Klebanoff Associates
white paper

The Mousetrap Fallacy

mousetrapMake a Better Mousetrap ...

One sentence has done more harm to information technology companies than any other:
"If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap, than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door."

mouseThe sentence, usually paraphrased as: "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door," is generally attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. To accuse Emerson of injuring IT vendors is a curious indictment considering he died almost 70 years before the first commercial computer became available. Yet, many companies fail to achieve their full potential because they follow the "better mousetrap" advice.

What Emerson Forgot

The better mousetrap theory presents many problems:

Market Awareness
If nobody knows you exist and have built a mousetrap, no one will know that there is a path worth beating.

perceived needActual Needs
If people do not have a mouse problem, they do not need a mousetrap.

Perceived Needs
People who have mice, but are not aware of their existence, will not be interested in your mousetrap. Likewise, people who think mice are, "the cutest little things," are not good prospects.

Definition of Better
Prospects will buy your product only if they agree it is better. Someone who is style conscious may consider a mousetrap that is 10% more effective at catching mice, but 20% less attractive, to be inferior. For that prospect, a better mousetrap comes in designer hues.

The Effort of Beating the Path
Finally, even if customers have real needs, perceive their existence, and recognize your product as better, they still may not beat a path to your door. The effort customers will expend to buy your product depends on their perception of its value. If they believe it offers only a one percent improvement over other mousetraps, they likely will not travel through miles of untamed jungle to get to your door. However, they may call a toll-free number if you promise to deliver the mousetrap and install it for them.


In IT, it is easy to get so caught up in the "gee whiz" of the latest technology that we forget to ask "how can our customers benefit and how can we let them know about the benefits." Consequently, many companies with promising technologies are left wondering "We have a great product, why isn't the world beating a path to our door?"

perceived valueValue in the Customers' Terms
Value means different things to different people.

Should you, for example, promote your product's architecture or the fact that it is easy to use? Technical people might be more interested in how your product integrates with their existing technology and whether it adheres to the conventional wisdom as to state-of-the-art. To them, product architecture might be the primary concern. However, end-user executives are less concerned about the mechanics under the hood. They want to know that, for example, easier and faster access to information will enable them to make more informed decisions.

Many purchase decisions are a consensus. For example, an end-user manager decides on product functionality, while an IT manager decides on technical suitability. It is important to address all parties' concerns. However, because they speak different languages and face different issues, trying to address everyone with the same messages and communication vehicles usually satisfies no one.

Delivering the Message
After identifying the benefits from the customers' perspectives, you must communicate those benefits to the market. This requires a concerted effort using all of the marketing mix elements that are both appropriate for the audience and message and are cost-justified.

Making Latent Needs Real
What if there are real needs for your product, but market participants do not yet perceive them? Prospects may not, for example, be aware of an inefficiency in their operations or that it is a competitive threat. They will not be willing to buy your solution until they recognize the need.

In this case, you must educate prospects about the problem before you can sell them your product or service.

If there are existing competitors, there is a potential threat in this strategy. Campaigns to increase the primary market tend to provide the greatest gains to the company that is already the market leader, not necessarily the firm that launched the campaign. Therefore, if you do not yet have the highest market share, you should be cautious about mounting such a campaign. You might end up merely providing more profit for another firm to use to compete against you.

Beating the Path
Finally, you must make it easy for customers to buy your product. That might mean a number of things depending on the product and its market. It may mean adding to the sales force, setting up direct marketing channels, or using distributors and other third-parties. While the latter option requires sacrificing some margin, 50% of something always beats 100% of nothing.


The preceding discussion is not a condemnation of engineering and a praise of marketing. It is always an advantage to be able to offer your customers "a better mousetrap." However, it is also true that:
All other things being equal, a product that offers equal value in the customer's eyes will win if you can better communicate its value.

All other things being equal, a product that is better in the customer's eyes will win even if it is inferior in the product engineer's eyes.

All other things being equal, the easier you make it for your customer to buy your product, the more likely they will.

In short, the trade-off between engineering and marketing is no trade-off at all. To maximize profitability you must excel at both.