Forty-one-year-old Brad Young of Boulder, Colorado, is a diehard outdoor enthusiast who counts snowboarding, downhill skiing and telemark skiing on Colorado's biggest mountains as his hobbies. In 1990, he came up with the idea of putting earphones in a headband to allow skiers, bikers and other athletes to listen to their portable cassette players while pursuing their favorite activities. But he didn't do anything with the idea until 1996. "I just couldn't believe that no one had come up with the idea before," Young says. Waiting year after year for the product that never came, Young finally launched Outdoor Dynamics Inc. (dba HeadBANdZ).
Young and his company president, Russ Landau, 28, have struggled for the past three years to build their company and their efforts have been rewarded with sales doubling every year. They expect to sell 15,000 units this year. Not financially successful yet, they now have a large order pending with a major apparel manufacturer; have signed a lucrative deal with Walking Co., a chain of 80 stores selling products for mallwalkers; and have landed a regional distributor whose salespeople help get HeadBANdZ into ski shops in the mountain states.
Though Young's invention appeals to his target audience--outdoor sports enthusiasts--it doesn't particularly appeal to ski shops or other retailers. Why? Retailers worry first about their major sales items--skis, ski boots and ski jackets. An accessory like Young's HeadBANdZ sells at a fraction of the cost of these major items, and retailers don't see HeadBANdZ as a big money-making opportunity.
So how do you find those brave souls who will buy first? You could try following Young's route, which, though fairly traditional, provided the exposure he needed to get his product on the shelf:
1. Attend industry trade shows. Inventors need buyers with two characteristics: They must be willing to take a chance, and they must really like the inventor's products. Trade shows are the perfect places to find these types of people. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of buyers will walk by a booth every day. Those who are interested in a product will stop and talk, initiating the contact inventors need to make their sales pitch.
The cost of attending a trade show is its major drawback. Inventors often spend $4,000 to $20,000 on a trade show, including space rental, the booth itself, travel and shipping costs. Still, I've found trade shows are usually the most cost-effective way for an inventor to reach a large number of buyers.
Young got his product into the Snowsports Industry of America Show and the Outdoor Retailer Show. Through these shows, he landed deals with Walking Co., Herrington Catalog and Early Winters.
2. Arrange for your products to be given away at community events. Young took his product to ski and snowboard expos, "demo days" run by ski resorts, and ran in cross-country events, hoping to get his product used as a giveaway. At a ski event in Keystone Mountain, Colorado, his tactic worked. "There was a lull in the action, so I went over to the announcer and asked if he wanted prizes to give away. Of course, he said yes," says Young. "I suggested he tie in the HeadBANdZ with the music coming out over the PA system. He called people up to the stand, and the first one to name the artist performing the song won a HeadBANdZ. The announcer explained the product and said its name more than 50 times in a half-hour period."
That's the type of great exposure that builds demand for a product. As Young says, "It's easy to sell to a store after people have been requesting your product."
3. Pound the pavement. Young also called on shops, catalogs and other retailers. He found two catalog retailers willing to give his product a chance: Herrington, which handles a large number of sporting goods products, and Early Winters, a supplier of outdoor clothing.
Some stores, swayed by the inventor's enthusiasm, purchased the product. Young's average account was $200 to $500--not exactly the fast-track to becoming a million-dollar success. But presence in stores is essential because it attracts distributors, who buy in quantity. Young's new distributor, Mountain States Specialties, has nine salespeople calling on ski shops, advertising specialty businesses and markets Young hadn't even considered. Without proving his product would sell first, however, Young would have had a tough time lining up a quality distributor. By the time he signed with Mountain States Specialties, Young was already in about 50 stores and catalogs.