From the June 2006 issue of Startups

It came to you in a vision--that brilliant idea for the next new product. As soon as you get it to market, you're sure consumers will love it. But for now, you're full of questions: How do I research my market? How will I create my prototype? Who will help me with manufacturing, distributing and marketing the product?

First things first--how quickly can you launch your product? "It's possible to do it in less than a year if you can get a company to help you," says Don Debelak, author of Bringing Your Product to Market... in Less Than a Year: Fast-Track Approaches to Cashing in on Your Great Idea and host of inventor-help website www.dondebelak.com. "The first thing you want to do is get a local contact who can help you." Research the industry in which you hope to launch your product-is the product for children? Pets? Athletes? Cooks? It's a safe bet that any industry you venture into has trade associations, publications, trade shows and, above all, experts from whom you can learn. Debelak suggests reading trade publications to look for listings of distributors and manufacturers who know the industry. "Contact them to see if you can get one of them to help you-one who'll like the idea and promote it," he says. "You're really using [your contact] first as an information resource."

Seeking out this kind of information certainly helped Heidi Jacquin launch her line of tWibbles--plush, collectible toys aimed at the tween market. This Freestone, California, entrepreneur had a background in product development, so she knew how to find the right people to help her launch her product. When she started tWibbles LLC in 2004, she wanted to create something cool for tweens that would combine the collectible nature of Beanie Babies and the fashion sense of a funky accessory. "[I thought,] why not have [something like] a Beanie Baby that was small and would look good as a pendant?" recalls Jacquin, 35.

Your product packaging is also important, according to Molly Miller-Davidson and JoAnne Stone-Geier, co-authors with Michael B. Levinson of Launch It! How to Turn Good Ideas Into Great Products That Sell. "One of the things I see people doing wrong is putting [their products] in the wrong type of packaging," says Miller-Davidson. "Understanding who your customers are [and what packaging appeals to them] is important."

For Jacquin, doing research on the tween market was vital. She studied other products that were popular with the age group, paying attention to why tweens liked the products and what kind of packaging spoke to them. "The first time around, we didn't really do the best job," she says of her original packaging. "This time, we talked to people who've been there. I looked at 50 packages in the toy world and in the tween arena. And I read a lot of articles to figure out what kids are looking at." That's how she landed on her packaging strategy: graffiti-style graphics on the outside, with two identical tWibbles inside--one for a kid to keep, and one to give to a friend.

Culling from past business relationships, Jacquin found a licensed cartoonist to help her design the characters, including Clippety the Horse and Mamby the Panda. "I took those designs to a factory in China and had them start prototyping," says Jacquin. "About 15 years ago, I worked with a guy from Hong Kong who knows a lot of factory owners, and he put me in touch with the right contact."

Finding the right people to help you is key to a quick launch, says Debelak, because when you're a startup, you can't figure out "all the little details--what are the markups for the industry, who are the key contacts? But people in the industry know [these things] like the back of their hand."

It was through another industry contact-a housewares sales rep with whom Jacquin also used to work--that she hooked up with a toy sales rep who had relationships with major retailers. Now sold in Target stores nationwide, tWibbles expects 2006 sales of $4 million.

And Now for Something Different

Once you settle on your concept and do all your research to make sure there's nothing similar on the market, be prepared to face a little skepticism--people may not immediately get what your product is or what it does. Entre-preneurs Kerem Tepecik, 36, and Dale Vith, 35, became quite familiar with the skeptics when they launched their product, the Retropole. It's a specialty light-fixture attachment designed for use in commercial parking lots that enables outdoor lights to be brought down to ground level for maintenance. These two former electricians knew the dangers of changing those hard-to-reach lights all too well, and they designed the Retropole, which works with any existing pole light, because of their close calls. But when they first started pitching the idea, they couldn't get people to understand what it was. "[Skepticism] was all we got when we first developed the idea. We got on the phone to get feedback from people in the industry," recalls Tepecik. "We called everybody. I'm sure they had deer-in-the-headlights looks on their faces when we were trying to explain. But the minute we had a showable prototype, it was like a firestorm."

A local lighting industry rep with whom these Irving, Texas, entrepreneurs initially shared their prototype helped spread the word about Retropole in other locales. The exposure even helped the company land a few big commercial clients soon after their spring 2005 startup. Fortunately, Tepecik and Vith were able to secure a manufacturer willing to produce small quantities for their early runs. Today, they can barely keep up with demand, and they have plans in the works to partner with larger manufacturers who can make thousands of units yearly.

While it can definitely be prohibitively expensive to do your first manufacturing runs, experts suggest developing partnerships to help diffuse the cost. "Try to get a distributor behind your product who will back it and give you a provisional order," says Debelak. "Manufacturers will pick up a lot of the cost to make that product for you, but you have to have a credible marketing partner." You'll make less profit in the end, but your product will be out there at less cost to you in the beginning.

With a patent pending and already about two years into the patenting process, Vith and Tepecik project 2006 sales to hit about $1.75 million. Noting that getting a patent is often a very long and expensive process, Debelak suggests first filling out an inventor's notebook and submitting it to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the Document Disclosure Program, which will protect your idea for two years. "It's difficult to get a manu-facturer, someone to really put up a lot of money, unless you're at least in the patent process, so I always recommend people go into the Document Disclosure Program--it's only $20," says Debelak. You can then pursue a full patent. For more detailed information on this process, check out Debelak's website, or visit www.uspto.gov and click on "Inventor Resources." Other general resources include Inventors' Digestand the United Inventor's Association. Your local SBDCand SCOREoffices can also help.

When you seek information about patenting or any other element of product launch, experts warn you to heed the information you receive from experts-not listening to advice is a blunder many inventors make. "Inventors know their own little world as consumers, but they don't know distribution, retailing, pricing and manu-facturing, and often they're very set in their ways," warns Debelak. "They [often] don't listen to what people tell them until they've lost all their money."

Expanding Your Horizons

Jeff Zinger, inventor of the Walk-O-Long, a padded wraparound safety and learning device designed to help children walk while minimizing back strain on parents, soaked in all the knowledge of the industry insiders he turned to for help in creating his first prototype and hooking up with a large distributor. Zinger, 39, got the idea while caring for his toddler daughter right after he had back surgery. He designed the product to support her safely and make it easy for him to lift her when she fell. "We sewed up a version. I didn't have to bend over [to walk with her]. She could walk around the house, and she was gaining self-confidence," he recalls. "When we were out and about, people would [ask], 'Where can I buy one of those?'"

He started the company in January 2005, but it wasn't until after the product hit the market that Zinger realized all the other needs the Walk-O-Long could meet. It can do everything from supporting a child learning to ride a bicycle to helping special-needs children walk and maneuver more easily to just keeping kids close by in crowded areas. Now this Orange, California, entrepreneur is focused on promoting his product to multiple markets-baby products, sporting goods, travel products, and special-needs and rehabilitation products retailers as well. Sold nationwide through specialty baby stores like Baby Outfitters and Bergstrom's Children's Store, Walk-O-Long projects sales to hit about $800,000 in 2006. Zinger has also marketed the product overseas in places such as Belgium, Germany, Holland and Taiwan.

Thinking global right away is a definite plus, say experts. "Getting the word out into the marketplace is much more important now than it was in the past," says Miller-Davidson. "Now it really is an instant global market because of the internet, TV and everything else--people can see a great new product instantly."

And in 2006 and beyond, "The delivery of a product is going to be even faster," notes Stone-Geier. Citing trends like the building of smart homes with gadgets embedded in everyday objects to make them easier and safer to use, she adds, "[Consumers] are looking for solutions to life rather than another 'thing' in life."

The final message for all you would-be inventors: It's definitely possible to launch your product into the eager hands of consumers. And with the proper research, partners, manufacturing, distribution and marketing, you can do it in short order. "If you have a great idea, go for it. When we say that, we don't mean next month or six months from now or next year," says Miller-Davidson. "That idea has come to you for a reason. But there's a good chance a lot of other people are having that same 'aha!' moment. So don't sit on it--move on it."

Make Yourself Known
The experts teach you the basics of promoting your new product.

If you have the coolest widget in town, you're going to want to shout it from the rooftops. According to experts, you should have a multipronged promotion strategy for your product launch. First, figure out what's unique about your product-how it differs from others in the marketplace. You might hold a focus group asking consumers to judge your product along with two or three others in the marketplace to get honest feedback, says inventing consultant Don Debelak.

Then, when you've determined your product's unique selling point, try to get testimonials and word-of-mouth buzz going, says Alyson Dutch, CEO of Brown & Dutch Public Relations, a Malibu, California, PR firm specializing in product launch publicity. "[Word-of-mouth] is the best marketing [your business] can receive."

Also focus on third-party endorsement--i.e., getting the press to cover your product. "You need to create credibility in a way that other people are talking about it, and repetition is important," says Dutch, who is also author of The PR Handbook for Entrepreneurs, due out this winter. By the fourth or fifth time consumers hear about your product, they'll have that trust, and that will drive them to buy a product.