Nathaniel Weiss' $5 million company, G-vox Interactive Music, has 50 employees and is doubling in size every year. Weiss, 32, started out in 1993 with his first invention: G-vox, a hardware/software package that automatically transcribes notes played on a guitar into sheet music. Guitarists love the G-vox because they don't have to stop and write down the notes they're playing. The product's uniqueness enabled Weiss to launch a publicity campaign in major guitar magazines and sell the G-vox in small guitar stores and through direct mail.
Today, Weiss has expanded his line to include a wide variety of music software and guitar products, and has also teamed up with major corporations such as McGraw Hill to sell a host of school-related products that work with other instruments. G-vox's products not only show students the notes they're playing, but also play the sounds of other instruments so students can experience playing in an ensemble and allow teachers to transcribe their own compositions for students to play.
How did Weiss transform his small initial success into a major company? In my more than 20 years of experience launching new products, I'd estimate only 10 to 15 percent of inventors successfully make this transition. Weiss did it by following three vital steps: He asked for help from knowledgeable people; he created a big bang in the market; and he brought in industry-connected management to grow the company after its initial success.
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).
From the beginning of his business, Weiss has gotten help from all kinds of advisors--his patent attorney, family friends with business experience, even former MTV president David Horowitz. "[Advisors] have been key to the development of G-vox as a corporation," Weiss says.
I've found that young inventors like Weiss often achieve greater success than their older counterparts. Part of the reason is that young inventors typically have more energy, but another reason is they're much more receptive to advice. They know they don't know everything, and they're anxious to learn from people with experience.
Many inventors make the mistake of thinking they know how to sell and market new products. Advertising, packaging and pricing are all issues we're exposed to as consumers, so we think we know how they work. But a great deal of marketing activity is hidden.
Signing up distributors, retail channel markups, product positioning and focusing on target customers are the elements of marketing that make or break a product. They're also the elements most people never experience as consumers and therefore know little or nothing about. Without experienced advisors on your side, you're likely to make many costly mistakes in these "unseen" aspects of marketing.
Out Of The Vox
New products build "buzz" in their markets only when their marketing strategy builds momentum. In other words, you need to create a big bang in the market. The Palm Pilot created a big bang by putting the power of a computer in a handheld device. Apple's iMac computer created a big bang by putting the CPU in the monitor and wrapping it all in a wild, Popsicle-colored package.
Weiss created a big bang by signing an agreement with leading guitar manufacturer Fender. First, Fender agreed to offer the guitar pickup, which sends the signal to the belt pack, as an option on its guitars; second, Fender agreed to distribute the software, belt pack and auxiliary hardware to major guitar stores. This agreement gave G-vox credibility in the market, created tremendous publicity and generated the momentum Weiss needed.
The deal didn't come easily, though. "I kept pestering Fender for a long time," recalls Weiss. "I even had to threaten to go their competitors." After meeting with initial resistance from a potential major partner, many inventors give up and resort to trying to sell their products themselves. It's OK to keep on with your own sales efforts, but don't give up on signing a deal that will create that big bang in the market. That's the only way most inventors have a shot at building a substantial company.
Playing For Keeps
In 1995, Weiss had his deal with Fender, and the G-vox system was sold in thousands of music stores across the country. Weiss had created solid, but not spectacular, success. To jump-start his company's next growth phase, Weiss brought in a sales and marketing executive with extensive industry experience and hired a skilled vice president of product development. The marketing exec helped get the G-vox into new stores and markets; the product development exec helped the company expand its product line and enter the school market.
"The growth of my company is the result of relying on others," says Weiss. Lots of inventors have trouble following Weiss' lead in bringing on experienced employees. Often, you feel loyalty to the employees and advisors who helped you start your company. Unfortunately, this approach can limit your company's growth if these people lack the experience and contacts to take you to the next level. To grow your business to its fullest potential, you have to be willing to bring in experienced people who have the network of contacts needed to move your product into new sales channels--even if it temporarily hurts the morale of your employees.
"Launching the first invention is the most difficult," says Weiss. But while that first invention may succeed solely due to your individual efforts, taking your business to the next level requires giving up some control and tapping into the knowledge of people with more industry experience. Follow Weiss' lead, and you just might find a hit on your hands. Try to handle it all yourself, and you'll more likely end up singing the blues.
Face The Music
Bootstrapping--defined by Webster as "to cause to succeed without the help of others"--used to be a common tactic for start-ups. By reinvesting their profits into the company until it succeeded, entrepreneurs could avoid borrowing money. But inventor Nathaniel Weiss didn't bootstrap, and you probably won't, either. The market changes below have made bootstrapping difficult, if not impossible--and made the role of advisors and other "helpers" more crucial than ever.
- New products are introduced every year. The market is so crowded, products need to generate significant momentum to get noticed.
- Product life cycles are getting shorter, so you need to get your product out in a hurry, which requires a great investment.
- More complex product designs (compare a toaster oven to a bread-making machine) require bigger tooling investments than ever before.
- Smaller stores are giving way to "category killer" superstores, which are less receptive to small, one-line manufacturers.
- Selling to bigger retailers requires larger inventories and more operating capital--two factors that force most companies either to borrow money or find investors.
Don't Tune Out
"One piece of advice I'd give every inventor is: follow through, follow through, follow through," says inventor Nathaniel Weiss. New inventors often have dozens of opportunities to sell their products; most inventors come up with new marketing ideas every week. The danger, though, in having so many ideas is that many never follow one idea all the way through to its completion. As a result, most of an inventor's time is wasted working on new ideas that never lead to real sales.
Weiss urges inventors to pick one approach and follow through until you know it will--or won't--work. What counts isn't how many ways you could sell your product, but how many ways you are selling you product. "Sales are everything," says Weiss. So follow his lead and concentrate on the most promising sales opportunity facing you right now. You can worry about other market possibilities later.
G-vox Interactive Music, (215)922-0880, www.gvox.com