Don't Stay in the Dark!

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.

How the Swetlands found out black light was a bright idea

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."

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This article was originally published in the September 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Don't Stay in the Dark!.

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