From the July 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

Plenty of inventors start their companies without the experience or financial resources they need to market their products. That can make it hard to land major accounts. The best approach for many new inventors is to start selling their products locally, where hometown ties can be a big selling point, and then expand into national distribution.

That's how Dale Carsel and Bob Schneider did it. In 1995, the two partners got a job painting a large home in Beachwood, Ohio. When they discovered the owner planned to decorate much of the house with wallpaper, they suggested achieving the same effect with faux finishing, the art of painting with a sponge, rag or other applicator to make the painted space look as though it had been decorated in another medium. To handle the job, Carsel, 49, and Schneider, 47, made 6-by-6-inch pattern sponges that could finish a room at one-third the cost of wallpapering.

Charles Zuchowski, 49, a building contractor and the owner of the house, loved the look-and the tool. Together, the three considered marketing the sponges under the name SpongePrince. After getting rave reviews from a patent attorney and some local interior decorators, they formed Wall Concepts Plus Inc. Their first strategy? Focus on the local market.

Since then, they've introduced the SpongePrince nationwide, despite having no experience marketing a consumer product. Sales have also been exceptional, rising more than 300 percent yearly since the SpongePrince's introduction in 1996. This year, the partners expect to sell more than 1 million units at $19.99 apiece.

Getting Noticed

But growth came gradually. In the fall of 1996, Wall Concepts had applied for patents, finalized product design and arranged for production. The company was ready to go, but it didn't have a marketing plan. Carsel and Schneider started by going to stores where painters buy supplies-in particular, Sherwin Williams, which sells to both retailers and painting contractors. They got their product into eight Sherwin Williams stores, which landed the company its first big break.

"The buyer for Jo-Ann Etc. [the store chain affiliated with Jo-Ann Fabrics] just happened to be decorating her home during our sales test at a Sherwin Williams in March 1999," says Schneider. "She noticed how our inventory kept going down and decided to try our product in her stores." The test went well; today, the SpongePrince is in more than 60 Jo-Ann Etc. stores nationwide. The partners have also managed to sell to 22 Home Depots in Ohio.

With success at brick-and-mortar stores under their belts, Zuchowski decided to approach QVC. "[SpongePrince] was the type of item I thought would do great on TV," he says.

He was right. January 18, 2000, was the date of their first QVC airing, and the SpongePrince has run every six weeks since. According to Zuchowski, they sell $60,000 to $70,000 worth in every eight-minute spot.

In fact, the product sold so well that in August 2000, Q Direct, the QVC division that sells to retailers, signed an exclusive licensing and distribution agreement with Wall Concepts.

The Crown Jewel

With success on TV, Wall Concepts was growing. Still, its only national distribution came from Jo-Ann Etc. stores and QVC. In his search for more outlets, Zuchowski discovered that Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouses, a 660-store chain found mostly in the East and Midwest, carried a line of Valspar Corp. glazing paints, which are often used in faux finishing to achieve a translucent effect. Zuchowski believed the SpongePrince would be a perfect fit with the line.

Valspar agreed to test four of Wall Concepts' SpongePrince patterns in several stores. The company also agreed to provide in-store representation and training in the use of SpongePrince products. At press time, Valspar had already agreed to carry them in Lowe's stores nationwide.

CHAIN OF COMMAND
Two key early accounts for Wall Concepts Plus Inc. were Sherwin Williams and Home Depot stores in Ohio. In both cases, the company's founders used the same approach. First, they talked to managers of the local stores and solidified their support for Wall Concepts' SpongePrince. Then they asked those managers to set up meetings with the stores' district sales managers, who arranged for the SpongePrince to be sold on a test basis.
District managers are very important for inventors seeking large accounts. They have the authority to set up tests, approve limited purchases and, most important, be an advocate for your product with the companies' purchasing departments. Once a store manager tells you he or she likes your product, ask when the district manager is coming to the store. Have the manager set aside a few minutes for you during the visit, and you just might be able to line up your first customer.

Secrets of Success

What can you learn from Wall Concepts' story?

Start With What You Know. Carsel and Schneider were painters who bought most of their supplies from Sherwin Williams. When they and Zuchowski had their product ready, they went to those stores first. Later, they approached Ohio Home Depot stores, then finally QVC. It's smart to start with customers you know, then move outward as you gain experience.

Keep Up the Momentum. Momentum creates a sense of accomplishment and makes you look more appealing to potential customers. When you start small, you can do demonstrations and make frequent store visits. Inventors are frequently asked about their reorder rate (the percentage of buyers who buy the product more than once). You're unlikely to get reorders unless you make special efforts to help stores sell your product.

Keep Looking and Keep Trying. Zuchowski found a partner in Valspar Corp. just by visiting home improvement stores to see what was new. You can't afford to hope for orders from a few potential customers-you need to search out every possible sales outlet and keep asking those outlets for orders. "You can't expect anyone to give you an order on the first call," says Zuchowski. "You have to keep calling."

Be Open to Partnerships. "It's important to have someone check on your merchandise in every store," Schneider says. "Most inventors don't have the resources for that. They need partners to provide an effective retail interface at major stores." That's how Wall Concepts' partners Q Direct and Valspar Corp. helped make SpongePrince a national brand.

One Step at a Time

It's an age-old cliché that "every journey begins with a single step." Unfortunately, many inventors try to jump ahead to the end of the road, when they might be better off starting locally and building the momentum to sell to bigger retailers. Those initial sales might not make tons of money, but they'll fuel future success.

INVENTOR ASSISTANCE
If you have a great idea but don't know where to begin, try attending the meetings of your local inventor clubs. They often have workshops and guest speakers and can put you in contact with the people in your area who can help you succeed. Most also have members who can mentor you during the initial product development process. Find the club nearest you by going to the United Inventors' Association Web site or by calling (716) 359-9310. The association also has an inventor's resource guide available for $9.95.
Another excellent resource for both new and experienced inventors is Inventor's Digest magazine ($27 per year for six issues); subscribe at www.inventorsdigest.com or by calling (719) 479-2290.
Other Web sites to check out include:
One last resource: Small Business Development Centers, which are located throughout the country. Go to www.sba.gov/sbdc for a complete listing of centers.

Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant. Send him your invention questions at dondebelak@qwest.net.

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