Dotcom companies may be shutting down left and right, but that doesn't mean the Internet can't be a great starting point for inventors. All you need is an innovative product in a hot product category that can generate a buzz among your target customers.
Melody and Byron Swetland of Gaithersburg, Maryland, found success by taking their invention to the Net and starting a Web site to launch their product, UV bubbles called Tekno Bubbles. Along with their 22-year-old son, Enoch, who now runs their company, BM&E LLC, they sold more than 60,000 bottles last year (at an average retail price of $3.95 per bottle) and may top half a million units by the end of the year. "We've really had to struggle to keep up with production," says Byron, 46. The Swetlands attribute their overwhelming success in part to the worldwide exposure they've gained by selling Tekno Bubbles over the Internet.
Grow the Glow
Tekno Bubbles traces its origins to 1996, when Melody, now 43, opened a kitchen cabinet, spotted some bottles of bubbles and thought, "Wouldn't it be great to have glow-in-the-dark bubbles?" She mentioned this to Byron, who agreed it sounded like a fabulous idea. Problem was, someone else had already patented that concept.
Byron couldn't find the product on the market, but he was able to track down the inventor and order a sample. When he took a close look at it, he discovered the competing product's flaw: The bubbles had to be mixed before they could be used.
"Mixing the chemicals together would never work," Byron remembers thinking. "People want to buy a product that's ready to use." But Byron didn't know how to develop the right formula, and he almost gave up on the idea altogether. Then invention inspiration struck him out of the blue: Taking note of the growing popularity of black lights among high school and college students, he thought that rather than make bubbles that glowed in the dark, maybe he could formulate premixed bubbles that glowed under black-light bulbs.
Everything seemed to fall into place after that. Byron knew that most black lights use UV light, and that UV-responsive chemicals are available and relatively easy to work with. In quick order, the Swetlands finalized their bubble formula and received a patent for it in 1999.
Next, the Swetlands launched a Web site and waited for the orders to come pouring in. Usually, this is where the story turns ugly-few hits, no sales and, worst of all, no money. But not in the case of Tekno Bubbles. The Swetlands started getting sales right away, and not just from U.S. customers. "We were getting inquiries from Europe, Korea, Japan and other countries around the world," says Byron. In early 2000, things got even better. "I received a call from the buyer at Spencer Gifts. She asked how many bottles I had in stock. I told her 6,000, and she said, 'I'll take 'em.' Then she asked how many bottles I had on order. When I said 10,000, she replied, 'I'll take those, too.'" Spencer Gifts, an Egg Harbor, New Jersey-based chain of about 950 stores nationwide, is still the Swetlands' biggest customer.
And that was just the beginning. The Swetlands soon received orders from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and Glow, a chain of retail black-light stores, in addition to inquiries from distributors around the world.
Byron and Melody Swetland originally tried to create glow-in-the-dark bubbles, but they switched to black-light bubbles when they realized they were easier to produce and also part of a huge underground fad. How do you find the next big thing? Unfortunately, there's no way to really know. But Byron swears by this approach: "I try to visit music stores or shops like Spencer Gifts pretty frequently so I can see what's new and hot. I saw black lights several times before it hit me that if I changed the bubbles to glow in a black light, I could have a big hit."
Lots of ingredients went into making Tekno Bubbles such a big hit, but the Swetlands were successful mostly because they followed a three-step formula that has always worked for inventors:
1. Know your customers. Black lights became popular at dance clubs and raves and then caught the interest of high school and college students. The Swetlands have always tried to stay true to that market. "We realize that we have an underground product," says Byron, "and we have only sold through the Internet and to specialty shops like Spencer Gifts. We feel our product would lose its appeal to our target customer if it was in mainstream retailers."
2. Sell in a hot new product category. This minimized the necessary sales footwork for the Swetlands, as retailers were the ones calling on them. This isn't uncommon when a new product category gets hot. Retailers are always aggressively looking for innovative products they can sell. Once a market matures, retailers have plenty of products to pick from-and inventors with run-of-the-mill products often have a much tougher time getting them onto retail store shelves.
3. Be easy to find. The Swetlands didn't advertise, and their Web site was really their only promotion. But people came to their site anyway. That won't happen, though, unless you can determine the most popular search terms people will use to find your site. The Swetlands' Web site had about 10 meta tags, those text clues seen by search engines but not visible to visitors. "The most common search terms people use to find our Internet site are 'black light' or 'UV bubbles,'" says Byron.
You don't want to just show up on search engine results; you want your site to appear near the top of the list. For example, in the case of Tekno Bubbles, typing in "black lights" brings Tekno Bubbles up right away because there aren't too many sites categorized under that search term. For more information on getting your site listed (and listed often) on search engines, refer to the book Increase Your Web Traffic in a Weekend (Prima Tech) by William R. Stanek.
Make the Net Work for You
So, how do you make your Web site the talk of your niche market? Besides using popular search terms as meta tags (as discussed above), try these other tips for Internet success:
Link to other sites that target your customers. "We've found dozens of sites that have links to our site," Byron says. "Those links really attract visitors."
Obtain press coverage to attract visitors. According to Byron, the Tekno Bubbles site had more than 50,000 visits per day after CNN ran a story on the product.
Put your URL on every product. The Swetlands are convinced that tactic helps bring new buyers every month to their site.
If the recent "dotbombs" have taught us anything, it's that putting up a Web site doesn't guarantee success. But if used correctly with the right products, a Web site can be a powerful sales tool for inventors.
Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant. Send him your invention questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.