Gary Kellmann, 29, got the entrepreneurial urge while in college, where he sold T-shirts, key chains and tomahawks fans could wave when the university team, the Indians, played. Those ventures paid off, but Kellmann wanted to put his creativity to use inventing and selling his own products. After a disappointing first invention--a radio-controlled alarm clock that cost him "tons of money"--the St. Charles, Missouri, inventor finally found success when he focused on just two markets: hair-care and body-wear products.
Kellmann came up with his second invention in 1994 while trying to help his girlfriend organize her barrettes, hair clips and assorted accessories. Just out of college at the time, Kellmann was broke, so for her birthday, he built an organizer for her hair accessories instead of buying one. The product had a big loop with an easy-open latch to hold big items; a smaller loop, also with a latch, hung inside the big loop and held smaller hair accessories. Kellmann's girlfriend loved the product, and so did everyone else who saw it.
One thing Kellmann says he learned from his first invention: "You're not going to make money if you expect someone else to do all the work," he says. "You've got to put in time and effort if you expect to succeed." So he volunteered at a local Small Business Development Center where he could network with people who knew a lot about product development. From that experience, Kellmann learned not only how to run a small business, but also the importance of understanding your target market and industry.
He started to read trade magazines and attend trade shows, and found a marketing company to sell his product. Using his credit card, he had 20,000 units of the product, dubbed the Hair Holder Holder, manufactured in China. He and the marketer were able to place the product in Claire's Boutiques, a national chain of fashion accessory stores that target teens. But the product flopped--and that was when Kellmann learned what it really means to know your market.
"I started hanging around retail stores and watching the customers," he explains. He soon learned teenagers didn't care about organizing their hair accessories, but their moms did. The product sold well when placed in large discount drugstores, where mothers could see it and buy it for their daughters.
Realizing he didn't have the financial backing to effectively manufacture and sell his idea, Kellmann decided he needed a partner. He took to the aisles of his targeted drug and discount stores to find out what companies were selling to this market. Armed with this information, in 1996, Kellmann's company, Beyond Mars, signed a partnership agreement with Fit-All Sportswear in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina. He gets a 7 percent royalty in return for handling design and manufacturing, while Fit-All handles distribution, marketing and financing. Besides drugstores, the Hair Holder Holder is now sold in a variety of other discount stores.
Kellmann's success might mark the end of most inventors' stories. But he went one step further--a step that has paid off even more. Kellmann stayed involved in the market, attending trade shows, talking to people in the industry and visiting stores. About a year ago, he noticed a new fashion category emerging: hair accessories for girls 6 to 13 years old. Catalogs and chain stores targeting this market started to succeed.
After discovering the preteen girl market was exploding, Kellmann went back to the drawing board to come up with even more product concepts. His first product was a hair stick--a product that looks like a piece of candy and holds hair up in a French bun or a twist. Kellmann contacted L&N Sales & Marketing, the Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania, company that sells the Scünci hair scrunchie. Not only did Kellmann sell the hair stick to L&N, but he also sold them two other products that will hit the market in June.
Besides his preteen products, he's also working on licensing a new jaw clip for teens' and women's hair, body wear (jewelry for different body parts) for teens, and soap-filled dinosaurs for small children. "My goal is to come up with one new product a month and license five new products every year," Kellman says.
Despite his early success, Kellmann wasn't able to quit his full-time job until two years ago, when he turned 27. "[Now] I'm doing exactly what I've always wanted to do," says the inventor, who considers this his breakout year where he no longer has to worry about income.
Want to be in the same situation? Says Kellman: "Learn your industry, know the key people and watch for changing trends. Timing is key, but you also need dedication, discipline and desire." The most important lesson Kellmann learned is that when you follow industry trends closely, you don't need to be a creative genius. The new products the market is looking for will be fairly obvious. Your only job is to finalize the idea and deliver the product for the right price.
Don Debelak (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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).