Q&A: American Inventor Judge Mary Lou Quinlan
As one of the judges for American Inventor, Mary Lou Quinlan's job is to find a product with mass-market appeal. Quinlan brings more than 25 years' marketing experience to the judging table. As founder and CEO of Just Ask a Woman, a company that has helped dozens of clients market to women better, she has listened to literally thousands of women describe what characteristics a product or brand needs to have to make it into their homes.
It's her deep background in marketing know-how that has brought Quinlan to many a passionate debate with her fellow judges over an invention's worthiness. We talked to Quinlan about the marketing traits an invention needs to be a success on the shelves, and why the inventor's story matters as much as the invention.
Entrepreneur.com:You've been called "the Oprah of Madison Avenue" because of the way women open up to you in business, and you've also authored a best-selling book called Cracking the Code of What Women Want and How they Buy. What are some of the things you've learned about what female consumers are looking for, and how does that translate into a product that sells?
Mary Lou Quinlin: Where do I even begin? We've worked with dozens of clients in all different categories, so it's hard to say there's any one single thing. I will say that women respond to brands that listen to their needs. A lot of brands and a lot of retailers pay lip service to women. They say they want her money, but they don't really deliver on what she needs, whether that's value, performance, straight-talk or making her life more easier and giving her more control.
Entrepreneur.com:So would you say that having a product--even if you have a great product--means nothing unless you can really market it to women the right way?
Mary Lou Quinlin: Absolutely. It relates very much with the inventions on the show because you can have an idea that [makes] you say, "Wow, great product," but if it isn't wrapped in the right communication that respects her--if it isn't sold in an environment that makes her feel comfortable and serves her needs for convenience, [and] if it isn't sold by someone she trusts and who she believes has her interest at heart--that product will probably sit on the shelf unsold.
Entrepreneur.com:Keeping that in mind, what's the most important thing you look for in the inventions you see on the show?
Mary Lou Quinlin: The first thing I look for is that it solves a real consumer problem and comes from a true consumer insight. It isn't just "Hey, look what I can make. Look what I figured out that no one ever figured out." It has to be: "So what? Who cares?" And so when ideas are presented, I'm looking for that shining moment--and you know it when you see it--that says, "Oh my God, finally; somebody gets it." And it can be a simple thing, like the restroom door clip, or something that you wouldn't even have thought of like Jodi Pliszka who has the headliner. That's not something we sit around and think about. But I do believe it's the kind of thing that women and men who are, say, firefighters, could say, "Hey, thanks for thinking of that. You know, I never knew anybody cared." And now you've got a solution that makes both rational sense and provides an emotional benefit.
Entrepreneur.com:Were there any products, even if they didn't make it to the final round, that immediately stood out to you as being very marketable?
Mary Lou Quinlin: Yeah, and in fact there were a couple that we voted for very strongly and then the inventor decided not to go forward for their own business reasons. So there were some [inventions] the television audience never saw that were terrific. There were two young women who were lawyers who had invented a tight-fitting t-shirt where a women could chart her breast self-exams. So not only could [the t-shirt] make life better and save lives, but it gave women the confidence they ought to have in terms of their own healthcare. That's an example of something I thought was tremendous, but they decided [to pull out] because this is the first year out and the requirements of the show were too strict for some people.
I [also] really felt that Mark Major, who invented dental floss [that quadriplegics could use], had a lot of potential. And it was unfortunate that we couldn't get all four judges to agree. We tried to be as unanimous as possible when it came to the [final] 12 inventors.
Entrepreneur.com:What is it like working with so many different judges when you're looking for completely different things?
Mary Lou Quinlin: I believe that in the end, we come to the best decisions because we're so different. I look at the 12 [finalists] and I think that each of those inventors are there because something in each of the four of us [judges] clicked with their idea, even though our backgrounds are so different. I believe in respecting the differences among us. You know, you can't have the greatest invention if the product idea isn't sound and fantastic; if it can't make money; if it can't be communicated; and [if it] can't be marketed. You can't be missing any one of those pieces. So while viewers may like one inventor over another, the fact is that in the marketplace, you need all four components [the judges are looking for]. So it is a challenge. I mean, we're people and we couldn't be more different.
Entrepreneur.com:I did notice that everyone does react differently--obviously because you're all different people. It seems, though, that sometimes you tend to get a little more emotionally involved with the people. Do you think that affects your judging decisions at all?
Mary Lou Quinlin: You know, I'll tell you why I get involved in the stories of the people: as a human being, I think you'd be stone not to respond to some of these heartfelt human stories. And also, we're not removed by a television set. Someone sitting in a living room looking at a television screen eating popcorn or pizza or talking on their cell phone, that's many degrees removed from our situation, which is to have someone standing maybe 10 feet in front of you and pouring [out] their soul. So I would say that I respond as a person. And I believe that some of the most powerful leaders I have ever known [respond as humans].
The second reason, though, is a marketing reason. And that's that when inventions are presented to us, especially early on, they're very raw and unfinished. I'm looking for what could be, not just what's in front of me, and sometimes the story of the person [is what makes an invention] a major idea. An example of that I would give you is the Dyson vacuum cleaner. Who needed another vacuum cleaner? It's because there's a British guy obsessed with suction that it's become a premium-selling vacuum cleaner, wiping the floor up over Hoover and brands that might have been satisfactory before. I can name Purdue Chicken. I could say Wendy's with Dave Thomas. There are many brands that are successful because there's a human face or a story behind them. [Another example is Airborne.] Even though it turned out not be a true story, [it was said that] a second-grade teacher invented it because all the kids [in her class] passed colds. But that was why people believed in Airborne; they all tell that story: "Did you know a second-grade teacher invented this?"
So for people to watch this show and to say, oh, she just cares about the stories--which I have certainly seen said--I feel that's someone who's not experienced with marketing because a marketer knows that you search for the human truth in a product in order to make it a mega product. So that's what I'm looking for, and you'll see that in some cases. Some of these inventions, I think, are in the final four because it's both the person and the product.
Speaking of the final contestants, last week you chose Francisco. At first you said you didn't think that he was ready, but you ended up picking him. So what was it about Francisco's invention, and Francisco himself, that helped you make your decision?
Mary Lou Quinlin: It's exactly both things, [his invention and himself]. First of all, the invention. It was intriguing when he first brought it in...it was blow-away when he produced the final result. I watched him work and he's a very mature, good person, and he used every second he had in that time and that money. He was never bored; he was never weary; he never complained--he threw himself heart and soul and every ounce of his inventiveness into making that bike the best it could be, 24/7. So I think what you were looking at, it's hard to separate the bike from the man. The inventiveness and his pure genius at coming up with something so simple and so delightful and innovative is why I think he's tremendous. But getting to know him as a person has been a real privilege.
I met his family Tuesday. I went to his home and met his father and his uncles and his cousins, and I mean, this family holds together. They cherish the inventive spirit; they're hardworking, pull themselves up by the bootstrap--they are every American value you would attribute to somebody who should be in this position [as a final contestant]. Francisco is a living, breathing example.
Honestly, I think he really does stand for the idea of this competition. This competition to me isn't just to reward someone who does this as a job. Just like on American Idol, you wouldn't want to pick someone who could only sing one song. I think you want someone who you could picture inventing for a lifetime.