has happened in the rest of the world in the markets concerned?

3. Find out how much your competitors are spending on sales (representatives, customer support etc) and promotion (advertising, brochures, website, displays etc).

4. Finally what is the realistic sales / distribution reach for your product or service.

Asses Your Product's Chance of Success

Is there enough margin?

What about competitors?

Is there a place in the industry / market for the product long term?

Are there cheap imports or price wars likely to cut margins?

Can you afford to match the sales and promotional spend of your competitors?

New Product Types

I categorise new products into different types and pretty much in order of likely success - all of which require different approaches to the market.

New product or Service:

  • 1. In an industry you are already in as a supplier
  • 2. In an industry or business you are involved in now in some way
  • 3. In the Industrial Market
  • 4. In the Consumer Market

1. In the Industry You are Already Supplying

You have the best chance to successfully launch a new product because you already have the information, the distribution system, understand the pricing and the customers. Market research can be easily handled with some simple questionnaires and perhaps focus groups to define the need and refine the product and pricing. Focus groups can also be used to test your promotional approach to the market. Launch strategy will depend on the product and industry with options for limited selected distribution to market leaders (viral marketing), to all out launch functions.

2. In the Industry or Business You are Already Involved in

You have a good chance of success providing you ask the right questions and make realistic projections of prospective sales. It is important to include the entire distribution chain in your research to ensure that the product is not only attractive to the end customer but is also packaged and priced to motivate distributors / wholesalers etc. You can then identify any blockages in the distribution chain which would otherwise prevent your product from getting to the customer. It is important to remember that established relationships exist in any market and that new products are not necessarily as exciting to them as they are to the inventers.

3. In the Industrial Market

It is easier to launch a new industrial product than a consumer one, but it is not easy. Businesses are in general slow to embrace change, unless there are major immediate benefits for them. However the advantage of most industrial markets is that they have a relatively small number of prospective customers and often have industry associations, specialised magazines and often trade fairs / expos. All of these are good media for the launch of new products.

4. In the Consumer Market

Launching a new product in the consumer market is very difficult and expensive. Even the biggest corporations with access to huge budgets and extensive market research often fail.

It is not a question of whether the product is better or more desirable that makes the difference, but whether it suits the distribution chain, can deliver the right profit and could substitute for an existing line that is less profitable. Buyers for major stores are hard to get to and even harder to sell to if you want to end up with a profit at the end of the day. That’s their job.

I would advise anyone looking to develop a consumer product for retail sale to think very seriously about the high percentage of good products that fail to get off the ground before they spend their hard earned money. I have read that major manufacturers of consumer packaged goods spend at least $20 million to introduce a new brand and even then 70 – 80 per cent of these new brands still fail.

Evaluation of Profitability versus Risk

As you would have gathered, to launch a new product into the market is often a high risk venture. So when evaluating the likely success / profitability of a new product idea it is a good practice to work on the figures based on the probability of failure, rather than the possibility of success.

This puts the responsibility on the idea / product to prove itself or be rejected. It is important to do this evaluation perhaps in the form of a SWOT analysis and cost / benefit analysis, before you start spending on product development and launch.

It is also worth conducting initial market research at this stage to see whether the idea for the product is actually what the market wants.

This is the reverse of the process which a large number of new products go through, where they start with a product developed on the basis of assumptions as to what the market wants only then bringing in “marketing” to sell it. The result being a product doomed to failure or only partial success.

Secrecy - Fear of Your Idea being stolen

Patent Lawyers make heaps of money patenting new ideas and inventions because the inventers are worried that they will have the idea stolen. There is no doubt that it does happen occasionally, but the shear difficulty of moving a product from an initial idea to a profitable business is so hard that knowing about an idea has little value until it has proved successful. That is when the copy cats become involved.

Many inventers neglect to do adequate evaluation and research because they are concerned that the idea will be stolen. In my opinion they should spend their money on product profit evaluation rather than Patent Lawyers at the early stage, so that if they proceed they will have a better product to patent with a higher likelihood of getting their investment return in profits.


Ralph Waldo Emerson was a very wise philosopher. When he talked about "building a better mousetrap", he was not only writing in the context of his world of the 1800’s, but also talking about “excellence” rather than just “inventions”.

So if you have an invention or an idea that you think is so good and will return so much profit, that it is worth spending large amounts of money developing, start with the evaluation of your product on the basis that it will be unprofitable. Rather than dreaming about how you will spend the millions of dollars in profits.

Bring in some outside help like marketing professionals to do the research and evaluations for you. It will be a good investment whether you proceed with the product or not. Don’t worry about secrecy; any professional will be happy to sign confidentiality agreements.


Don’t give up on your ideas or your invention. Carl Benz persisted with the motor car and look where it is today. The Wright Brothers heralded the era of flight which now sees the world crossed by jet airliners containing hundreds of passengers.

Final Quotes:

The ancestor of every action is a Thought!
Nothing great was ever achieved without Enthusiasm!

Also penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ian Godbold

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