Molded in Your Image
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While inventors would be happy if they could secure orders with just a rough drawing, they soon discover angel and institutional investors, potential licensors, distributors, retailers and manufacturers would like to see a "looks like, works like" prototype before they consider investing time or money in an idea. That's bad news, because those prototypes are a big expense for inventors, requiring that they shell out anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000 to get one made. Fortunately, you may be able to get your prototypes made for a lot less money using the help that's available in your own hometown.
Joe Robertson, of Fremont, California, was tired of cleaning his swimming pool filter. "My filter, which was a 12-inch circular tube about 3 feet long, had to have each pleat washed with a hose from two directions," says Robertson, 43. "It took me about a half-hour each time to clean it."
Then one day in 1996, Robertson was rinsing a paint roller with a hose when he noticed how quickly the roller was cleaned when the water pressure made the hose spin. "It just hit me that I could clean the [pool] filter in the same way," he says. "All I needed was to rig up a turning spindle to hold the filter in place while it was spun by the water pressure."
Robertson made a prototype that locked the filter onto a thin handle. "It worked like a charm," he says. "I could clean my filter in five minutes." But he knew the prototype was crude and would never go anywhere.
Robertson decided to offer Dave Dudley, a mechanical engineer he knew in the area, a partnership in his product in return for help developing it. Dudley agreed, and Robertson had the help he needed.
The Rough Prototype
Dudley, 52, immediately pinpointed potential problems with the initial prototype and came up with ideas to remedy the glitches. He then made a rough drawing and used equipment he had in his garage to machine rough parts out of plastic. Robertson and Dudley used that prototype to test their concept before they began making "looks like, works like" parts.
By the end of 1996, the partners were comfortable with the design and ready to make a better prototype to show to local stores. If the response was positive, Robertson and Dudley would then do a small production run. Dudley thought machining the parts would be inefficient for a small production run, so the partners sought a way to make an inexpensive temporary mold.
Unsure of exactly how to do it, Robertson and Dudley attended a meeting of a local inventors' club to see whether anyone there could suggest a low-cost solution to their production problem. There they met Ben Ridge, a silicone-mold-making expert. "Silicone molding is a simple technique [that's been] used by model-makers for years," Ridge explains. "It can be easily done at home and doesn't require any special equipment or furnaces." Ridge offered to help them make a temporary mold that could be used for a small run on an injection-molding machine.
Ridge was able to create the temporary mold in his shop, providing Robertson and Dudley with enough parts to sell their product, dubbed the Spin Clean, to six or seven local pool-supply stores. According to Dudley, the mold they made "ended up costing about $1,000 vs. the cost of up to $20,000 that most mold-makers would have charged."
A Big Break
Once the Spin Clean found its way into local stores, Dudley made a video demonstrating what a great job it did. In 1997, he sent that video to big pool-store chains. A year later, Leslie's Pool Mart placed an order for 2,550 Spin Cleans, to be sold at a retail price of $29.95 in its 500 stores. Robertson and Dudley were looking at their first big order.
There was only one problem: Techniques used in manufacturing the Spin Clean's initial production run weren't right for a bigger one. The temporary mold also couldn't make a lot of parts. That was when Robertson's decision to bring Dudley on as a partner truly paid off. Dudley arranged for a more permanent mold to be made and for a manufacturer to create the injection-molded parts for mass production.
Of course, it wasn't all smooth sailing. Robertson explains: "We got the parts made and gave them to an injection-molder to finish, but we still had to do the final assembly. Also, we didn't have a place to store the finished product, and we didn't have a manufacturing facility."
The solution: Robertson dispensed parts to about 20 friends, neighbors and relatives who helped assemble the Spin Cleans, which were then stored in three neighborhood garages. The order went out in time, and Leslie's Pool Mart ordered another 5,000 units in 1999. Not a bad trade-off for Robertson and Dudley-their initial "looks like, works like" prototype was key in landing them their first big orders.
The Right Steps
In 2000, with business picking up, Robertson and Dudley had some decisions to make. They could either give up their current jobs and run the business themselves, or sell out to a pool-supply company that could give the product full nationwide exposure. They opted to keep their jobs and licensed the Spin Clean to a major supplier. Finding a licensing partner wasn't too difficult, because the Spin Clean had proven sales success.
The inventors and the licensor redesigned the Spin Clean, both adding features and reducing cost, and the company plans to launch the new and improved product in the summer of 2002. Robertson and Dudley don't mind the delay, as the licensor is tooling up for major production, which the partners hope will translate into big royalty checks.
Robertson gives Dudley a lot of credit for Spin Clean's success. "I would never have gotten anywhere without Dave," he says. "I just couldn't have made a professional-looking product. And I didn't have the money to have one made for me."
As Robertson's tale illustrates, when it comes to prototypes and manufacturing, inventors can't know it all, and they need advice from knowledgeable people to succeed. If you don't have a friend like Dudley, attend local inventors' clubs and talk to people to get ideas and contacts.
The downside to Robertson's strategy was that he gave away a major portion of his idea. The upside was he spent very little upfront money, and his invention did finally make it to market. Getting the help you need doesn't guarantee success, but you have only a slim chance of success without it.
Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant.
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