From the November 2000 issue of Startups

One hot summer day in 1998, Stephanie Heroff of Minneapolis decided she just had to wear a top with spaghetti straps. Sounds simple enough-but, of course, there was that little problem that women everywhere can relate to: those pesky bra straps peeking out, and no decent alternative but the one-size-fits-all contraptions that come in cardboard boxes.

Determined to wear those spaghetti straps, Heroff decided to put her ingenuity to work and create a better solution. Her idea? Sew bra straps to the spaghetti straps so they couldn't separate, and then have small hooks in the top to hold a removable bra. Heroff was on to something: She had a tailor make about 30 prototypes for her friends to try, and they all raved, commenting on how someone at last understood the problems of summer clothes. "I started taking little surveys wherever I went, asking women if they ever wore tops with spaghetti straps," recalls Heroff, 30. "When the answer was no, the reason was always the same: Women didn't like their bra straps showing, and the shelf bra wasn't supportive enough."

Sound like the perfect product for a success story? Not quite. Heroff had some pretty significant problems from the get-go:

  • No one had ever made a product like Heroff's, and manufacturers weren't sure exactly how it could be done.
  • Stores would have to stock a selection of tops in different sizes and colors and a selection of bras. They weren't sure how to order her product.
  • Heroff quickly spent her funds creating prototypes, because she was producing them at retail. Plus, she ended up needing more than 50 additional prototypes before finishing the product's design.
  • Finally, while fashion designers were fully aware of the technical details of the clothing industry, Heroff was pretty much in the dark.

In a nutshell, Heroff's product had the potential of turning into a big sinkhole that would quickly drain every penny she had.

Finding The Right Prototype

The good news was, Heroff realized she needed help. So she started talking to apparel sales representatives, local clothing manufacturers and virtually anyone she could find who might be able to help. After dozens of inquiries, she was given the lead of a potential manufacturing partner, Private Label Industries of Los Angeles, which saw the potential of Heroff's concept.

The company agreed to produce prototypes and to help with finalizing the product's design in return for part ownership in the company and an agreement that it would manufacturer the product once it was ready for market. Heroff also had some brief discussions with the company about playing a bigger partnership role by picking up production costs until orders were paid for. "I decided not to ask the company to do more," she adds, "as I felt they had already done so much to help me."

But Heroff wasn't quite ready yet. It took a lot of work to make her product, and it was going to be downright expensive. Heroff expected her tops to retail for about $48 to $60 and her bras to sell for about $24-meaning she would need to sell to high-end women's apparel shops. Lacking the expertise to create the kind of designer look these shops were seeking, Heroff hooked up with designer Robin Monteith, who proved invaluable.

Manufacturing And Marketing

Heroff's next step was to decide how to pay for and sell her product. Her first shot at scoring funding was a bust-one investor wanted her to sell the product herself, but she didn't like the idea of being the company's lone salesperson. She then located an investor through networking contacts who felt she should sell through manufacturers' sales representatives. More comfortable with that idea, Heroff found her representatives by first determining what companies had somewhat competitive products and finding out on the Internet which stores sold their products. "I called the stores and asked if they could recommend any reps to sell my product," says Heroff. "The stores almost always gave me someone's name."

Heroff still had one more obstacle. She wanted to offer her tops in a variety of colors and fabrics, but she only had initial orders from 30 stores, and the fabric manufacturers had large minimum requirements for orders. Unwilling to commit to those big order quantities, Heroff went back to Private Label Industries (which, after all, did own a stake in her company) and asked the owner what to do. He suggested that Heroff go with "cutting to order," or keeping inventory to a minimum. The material cost more, but she didn't have to commit all her funds to inventory. It was fortunate that Heroff did order more material than she needed to handle reorders-because she started getting them within a month of her initial shipments.

The Challenges Of Inventing

Like most inventors, Heroff has had to handle plenty of day-to-day problems. "One of my biggest challenges is coordinating the production of the bra strap supplier, the bra manufacturer and Private Label Industries," she says. "Producing a quality product has also been a challenge. Workers had never made a product like mine before, and the manufacturer had to appoint a trainer to show each worker exactly how to make it."

Heroff started stocking retailers in July, and within 30 days, she had 30 retailers on board. She has an enthusiastic set of representatives selling her product, and she expects to have a very strong start in her first year. She's also considering licensing the product. But Heroff still remembers the hard times. "Every hour I spent on my new top was an hour I wasn't spending promoting my graphics arts business," says Heroff. "I couldn't help but wonder if I was making the right choice."

Heroff's success is the result of hard work, persistence and, most of all, recruiting the partners she needed to get the job done. The partners helped Heroff because they liked her, they liked her product, and they liked having a chance to cash in on a great idea. And it could happen for any inventor-help is there for the taking. Inventors often struggle because they try to do everything on their own. Remember: Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto.

Not A Chance

Stephanie Heroff's product is currently patent-pending. But she wasn't willing at first to spend the money on a patent, knowing that introducing a new product was a risky venture. Before she started spending too much money, Heroff wanted to get more market feedback. Her lawyer insisted she get a nondisclosure agreement, or Statement of Confidentiality and Non-Use, a document that says the person who sees the idea won't disclose or use any confidential information they receive from the inventor.

One step Heroff took to research her idea was to go to the Apparel Merchandise Mart in Minneapolis to seek feedback from manufacturers' representatives. Only one would sign the document. "[The others] were insulted or asked me to leave when I asked them to sign," she says.

Heroff ran into the same disdain when she talked to manufacturers and other industry people. She did get some people to sign, but most refused. This isn't unusual, primarily because these people rarely see something new. They worry what will happen if they sign a confidential statement and it turns out that the inventor's product is one that they have seen before or are even working on. Why should they take that chance on getting sued? Another reason industry folk balk at signing is that they feel the document is a sign that the inventor is paranoid and will be difficult to work with.

Be prepared for lots of rejections if you are going to ask people to sign a nondisclosure document before you show your idea. Unfortunately, your only alternatives are to either apply for a provisional or standard patent, or to take a chance on showing your idea without a signed nondisclosure agreement. Heroff took the safest course of action for an under-financed inventor by insisting on getting the nondisclosure agreement signed and accepting the potential for rejection.

Extra! Extra!

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Don Debelak (dondebelak@uswest.net) is a new-business marketing consultant who has been introducing new products for more than 20 years. He is the author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons).

Contact Source

Heroff Group LLC, (612) 623-4923, www.heroff.com.