From the December 1998 issue of Startups

Throughout the past year, we've focused on a variety of tactics inventors can use to establish a foothold in the market. However, some of the inventors we've featured this year have done much better than that: They're on their way to growing substantial businesses. These inventors succeeded because they followed three key guidelines when introducing their products:

1. Keep your momentum strong.

2. Sell new products to a distribution channel familiar with your business.

3. Make sure your product has visual appeal.

This month, we're revisiting three successful inventors we've interviewed in the past to find out how they used these strategies to reach even greater sales.

More Momentum

Robert Black, inventor of Clean Shower, a shower-cleaning spray mist, was featured in February. Black invented Clean Shower in 1993, introduced it in 1995, and was pulling in more than $2 million per month at the beginning of this year. That was impressive enough, but Black, 49, didn't rest on his laurels. He kept his momentum strong, and now his business, Clean Shower LP, has projected sales of $84 million this year. Some of Black's accomplishments in 1998 include:

  • No. 1 in mass-merchandiser shower-cleaner sales for five consecutive four-week periods.
  • No. 1 in grocery store shower-cleaner sales. (Clean Shower had a market share of 17.5 percent in grocery stores in April, compared to 8.7 percent for its nearest rival.)
  • No. 1 in drugstore shower-cleaner sales, with its market share increasing from 16 percent in March to 31 percent in April.

Black, who started out in his garage, is now one of the most successful inventors of the past three years. Black's success came because he kept up steady promotions that made key buyers in distribution channels recognize Clean Shower as a winning product.

Black didn't have the money to compete with consumer giants like Procter & Gamble and Lever Brothers. To create steady momentum, he teamed up with Paul Porter, an entrepreneur with experience in financing. Together they raised enough money to build Clean Shower into a consumer product powerhouse.

Most inventors who enjoy initial sales success don't follow Black's example. Instead, after they sell several hundred thousand dollars' worth, they stop promoting their product and regroup. The reason? Inventors are starved for cash when sales begin to accelerate. All the money they earn is either used to buy more inventory, or remains in the form of accounts receivable. The only way for inventors to generate positive cash flow is to take on an investor. But most inventors hesitate when taking this step, as they don't want to give up control of their companies.

Unfortunately, stopping sales to regroup also halts market momentum, and often it's impossible to successfully re-launch your product into new distribution outlets once momentum has waned. If you aren't adding sales every month, buyers in the distribution channel won't see your product as a success. That limits your potential sales volume.

It's Who You Know

Devee Govrik, founder of DV International in St. Paul, Minnesota, and inventor of the Junk Drawer organizer, was featured in January. Govrik, 34, introduced her product in 1991 and successfully sold it to organizing stores; mass merchandisers such as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target; and smaller discount stores. It took Govrik several years to build volume through this distribution channel. When she wanted to introduce new products to expand her business, she created products that she could sell to the same distribution channel. A wise choice: Key buyers already knew Govrik and welcomed her new products.

In 1997, Govrik introduced the More Drawer organizer, which organizes pens, scissors, tape, paper clips and other workplace odds and ends. She sold it to Kmart, Wal-Mart and Target. She recently bought out the products from another inventor who had tried unsuccessfully to sell five different kitchen-organizing products--and expects that move to boost sales as well.

Govrik profited from a lesson all inventors need to learn: the importance of establishing a distribution channel when introducing a product. Don't invent products that require several different distribution channels; it takes at least a year or two of hard work to break into each new channel.

Govrik expects to double her sales to $3 million by the end of 1999, thanks to narrowing her efforts to the distribution channel already familiar with her business and her products.

He's Got The Look

Marc Hodosh, 26, founder of ChecMarc Inc. in Boston and inventor of the HOOSH, a large, multipurpose laundry bag carried like a backpack, was featured in April. Hodosh succeeded with his product because his design background helped him create an eye-catching package. He intuitively understood the important change in consumer thinking that has affected all product introductions during the past 10 years: The visual presentation and "eye appeal" of a product counts as much as, if not more than, its features.

Hodosh initially targeted college students and sold the HOOSH through college bookstores. When he wanted to branch out, Hodosh introduced a line of soft-sided coolers with a stylish design. That product's visual appeal worked so well for Hodosh that he recently sold the line to an individual investor at a substantial profit.

Even if you're lacking a design background, you can still give your finished product an edge by hiring an industrial or graphic designer for his or her creative expertise. Industrial designers specialize in designing the actual product; graphic designers typically work on print materials, such as packaging and advertising elements. You can locate both types of designers in the Yellow Pages.

Launching your new product is a huge undertaking, so once you've committed to the effort, don't just settle for modest success. Keep building on momentum in your current markets, and introduce new products to build a winning company. It worked for Black, Govrik and Hodosh; it can work for you, too.

Friends Or Foes?

Question: I don't have enough money to fund the initial work on my invention. The invention club I belong to suggested I approach friends, relatives and acquaintances for my initial funding. I tried that, but I couldn't get anyone to invest. What should I do next?

Answer: A common mistake inventors make when approaching relatives is to assume they'll invest simply because they're asked. You need to impress relatives with your idea, its potential and your businesslike approach. I'd recommend you prepare some documentation and resubmit your funding request. Follow these steps:

  • Have an art student or a graphic designer draw your idea. If possible, do an advertising layout incorporating the drawing.
  • Prepare marketing information about your product, including competing products, target customers, your competitive advantage, the projected retail price and market size.
  • List short-term goals for your project, such as making a prototype or finding a person in potential distribution channels who will help you.
  • List the actions you need to take to accomplish each goal.
  • Prepare a budget for each item.

You might also consider offering shares of stock in the company for 10 or 20 cents per share. A low stock price gives people hope the stock will increase in value.

Selling stock requires you to incorporate and will incur legal costs. To learn how to set up a corporation, visit your local Small Business Development Center (look in the phone book or call the SBA at 800-8-ASK-SBA for an SBDC near you.) If you can't afford to incorporate just yet, then promise your investors that when you do incorporate, you'll issue them shares equal to five times their investment.

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

Contact Sources

CheckMarc Inc., P.O. Box 574, Brookline, MA 02146, (617) 232-8489

Clean Shower LP, (904) 998-9888, http://www.cleanshower.com

DV International, (612) 228-7200