From the September 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

Daniel Henry, 37, has what most would consider a perfect product: a kit that can fix damaged CDs in less than one minute. Wipe Out!, Henry's CD repair kit, costs $14.99 and works on 40 CDs, saving consumers anywhere from $12.95 for new music CDs to $100 for high-end computer programs. Since CDs are made from a plastic that's easily scratched, Wipe Out! seemed primed to take off in the market. But overnight success didn't develop when the product was introduced in 1996.

Henry's Esprit Development Corp., based in Long Beach, California, was finally able to push its sales over $400,000 in 1999. The turnaround: Henry lifted sales with a private-label agreement with Radio-Shack, as well as a presence in major retail outlets like Borders Books, Sam Goody and Tower Records. This year, the company is finally gaining the momentum Henry originally expected. What turned the company into a budding success? Raving testimonials in dozens of magazines declaring Wipe Out! as technology's latest miracle product.

The Struggle Towards Marketing His Invention

In 1989, Henry was riding in the car when one of his friend's CDs suddenly started skipping. The friend was about to toss the CD when Henry, then an optical shop employee, offered to fix it. Successfully polishing that scratched CD with optical gear, Henry came upon the idea for a quick and easy repair kit for CDs.

He spent the next several years developing an easy-to-use chemical formula and, after receiving his patent in 1997, Henry teamed up with four partners-James Black, Paul Dragos, Marc Guest and David Story-to introduce the product to the market.

But sales started with a big thud for two major reasons. The first: The public didn't know CDs were reparable. Unlike records, music isn't recorded on the surface of a CD; instead, the digital data is protected by a clear layer, the part of the CD that actually gets scratched. The laser that actually reads the digital data can't read through scratches. But if you remove the scratch, the CD is a good as new. Unfortunately for Henry, many believed, and still do, that they distort the digital data when they scratch a disc and simply throw it away. Consequently, retail stores didn't see a demand from consumers for CD repair products.

The second obstacle: There were already CD repair products on the market sold by companies that had full product lines, so it was easier for stores to buy from their current suppliers. Another problem with the competing products was that, according to Henry, "people who used them didn't get the results they wanted." People didn't believe Henry's product worked better so they didn't try it out.

Henry faced a difficult mission: to show his chemical kit was unique, when all the consumer saw was a bottle that looked the same as any other. And he had to show people just how well his product works without the benefit of a demonstration.

Pitching His Way to Success

Henry and his partners first overcame their tough breaks by securing the URL www.cdrepair.com. This site helped Henry pick up foreign distributors and generate direct orders from consumers searching the Web.

Then, in 1997, after the launching of the Web site, Henry and his team started sending samples out to various magazine editors and columnists asking them to try the product. The first key was finding the right people to approach. The partners picked up magazines related to either electronics or music and looked up the names of editors or columnists who regularly reviewed new products. (Other good sources for names of editors are reference books, such as Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media [GALE Group] or the Standard Periodical Directory [Oxbridge Communications], available at most libraries.) Then they called the appropriate contact to see whether they were interested in testing a sample.

At first, Henry found pitching to editors was as tough as selling to retailers. "No one wanted to be the first to write about the product," he says. But, after the first article about Wipe Out! was published, stories appeared in Smart Computing and PC World, as well as Yahoo! and The Dallas Morning News.

"The magazine testimonials meant everything to us," says Henry. "They told people our product actually worked and helped us convince retailers our product was actually better than what they were selling. It helped us get into the stores." Henry also used the testimonials as backup when his team exhibited at the 1998, 1999 and 2000 Consumer Electronic Shows.

These simple, low-cost approaches provided Henry with an invaluable solution to his obstacles. From the publicity, he received the essentials for an inventor's success: credibility and believability among users and retailers.

The Power of Testimonies

If your product isn't one that's likely to get endorsements from magazines, try getting testimonials directly from customers. Some companies give products to industry experts or university researchers free in return for reports or testimonials on the use of the product. Sporting goods companies often call attention to their products by giving them away to pro athletes in return for the free publicity.

The secret of using solid testimonials is to provide enough information to make the report meaningful to the customer. I once worked with a new product that increased the life of cutting tools. We started with customers' reports that tool life increased by 25 to 80 percent. But that information alone was too vague to impress our prospects. Prospects started paying attention when we started publicizing more details, including the type of material being machined, the speed of the product and the amount of material removed. Prospects suddenly had a reference point they could understand.

The same principle applies to consumer products. A claim that a food processor cuts cooking time by 20 percent isn't that meaningful. A mother of four reporting that the food processor cuts the time of chopping vegetables for beef stew by 70 percent is much more meaningful.


Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant and the author of Bringing Your Product to Market(John Wiley & Sons). Send him your invention questions at dondebelak@uswest.net.