From the December 2000 issue of Startups

Kevin Ridolfi figured he had a million-dollar idea: a product called the T Mate that would help new and high-handicap golfers with their errant golf shots. Unfortunately, success didn't come quite as easily as he had hoped. What Ridolfi learned during Plan A-selling the idea himself-was a lesson that speaks to all inventors, high handicap or not: "No one will hear about a great idea if isn't marketed with the right promotion," cautions the 29-year-old Centereach, New York, resident.

Still, the slow start didn't faze Ridolfi, who quickly moved on to Plan B: licensing his product to another marketer of golf products. Well, Ridolfi isn't counting his money just yet, but he still believes in his idea, and he's prepared to move on to Plan C-distributing the product through instructional activities for young golfers-if his current licensing agreement doesn't work out. In a nutshell, he's not stuck on just one option for his product. And that could be the key to getting it on the shelves.

The Initial Stages of Development

One reason Ridolfi decided to move ahead with the T Mate was the minimal cost involved: He was able to make the prototypes and do the packaging himself. His first models, for instance, were simply tongue depressors. And it was easy to test the product: He had several friends try out his model-as well as his fiancée, who had never played golf and yet was able to crack some big drives down the fairway.

Convinced the product would succeed, Ridolfi decided a patent was in order before he could sell the product. He sought the help of a patent agent (vs. a higher-cost patent attorney). Including the time for the patent search, it was a year before Ridolfi's patent application was accepted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. That acceptance was what he needed to declare his product patent-pending and begin sales.

That year wasn't wasted: Ridolfi spent the time looking for products that he could use as a model for packaging and pricing his product. Using a device called Skycopter (a plastic X-shaped tool used in convenience stores), he put together a model, took it in to a local Golf USA store and piqued the interest of the manager, who told Ridolfi to come back when the product was ready. From there, he experimented with the best way to gain attention for his product.

Plan A: Selling on His Own

Once Ridolfi had patent-pending status for his product and he was ready to sell, he placed a display in the Golf USA store. He also got four or five other stores on Long Island to carry his product. "When I could, I'd go out and visit the stores and see how the product was doing," he says. The product was selling, but not as fast as he'd hoped. "I was doing everything myself and holding a full-time job; I didn't have time to get the product off the ground."

Plan B: Licensing

Ridolfi's initial efforts gathered him local publicity, and he was contacted by Vista Pro Inc., the manufacturer of Shaggy Jr., a golf ball dispenser. Vista Pro proposed selling the two products together for $29.95 in a major direct-response TV campaign in the New York area, so Ridolfi signed an exclusive licensing agreement with the company, and the TV campaign launched in December 1999 for the holiday season. The ads ran on stations throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Sales came in from the ads but not enough to generate enough revenue for either Vista Pro or Ridolfi. Vista Pro started putting together a distribution program in early 2000 to get the products in stores, but it's still too early to determine exactly how successful that program will be.

Small Stuff

Most inventors look to large companies to license their products. But, in fact, large companies rarely license new products. You are much more likely to get a license from a small to midsized company that is trying to build a product line. Watch for other small companies in stores, in trade magazines and at trade shows; you probably won't find them in big directories like the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers. You might also want to consider offering small marketers a private-label agreement, where you supply the product to the marketer to be sold under its name. This kind of agreement requires much less investment for the selling party than a license, and it also allows the inventor to maintain more control over the product.

Plan C: New Golfers

Ridolfi is still hopeful that Vista Pro will work out. He has now realized that his customers are new golfers, who are not likely to visit the big golf stores because they cater to better golfers. If necessary, Ridolfi will tap into the market for new golfers, which includes golf schools at local golf courses, golf leagues for junior golfers and lessons at driving ranges. Ridolfi isn't sure how he will put plan three into action yet, but he sure isn't ready to give up. He has a piece of advice for inventors: "If you think an idea is going to make you rich quick, you can forget about it."

While it's difficult to know Ridolfi's eventual fate, virtually every inventor goes through the same ups and downs that Ridolfi has experienced. Recently, I talked to a local inventors' club with the aim of offering insight into why inventors succeed. I highlighted many of the successful inventors I've talked to over the years, and the two common elements in all the success stories were bulldog determination and an unwillingness to accept defeat. If your first efforts don't succeed, just open the next door-it might be the door to your success. What's important is to follow Ridolfi's example: Learn from each experience, and keep on trying until you find the winning combination for taking your product to market.

Be a Pro

Kevin Ridolfi held down his patent expenses by using a patent agent, but that still cost $3,500, and he will have another bill once the patent is issued. If you want a patent but don't have tons of money, you might want to consider PatentPro software from Kernel Creations. PatentPro asks you questions about your idea and then converts that information into a finished patent. At $329, the software is not cheap, and you'll still need to send about $1,000 to the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), but the result is still a whole lot cheaper than using a patent agent or attorney.

PatentPro, compatible with Windows 95/98/00, includes forms, checklists and the full text of the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure from the PTO. Go to www.4patpro.com or call (888) 472-8776 for more information.


Don Debelak 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).