Inventive Partnerships

Note: We will be running a series of articles from the time when I wrote monthly columns for Entrepreneur magazine from inventors that have succeeded. While the entrepreneurs stories are dated, they strategies these inventors employed are still applicable today.

The entrepreneur: Shawn Donegan, 46, founder of Trac Tool Inc. in Cleveland

Product description: The Speed Rollers paint applicator system targets professional painting contractors. Featuring two rollers, the system is fed by an airless paint pump that dispenses paint onto the top roller. Because the applicator system eliminates the need to dip into a roller pan and also minimizes the so-called “back roll,” it’s four to five times faster than a traditional roller system. While Donegan didn’t invent Speed Rollers, he was able to launch his company after signing a licensing deal with Mike Puczkowski, the product’s inventor. The Speed Rollers system retails for $349 and is sold through major paint retailers such as Sherwin-Williams.

Startup: About $150,000, which was spent to launch the product at the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America trade show in 2004. Costs included marketing materials, booth rental, product development, patents and 10 laser-cut prototypes.

Sales: $3 million projected for 2005

The challenge: How does an entrepreneur who knows an inventor with a great idea decide whether or not the product is worth pursuing?
Inventors are often great at creating innovative products, but they’re often lousy at turning their inventions into businesses. Not surprisingly, inventors represent a big opportunity for entrepreneurs. Taking an inventor’s product to market–which is what Shawn Donegan did with the Speed Rollers system–can mean big profits for those willing to carefully research a product’s viability before spending too much money. [Read more...]

How to Overcome Retailer Resistance

Overcoming retailer resistance is a challenge that faces every inventor, and especially inventors with a new product category. Here is a story I originally ran in Entrepreneur in 2005, but the inventor and category have continued to thrive so I think the story bears repeating.

When Kathryn Goetzke White developed her Mood-lites, she knew interior home lighting was a big market and believed consumers would love her colorful light bulbs. But she also knew that getting her products in stores nationwide would prove quite a challenge, as retailers typically resist new product categories for fear of ending up with unsold merchandise. Then Goetzke White had a bright idea for breaking through the resistance: persuade retailers that her colorful Mood-lites were part of a larger consumer trend. Thanks to sales help from her 35-year-old husband, John, Goetzke White developed an action plan that created quick acceptance of the Mood-lites product line.

Steps to Success

1. Find a trend that fits

Goetzke White had her product idea for several years, but didn’t pursue it until she saw a Home Depot ad that talked about color therapy and how to paint a room a certain color to create a mood. At that point, she felt her product could sell because the color therapy concept was being accepted by major retailers. “My undergraduate degree was in psychology, and I was intrigued by moods and different influencers of moods,” she says. “I knew that certain colors created different moods–for example, blue is associated with the ocean and water, images that bring a sense of tranquility. I was tired of basic white lighting and decided to combine color therapy with the upsurge in candle sales for soft mood lighting. Adding an oil-based coating gave that glow that makes Mood-lites different from other products on the market.”

2. Develop a marketing story

While Goetzke White was sure people understood the concept of colors and their impact on mood, she wanted to complete the story to inspire consumers to make a purchase. Today, she’s obtaining trademarks for each of the colors: Serenity for turquoise, Tranquility for sapphire, Passion for crimson, Happiness for yellow, Energy for orange, Creativity for purple and Renewal for green.

3. Create interest with PR

In fall 2004, Goetzke White started an extensive PR campaign to get articles about Mood-lites in magazines. “The goal was not only to sell Mood-lites, which were available on our website, but really to help sell retailers,” she says. “I felt the positive energy created by the PR would show the market was interested in Mood-lites. We hired a PR firm, and articles were published in many newspapers as well as Home, Residential Lighting, For Me Magazine and New York Magazine’s Metro, among others. Those articles were a big help when I approached retailers to carry Mood-lites.”

4. Package the product to create exposure

A new product needs to be noticed on a shelf. “One of the best moves I made was to produce the package so it could fit on clip strips [plastic strips with six to 12 clips to hold individual packages],” says Goetzke White. “Retailers love these strips, as they allow them to move the product into the store, save on shelf space and entice customers with new products. We’ve produced a header [a small card with sales copy] for the clip strips showcasing the bulbs in use, and we also have a display box for stores [that] carry Mood-lites on the shelf.”

5. Find markets that enhance the product’s image

Some of Goetzke White’s earliest customers were doctors and massage therapists, who used Mood-lites to create a relaxing environment for patients. “We’re expanding distribution to include spas and gyms with massage therapists, yoga practitioners and spinning rooms,” she says. “The intent is to get exposure for the brand. Clients of these customers will see the effectiveness of [Mood-lites] and want to try them at home.”

Lessons Learned

1. Retailers support new trends

Products tied to new trends typically sell well and sell at high margins–just the types of products retailers want. Consumers are curious about new trends, and that curiosity produces sales and store traffic. Because published articles show the product is part of a trend, they effectively generate retailer interest.

2. Go with the flow, not against it

Inventors often come up with ideas to change how things are done. Their product introduction strategy calls for persuading people that there is a better way to do something. That strategy almost never works; inventors just don’t have the money to change a market. They should instead find a way to show how their product is an extension of products people already use. Goetzke White’s tactic of adding an oil-based finish to light bulbs to create a soft glow was expensive and time-consuming, but it allowed Mood-lites to go with the flow of candle therapy.

3. Keep products front and center

People usually shop with a purchase in mind. Rarely do people notice other products unless they are displayed prominently enough to catch their attention. Using clip strips, which can be provided by the inventor or the retailer, is a low-cost tactic that often produces impulse sales, and most inventors can afford it.

4. Get expert advice

Inventors without marketing experience often don’t know how to best position a product in the market. If you need help from a marketing expert, contact your local Small Business Development Center.

How to Sell Gifts

Gifts can be sold in any number of stores, card shops, flower shops, drug stores, cooking stores, airport shops, Christian gift stores and hospital gift shops.  Gifts represent an enormous product category, with products covering the gamut from home made sewing items to high tech widgets and gadgets. Though the stores are many and often small, the gift market is an attractive market for new product developers because they are sold through a well-oiled, and fairly easy to penetrate distribution channel. An additional advantage the gift market has is that new products can be sold locally, at a relatively low cost until the new product developer knows the product will be a success. [Read more...]

How to Generate Quick Sales

When you introduce your product, you want to generate quick sales because building a history of sales, even just in one or two outlets, helps you convince other sales outlets to carry your product. But once you start selling, you need to commit yourself to continually growing your sales. Stores, catalogs, reps and distributors look for hot, up-and-coming products, and if your sales are always growing, you will have a much easier time expanding your sales network. If your sales stagnate, people will think your product has reached its peak. [Read more...]

How to Connect with Inside Contacts so They Help You

You don’t need to go with your hat in your hand when working on an inside contact, they actually gain as much as you do when they present the project, in fact it is a win-win situation for them. If they bring the project to the company and the company successfully introduces the product, the inside contact looks like a real go-getter that is helping the company advance. If the project doesn’t go through, they still look like a go-getter, an image that will help them at some point in their career. The following steps will usually get you an inside contact with a potential partner company. [Read more...]

How to Identify the Right Target Market For My New Product

Identifying the right target market can often be the difference between success and failure for new products. The right market will be more willing to accept, and ready to pay more for, the right product, and the wrong market will be slower to accept your product and will require more marketing efforts, cutting down on your profits. So choose your target market carefully. There are many factors that determine the right target market, and this newsletter will cover three important factors: market size, pricing and your ability to meet the right contacts. [Read more...]

How To Quickly Introduce a New Product to Market

1: Identify the Right Target Market

Identifying the right target market can often be the difference between success and failure for new products. The right market will be more willing to accept, and ready to pay more for, the right product, and the wrong market will be slower to accept your product and will require more marketing efforts, cutting down on your profits. So choose your target market carefully. There are many factors that determine the right target market, and this chapter will cover two important factors: market size and pricing. [Read more...]

How Narrowing Your Target Market Can Lead to More Sales

So you’ve got a new product and know just who to market it to. Here’s what to do next.

What’s a pair of thrill-seeking snowboarders to do when there’s no snow on the ground and no clouds in sight? If you’re Jason Lee and Patrick McConnell, you invent the MountainBoard. With a deck similar to a snowboard, all-terrain wheels, and a suspension system that can be used to go down a single trail or track on a mountain, the MountainBoard hit the market in 1996 and the company, MBS of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is still going strong. [Read more...]

Where to Find Your Million Dollar Idea

Where is the next million-dollar idea hiding, just waiting to be discovered? In many cases, it could be right under your nose–at your place of work, or perhaps as part of your favorite hobby. Inventors who work ideas gathered from jobs or activities they’re familiar with are most likely to find success, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the inventor really understands what target customers want because he or she is also part of the group. Second, because the inventor is already familiar with the products currently on the market, he or she can usually introduce a product that doesn’t have much competition. And finally, when selling the product to customers, potential buyers perceive the inventor not as a salesperson, but rather as “one of us.” It’s a powerful situation that doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, but it’s definitely as good as it gets. [Read more...]