Launching a Product From Start to Finish

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."

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This article was originally published in the June 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Prepare for Takeoff.

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