You’ve got a great idea for a new product. And you’ve been reading ETR long enough to know that before you can even consider using that product to launch a business, you have to find out if people will buy it. One of our recommendations has been to try it out at a street fair.

How much can you learn about the viability of a product idea at a street fair? A lot. Let me tell you about my friend CR…

While taking a metal sculpture course at a local art school, he came up with a design for a clever little executive “desk toy” made out of horseshoe nails. He made a bunch of them as gifts for friends and relatives, and everyone loved them. “These are great,” people told him. “You really ought to sell them.”

CR didn’t need any more encouragement than that. He was cranking out the toys in his spare time, just because he enjoyed doing it. But he’d already gifted everyone he knew with them. And they were piling up on a shelf in his basement. Making extra money by selling them sounded ideal.

“Who knows?” he told me. “Maybe this can actually turn into something. I’ve always dreamed of having my own business. It would be a lot more fun than the 9-to-5 job I’m in now.”

So, to test his business idea in the marketplace, he signed up with a neighborhood street fair for the summer. And here’s what happened…

The first weekend, he was out of his mind with excitement. Sunday morning, he called me. “Judith,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how much money I made. Yesterday, I almost sold out. Ohmigod… I threw the money on the bed and rolled around on it. Stayed up all night welding so I would have something to sell today.”

“I’m exhausted,” he said. “Please help me out tomorrow. Man my table so I can get a little sleep.”

How could I say no? Of course, I helped him out. And here’s what I learned…

  • A huge number of people pass by street fair tables – far more potential customers than you could imagine.
  • Interaction with customers is thrilling – and the pleasure of selling one-on-one with people who are into your product because they’re able to talk to you about it is unbeatable.
  • Gallery/boutique owners troll street fairs looking for unusual merchandise. So instead of having to find retail outlets for your goods by going door to door, they come to you.

You may think I’m going to tell you that, based on the results of testing his product at the street fair, CR was inspired to go forward with a full-fledged business selling it.

Well, no.

As popular as CR’s desk toys were initially, they weren’t nearly as popular as the summer went on. Fewer and fewer people were crowding around his table. They’d seen similar things at other street fairs – and either they’d already bought, or they just weren’t interested. CR’s toys no longer seemed like such a novelty to his target market: the kind of people who like handcrafted things. Not only that, but the gallery and boutique owners who’d tried them out on a consignment basis didn’t re-order. “Few customers even stop to look at them when you’re not there to talk about how you make them,” they told CR.

Needless to say, CR was disappointed. Make that very disappointed. At the same time, he was happy that he hadn’t simply forged ahead and tried to launch the dream business he had in his head. “That would have been a big mistake,” he told me.

And that’s the point of testing a product idea – whether you do it at a street fair, on a consignment basis, on eBay, or some other way. If the results are positive, that tells you it’s good enough to take the idea to the next level. If the results are negative, that tells you something equally important: Don’t spend any more time, effort, or money on it. Forget about it and move on to another idea.

[Ed. Note: Testing is at the core of any successful business. And one of the easiest ways to test your ideas is by starting an online business. It’s quick and can be done without a huge output of capital. And with the ETR team’s insider tactics to getting started, you can get your business off the ground in no time.]