The idea occurred to Dawn Lawrence while she was sitting on a boat.
"I was fumbling in my pocketbook looking for something in the dark, wishing someone would invent a pocketbook light," she said. She looked up to see a boat light with a brass rim to direct the beam.
"I thought, 'Hey, that would work.' The next day I took the boat light apart," and she began to build her invention: a pen-size brass tube that beams a small but bright directional light and fits neatly in a pocketbook or briefcase.
Ms. Lawrence now has a patent pending on the light, which will sell for $29.95, and is launching a mail order campaign. But in the beginning, like most people with a good idea, Ms. Lawrence did not know how to develop her invention. She was not even sure she had a market for it.
After over a year of false starts and unproductive contacts, she found the Baltimore office of the Small Business Development Center.
Judy Green, director of training and administration at the center, gave Ms. Lawrence detailed statistical information and a series of research assignments that helped Ms. Lawrence define a market for her pocketbook light.
"Judy was helpful in getting me statistics, pointing me toward my market and suggesting counties to target" with her product, Ms. Lawrence said.
Using census data on household income levels by ZIP code, she was able to focus on the most affluent areas, where she expects her product will have the best chance of finding a market.
Ms. Green said the Small Business Development Center offers data and consulting to entrepreneurial firms, while the Maryland Office of Planning provides information to larger companies and institutions.
The center digests detailed statistics for small businesses, which often don't want or can't afford to invest in computer equipment to access the data themselves, and provides the information to them for free.
"We'll have all the census data," Ms. Green said. "If someone needs to do a marketing survey, we first suggest they drive around where they want to locate, get an idea of what traffic is like in the area. Then we can pull up a geographically specific set of demographics for them.
"When they get down to specifics of where they want to locate," she said, "we access sales volumes according to county level and ZIP code level and show them trends, how these census figures compare to prior census figures.
"If they want to do market research, we do demographics of the households, and we can also do projections from that [based on] past trends."
Ms. Green said the information is industry-specific.
"A construction firm could find out how many other firms were in one area, what their sales were," she said. "The data would also tell them income and the makeup of households in the surrounding area."
Ms. Lawrence, who has named her new company Dawn's Designs and Imports Inc., said that she hopes to use the 1990 census data to help her plan her next business move.
"I want to sell a line of pocketbooks with the light right in them," she said. "Once I have statistics, I can pinpoint exactly my market and I won't waste my money.
"I may still make mistakes, but not as many," she said.
"And they won't be as expensive."
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bureau of the Census: Customer Services, Washington, D.C., (301) 763-4100
State lead agency: Maryland Office of Planning, State Data Center, Baltimore, 225-4450
University of Maryland, Computer Science Center, College Park, (301) 405-3037
Enoch Pratt Free Library, Library Resource Center, Baltimore, 396-5468
Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development, Small Business Development, Baltimore, 333-6995