From the August 1998 issue of Startups

Some markets are tough to break into. Large, powerful companies may dominate sales outlets, the markets may have entrenched distribution channels that resist new marketers, or broad product lines may be required that are beyond the reach of a new entrepreneur.

The greeting card market has all these characteristics. Hallmark Cards and American Greetings control most of the market. Both companies are firmly entrenched in a large number of retail locations, and card manufacturers produce a large number of cards for different occasions. Very few inventors and entrepreneurs can afford to produce and distribute the large amount of products required in such a market.

When faced with a tough market, you must try new sales tactics to get your products established. The newest sales channel today is the Internet, where hard-working entrepreneurs on a shoestring can beat the odds and successfully introduce their products.

Jeff DeLong, a 36-year-old entrepreneur from Klamath Falls, Oregon, got the idea for his C-ya greeting cards while watching "The Oprah Winfrey Show" five years ago. DeLong, who was going through a divorce, was seeking closure to his marriage and came up with the concept of greeting cards that help people break up or end a relationship. The cards feature nontraditional artwork and unsentimental wording, such as "Before I was alone. I was happier then" and "There can never be a new beginning without a final ending." All cards end with the large, bold final statement: "C-ya."

DeLong worked on his idea for three years before he hit on a winning formula: selling his cards on the Internet (http://www.c-ya.com ). Today he sells 2,000 to 3,000 cards per week to retailers that don't traditionally carry greeting cards, such as beauty supply shops, and via the Internet. DeLong attributes his success to six steps:

1. Read Internet newsletters. The Internet is an evolving environment. To keep abreast of new developments and stay current on the many new Web sites aimed at his target customers, DeLong reads dozens of free online newsletters. He suggests looking for newsletters that target Webmasters or discuss e-commerce or Web-site promotion. DeLong's favorite news- letter, at http://www.virtualpromote.com , gives advice and alerts readers to the many shady offers for Web business assistance prevalent on the Internet.

2. Be patient and work hard. DeLong's first two to three months on the Internet were a disaster. He thought people would just come to his site; he didn't realize he needed links with other sites to draw them in. (Links enable users to jump from one site to another.) After he realized he needed to do more to attract "hits," DeLong began spending 20 to 30 hours per week reading online newsletters, looking for other sites aimed at his target market and establishing links with other sites.

It took about six months to start getting his site mentioned in stories, chat rooms and newsletters with links to his site. After nine months of hard work, his hits were up to 100 per day. After less than two years, DeLong averages 2,300 hits per day.

DeLong spends 40 hours or more per week working on his site. Keeping the C-ya name coming up early in searches requires constantly updating his site and the numerous references on other sites. And because other sites come and go in a hurry, DeLong must keep adding new links. You can't just set up a Web site and expect to make money. Be prepared to put in at least four hours per day to keep the hits coming.

3. Find sites that target your audience.A key to C-ya's success is that DeLong has a clear target market--singles and divorced people--and that there are many sites aimed at his target customers. DeLong's best marketing tactic is to trade links with these sites. Links allow an Internet business to avoid paying for costly advertising that may or may not get results.

Finding enough sites aimed at your target market is the key to selling successfully on the Internet. Most businesses need 500 to 1,000 hits per day to succeed. You can't get that number unless there are: (1) a huge number of potential customers; (2) many sites targeted at that customer; and (3) target customers with a strong desire to search for information. Singles and divorced people meet all three criteria. They're often consumed with a struggle to end their relationships and move on, and they want as much information as they can find to help them.

4. Establish links to build traffic. Once DeLong found sites aimed at his target market, he had to contact the owners and establish links to his site. When doing this, be careful to only establish links with legitimate sites that provide a benefit to their visitors. Most sites want to know how many visitors per day your site gets before establishing a link. DeLong found the magic number for him was 100 hits per day. Once he hit that level, major sites were willing to link with him, which boosted his traffic tremendously.

When starting out, contact other new entrepreneurs to establish as many links as you can until you reach 100 hits per day. Once your site is established, make sure the links on your site don't become too cluttered. You may want to highlight links to bigger sites on a "Features" page and move links to smaller sites to an "Interesting Sites" page, as part of your site's reference section.

5. Give something away. DeLong has a few greeting cards on his site that people can download for free. Some 3,000 people each month take advantage of the offer. This doesn't cost DeLong anything, and it helps get the C-ya name out to his target market. It's also a huge traffic-builder at linked sites, where they mention that free cards are available.

6. Find a hosting provider focused on Internet businesses.Internet businesses need three important features from their hosting ISPs: (1) the ability to download at least 20GB to 25GB of data per month; (2) accurate tallies of the numbers of hits, visitors and link transfers; and (3) a very low percentage (less than 0.5 percent) of downtime during peak business hours. Most ISPs can't provide this level of service; check with your provider before starting. DeLong had to switch ISPs several times before finding one that worked for him.

An inventor who wants to sell a product on the Internet can succeed by learning what other successful entrepreneurs have done, developing a product that works well in this distribution channel, using low-cost marketing tactics and working hard for a year or two to get established. Often, people who don't succeed on the Internet are looking for a "get rich quick" scheme. Inventors can succeed if they view the Internet the way DeLong has--as a promising sales medium requiring a focused marketing strategy and hard work.


Don Debelak, author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, 800-225-5945), is a marketing consultant specializing in bringing new products to market.

Play It Safe

Question: I have an idea that will enhance a product currently on the market, and I want to license it or sell it to a manufacturer. However, I'm afraid some of the current marketers of the product will steal it from me without any compensation.

Answer: You can patent an enhancement to a product yourself and then sell or license it to a manufacturer. If the product currently on the market isn't patented, or if its patents is more than 17 years old, you can patent your product enhancement, provided the patent office considers your idea novel.

If your idea enhances patented products from several manufacturers, you can often patent your enhancement by listing the product in generic terms without many details. For example, if you had an improvement on filtering systems for coffee makers, many of which have patents, you would just refer to a nonspecific coffee maker in your patent.

You may have difficulty if there's only one patented product your enhancement will work on. The holder of the original product's patent usually has an easier time patenting a secondary feature than an inventor not related to the original patent holder.

To protect yourself, it's best to apply for a patent before approaching companies. If you can't afford a patent attorney, check out Inventors' Digest magazine (JMH Publishing Co. Inc., $22 for six issues per year, 800-838-8808). It features ads from a variety of sources of low-cost patent services.

Contact Source

C-ya Greeting Card Co., (800) 972-2420.