From the September 1999 issue of Startups

Steve Niewulis played in the minor leagues for the New York Yankees before injuries to his rotator cuff cut short his career. Not wanting to give up baseball, Niewulis, 32, decided to combine his baseball talents with a clever idea and create a business that's since taken him to the big leagues.

When he had played in an independent league in Florida, Niewulis noticed he and the other players had trouble keeping their hands dry while batting. That problem inspired his big idea: He attached a sweat-busting rosin bag to a wristband so a player could use it to dry off the bat handle between pitches.

In less than two years, Niewulis's Fort Lauderdale, Florida, company, Tap It! Inc., has sold thousands of units of his product, the Just Tap It! wristband, which retails for $12.95 and is used by baseball players, basketball players, tennis players, golfers and even rock climbers. His secret to success? Find a small distribution network, one that lets small companies with just one product line succeed.


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).

Networks That Work

Just Tap It! wristbands work great, can be used by all types of athletes, and seem like the kind of product big retailers like SportMart, Sports Authority and Big 5 would want to carry. But as it turned out, none of the larger retailers were interested. That's because taking on a product from a one-line company involves a lot of paperwork and time. Instead, big retailers prefer to buy from companies with at least three to five items in the mix. Fortunately for Niewulis, alternative distribution channels are often more than happy to take on small companies with just a single product.

How'd he do it? First, Niewulis concentrated on selling his product through a catalog called Baseball Express, which targets high school, college and minor league teams. He also started attending trade shows for high school coaches and looking for a distribution network that would sell the Just Tap It! wristband to tennis clubs. When he attended the U.S. Tennis Association's Show in Cancun, Mexico, he hoped to hit it off with a distributor similar to Baseball Express.

Success By Association

Because so few of these alternative distribution networks are well-documented, one of the best ways to find out about them is by talking to people in the industry. Another good source for information is a state association, such as the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association or the Minnesota Retail Hardware Association. Association members not only are actively involved in the market, but also typically attend association meetings (where you can mingle with them).

Another advantage of association meetings: They give you the opportunity to set up a booth and demonstrate your product. Niewulis put together a booth for several baseball coach association meetings, and that's how he initially met Baseball Express. You can usually show your product at such local meetings for $200 to $500, and sometimes even less.

To find the names of associations in your state, check out Gale's Source of Associations (Gale Research Publishers), available at most larger libraries.

Peer Power

There are thousands of entrepreneurs out there, and they've made thousands of mistakes. So there's no reason for you to go out and repeat their errors. Try to prevent that by talking to as many entrepreneurs in your market as you possibly can. Don't know where to find them? You can meet dozens of contacts at industry trade shows and get insider information, such as how to solve your distribution problems.

A regional trade show offers a great way to meet contacts. These shows are busy, cost less than national shows to attend, and are usually jam-packed with small manufacturers who started out with one line just like you.

Several helpful trade show directories can be found at most libraries. If it's too late for you to attend this year's show, contact the show's promoters (their names are listed in the directory), tell them you're interested in attending next year's show, and ask for copies of the last few years' directories. These should include floor plans and show the location and size of each vendor's booth. Look for the companies that had small booths (measuring no more than 10 feet by 20 feet), since small businesses--the kind you want to talk to--typically rent those spaces. Contact information for each company will be listed in the program, and you can get a lot of feedback by calling and asking to talk to the marketing manager (who is usually the owner).

Credibility Counts

Before Niewulis attended trade shows and started talking to other marketers, he took steps to ensure others would take him--and his business--seriously. Being a former minor league player gave him some credibility, but he was able to build on that by getting orders for the Just Tap It! wristband from three South Florida high schools, in addition to setting up an agreement with a manufacturer in China.

Unfortunately, hundreds of inventors hit the market and tell people all about the products they want to introduce--but never actually do. So remember: People in your industry have dealt with plenty of flaky inventors in the past, and they'll be skeptical about your idea until you establish credibility. That's best achieved by professionally manufacturing your product and then selling at least a small number of them.

Starting Point

The allure of selling to big retailers can't be underestimated. But unless you've got a lot of new-product experience, it's risky. Large retailers require you to set up a manufacturing facility, produce huge amounts of product and have substantial working capital. If you fail to meet their demands even once, you're out of the picture forever.

Even if it's possible to get your product in big retail stores, you're still better off starting small and learning the ropes in a low-risk environment. That way, you'll resolve the inevitable problems early on, without the risk of losing a major customer. Once you've successfully entered a small market, you'll be prepared to switch gears and focus on bigger and more profitable horizons.

Let's Hear Some Chatter

Steve Niewulis loves to talk sports--and for him, talking's paid off big. After some initial success selling his athletic product to several high schools in Florida, he started attending high school coach trade shows. There, Niewulis employed the single most effective new-product marketing tactic an inventor can use: He asked industry experts for advice on how to sell his product. The entrepreneurs he met gave him tips on which catalogs to approach, shows to attend, and how to contact college and professional baseball coaches.

"Talking to other people at the shows was the single most important thing I did to introduce my product," Niewulis says. "I was willing to talk to anyone who would talk to me." So don't be afraid to tell other entrepreneurs you're new to the game. (Believe me, they can tell anyway.) Just ask for advice, and you'll get it.

Team Player

Consumers interested in buying Steve Niewulis's athletic product frequently contact him directly. But instead of selling the product himself, he steers them toward his distributors. That's because he knows the key to long-term success is in a distribution network that exposes his product to lots of potential buyers.

You'll lose accounts if you don't establish a working partnership with the vital companies in your distribution network. Niewulis helped Baseball Express sell more products--and that will pay off if he ever needs the catalog to cut him some slack.

Score Big

Steve Niewulis needed $50,000 to launch his athletic product. Typically, start-up capital comes from savings, family, friends or credit cards. Another resource that helps entrepreneurs raise money is American Venture magazine (503-221-9981, http://www.avce.com), which lets you submit ideas for investors to review (either in print or on the Web site). American Venture also features ads from companies that can help you raise money in a variety of ways. Cost for a one-year subscription (six issues): $10.95.

Contact Source

Tap It! Inc., (888) TAP-IT-98, http://www.tapit.com