Getting outside feedback and vetting new concepts doesn't have to be expensive or time-consuming. Dig into your Rolodex to find a partner or vendor who might be interested in sharing the time and money to see if an idea is viable, says Scott Anthony, author of The Silver Lining: An Innovation Playbook for Uncertain Times.
Blinds.com owner Jay Steinfeld says he has boosted his margins per customer visit by 25% for the past eight consecutive quarters by striking cross-promotion deals with Cooking.com, Flowers.com and OmahaSteaks.com, which have similar customer bases.
Shoppers who spend a certain amount at any of the four companies receive coupons that can be redeemed at all of them. Blinds.com and Cooking.com also split the cost of entering these customers into a sweepstakes for a kitchen makeover. "This is very low-cost marketing," Steinfeld says.
Then there's the lowest-cost labor of all: student interns who work for college credits.
"Students are hungry," says Travis Hollman, 40, a serial entrepreneur in Dallas who regularly enlists Southern Methodist University students to do market research. In recent years Hollman has started a film company, a toy manufacturer that made marshmallow shooters and, most recently, a relaxation drink called ViB.
The students were instrumental in ViB's development. None of them even wanted to taste an early version because of its thick texture and "gross-out" shade of green. So Hollman hired a food scientist to craft a new concoction. The students tried it and loved it, as did consumers they interviewed. A year after its launch, the drink is expected to bring in $5 million in 2009 sales.
"When it comes to ideas and energy, students are on top of it," says Hollman. "They don't work for you, so they're not afraid to tell you something is dumb."
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