From the January 1999 issue of Startups

Like most of us, Jorge Lahens has had several ideas for new products--but, he admits, "I never really did anything with them." Until he hit 30, that is. Tired of spending all his time working for someone else, the electrical engineer decided it was finally time to make a move. So when his brother came up with an idea for a pleasant-smelling tab to attach to pet collars, Lahens jumped on the idea.

From personal experience, the Union City, New Jersey, man had learned that having a "million-dollar idea" is only the first step in getting a product to market. As a new-product marketer myself, I've found that 10 percent of the work involved in developing a successful invention is coming up with a new idea; 40 percent is executing the idea so it will sell; and 50 percent is marketing the product. Lahens' efforts to "get the product right" demonstrate the hard work necessary to create a marketable product.

For Lahens, the process began when he made a simple prototype by soaking a piece of foam rubber in fragrance. This didn't work, however, because the foam rubber released the fragrance too quickly. Since Lahens had seen products made from scented plastics, he called various manufacturers of plastic products he had found in the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers (available in most public libraries or on the Internet at http://www.thomasregister.com). He then visited the companies to see if they could turn his idea into a finished product.

Visiting manufacturers is crucial to any inventor's success. "When I met them, people made suggestions to improve or simplify the product, or pointed out potential problems for free--even people who had sounded rushed or angry on the phone," Lahens says.

You might think everything you need to know is on the Internet . . . but talking to potential vendors or suppliers face-to-face gives you tips you can't get any other way. People with 10, 20 or 30 years of experience have faced many problems and know solutions that aren't obvious to beginners. These experts won't necessarily rack their brains for ideas to help you over the phone, but as Lahens found out, they probably will in person.

From his initial phone calls, Lahens learned that to make his product, he needed a special type of plastic bead that holds aromas--but the manufacturers he visited weren't sure where to get it. They suggested he track down companies that make aroma-release products and find out who their suppliers are.

Lahens went back to the Thomas Register and found a marketer of fragrant plastic cards. That company directed him to a injection molder who manufactured the cards, which led in turn to a manufacturer who showed Lahens how to mix plastic and fragrance so aromas are slowly released.

By now, Lahens knew quite a bit about manufacturing the product and was ready to make and test prototypes. Yes, you read that last part correctly: Lahens' first steps were simply to understand the manufacturing process and determine how his model should be made. Most inventors never get their product right because they're in such a big rush to get it to market. But if you take the time to learn everything you can about the process, you won't end up with a poor-performing prototype. Better yet, follow Lahens' lead and you may be able to make your prototype for next to nothing.

Lahens knew if he could make a low-cost mold, he'd be able to make his own prototypes. Thanks to Inventor's Digest magazine, he located Jack Lander, who publishes a series of booklets about prototypes and manufacturing.

To make a low-cost mold, Lahens learned, you start with a piece of wood or plastic in the same shape as the finished product. To make that initial piece, Lahens took a piece of plastic to an engraver. For just $100, the engraver machined a piece of plastic the exact size of the final product.

To make his mold, Lahens simply had to form polyurethane compound around the plastic. Once the compound cured, he cut the molding compound in half, removed the piece of plastic and voila!--he had a prototype mold. He could then make his own prototypes, to be used to test material hardness, colors and aromas. Lahens could never have tested so many variations so inexpensively if he hadn't made the prototypes himself.

Lahens' market research determined his final product: a soft plastic tab available in four variations--pink for baby powder scent, yellow for vanilla, blue for coconut and green for herbal. The product comes in two sizes: one for medium-sized to large pets, and the other for smaller pets. Lahens had compiled research from both his target market (women pet owners, who loved the product) and his distribution channel (several manufacturers' sales representatives who already wanted to carry the product). Armed with all the facts about making his product, Lahens settled on a low-cost manufacturer in Canada.

Lahens didn't spend much of his own money on research. But he did spend a great deal of time learning all he could about manufacturing a product, producing prototypes and researching target customers. That kind of homework puts the odds in your favor.

The biggest lesson Lahens' research taught him? Attitude is everything. "I used to get very excited and anxious when I set up a visit with a manufacturer. Then, when nothing positive was on the horizon, I would feel down," recalls Lahens. "These mood swings interfered with my ability to do my job. I've learned to stay away from either of these extremes, maintaining a more balanced level. It's helped me tremendously."

All new products have ups and downs. Don't let that distract you from plugging away to get your product ready to launch. The moral to Lahens' story? You win by taking the time to do things right. You lose by taking shortcuts in a mad rush to market.


Don Debelak (dondebelak@uswest.net) is a new-business marketing consultant who has introduced new products for more than 20 years. He is the author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, 800-225-5945).

Go Clubbing

Inventors' clubs, located nationwide, often have members who know how to make prototypes, write press releases, find manufacturers and get patents. Clubs are listed in The Inventor's Resource Guide, available for $9.95 from the United Inventor's Association, P.O. Box 23447, Rochester, NY 14692, (716) 359-9310.

Super Models

When Lahens needed prototype assistance, he turned to an "inventor friendly" prototype engineer, Jack Lander. Lander sells an array of books on making prototypes and manufacturing products, and also owns a prototype-making service you can use (though he encourages working on your own prototype yourself). For a copy of Lander's Catalog for Inventors, write to him at The Inventor's Bookstore, 37 Seneca Rd., Danbury, CT 06811-4422 or call (800) 214-2833.

Read This

Magazines to help in your quest:

  • Inventor's Digest (bi-monthly; $22/year) is full of ads from companies catering to inventors. Contact Inventor's Digest, 310 Franklin St., #24, Boston, MA 02110, (800) 838-8808.
  • Job Shop Technology (quarterly; $20/year), a magazine for inventors and companies seeking to outsource production, is an excellent source of manufacturers who work on a contract basis. It also features ads from companies that do virtual prototyping, as well as helpful articles on manufacturing and design techniques. Contact Job Shop Technology, 16 Waterbury Rd., Prospect, CT 06712, (203) 758-4474.

In The Beginning

The first laptop computer was Radio Shack's TRS-80 model 100, introduced back in 1983, before the age of the personal computer.

The TRS-80 looked like an oversized calculator with a keyboard. It had up to 32KB of RAM, a 40-character, 8-line liquid crystal display, and a built-in modem. None other than Bill Gates wrote the software code for the TRS-80; it was the last software he wrote himself.

The TRS-80 is still used by newspaper reporters, who find it an easy way to write stories on the road and send them back over phone lines to their papers, as the TRS-80 doesn't require an Internet connection.

Contact Source

Jorge Lahens, (201) 974-9391, fax: (201) 974-9392