Andy Musliner | Crain's Baltimore

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Andy Musliner

Background:  

InRoad Toys was launched to develop innovative toys with enduring value. The company’s PlayTape, a removable instant road for toy vehicles, has won 29 toy industry awards, including being honored as a finalist for the 2016 Toy Industry Association Toy of the Year. InRoad Toys also recently received the 2017 Maryland Home-Based Small Business of the Year award from the Small Business Administration.

The Mistake:

My mistake, which I’ve been paid to repeat many times throughout my career, is getting too far ahead of the market. My background is in technology; in the early 1990s, I was a cofounder of a next-generation 3-D animation company. During the dot-com era, I was a technology revolution strategist. And in the 2000s, I was a chief technology officer for one of the fastest-growing tech companies in the D.C. region.

My job was always to think ahead, to be ahead, and to put my customers ahead. I was paid to be ahead of the competition and ahead of the latest technology.

But sometimes my eagerness puts me a little too far ahead. I’ve proposed advanced solutions that the market, and my customer, isn’t quite ready for. The most infamous example is when, in the mid-1990s, in the very early days of e-commerce, I proposed to one of the largest vehicle rental companies in the world that they should rent vehicles online. I’ll never forget the look of horror I got in response. I was told there was no way the company would reveal their pricing online, because then their competitors would know how much they charged. Today, of course, that entire exchange seems absurd.

Since founding InRoad Toys in 2014, I’ve found myself getting a little too far ahead again. I invented a new toy called PlayTape, that’s a toy road for toy cars that kids can just unroll and stick to make imaginary roads anytime, anywhere.

I laid out a product roadmap for the first three years, but I’ve discovered the hard way that it’s more like a 15-year plan. In the last three years I rushed to introduce PlayTape products and concepts that the market, and our customers, just aren’t ready for yet. It hasn’t been fatal, but it’s been costly. There have been product development and manufacturing costs that should have been spent on customer research.

I was paid to be ahead of the competition and ahead of the latest technology.

The Lesson:

The lesson that I’m constantly having to remind myself, and that my team has learned to remind me, is to hold back and try not to get too far ahead of the market.

Our product is one of the world’s simplest toys — it’s tape printed to look like a road. To me, that’s an incredibly simple product, and a very simple concept to grasp. People get what the toy is in approximately 1-2 seconds, but it still takes those 1-2 seconds for customers to grasp what it is, because they’ve never seen tape as a toy. There’s an education process, and it may be only two seconds, but it’s an education nevertheless.

I got too far ahead of the market by not realizing that my retail buyer needs to be educated, and their consumers need to be educated, and then they’re ready to buy. It’s about market timing and customer understanding. You have to understand what the market knows and doesn’t know, and what the customers are educated in and understand.

I love strategizing, my whole career has been about strategizing, but I’m learning to stay focused on where the market is and where our customers are now. I’m becoming more realistic about how quickly the market adopts new products. This hasn’t stopped me from being the impatient optimist, but now I’m reined in a bit.

InRoad Toys is on Twitter at @InRoadToys.

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