How to Avoid Ugly Babies

One of the most difficult challenges in my business is when you have to tell a client that their baby is ugly. By that I mean, some clients get an idea in their head, and start telling people about it, and before you know it, the idea has a lot of traction and emotional support. But, the client hasn’t really done their homework, and the fatal flaws haven’t been dealt with. By the time we get there, the idea has a lot of momentum, and it’s very difficult to fix.

The worst examples of these types of ideas emerge when someone gives a municipality or community an old building to use. Next thing you know, everyone has decided that an incubator or innovation center or co-working center is the right use for the building. This type of idea seems great because everyone loves ribbon cuttings and similar photo ops, and funding agencies seem to think new construction projects are better than giving out operating funds.

But the flaws start to emerge on these projects as soon as you get into the implementation planning. These flaws are usually in one of three categories. The first is that no one has actually talked to a real cross section of the types of clients that might use such as space. Or, worse yet, the idea is only about the space, the “what,” and not at all about the “why” or “how.” In other words, what problem(s) do prospective clients have, and how would programming in the space solve those problems? Who is the target client, anyway?

The second, and related problem, are the financials. Often, no one has done the math. What will it cost to operate the program? How much can prospective clients pay? What are they will to pay? If this isn’t enough to support the programming, then what other sources of income are available? Will you be able to keep the programming going for one year? Five years? Longer? What if you have unexpected expenses in the space? This is especially critical if you have been given an older building.

The third problem is how does the new idea fit into the existing ecosystem? Are you planning to do something different from what everyone else is doing? Are you sure that there is an opportunity, or has everyone else learned something you don’t yet know? Whose toes will you be stepping on? Is that ok?

The best thing to do is not get into this situation in the first place. While it’s great to have brainstorms and come up with new ideas, use data to work through these questions before you get everyone all excited about the idea. Get the actual, current demographic and economic data. Work with others to explore the idea. Run it by a lot of stakeholders and potential clients and get their honest reaction. Do focus groups, surveys, tests on various elements. If, in your exploration, you come up against a problem, think about how to adjust your idea for the new information, rather than just throw up your hands.

Remember, no one launches a consumer product without a lot of customer testing beforehand. It’s time to adopt these practices in economic development.

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