Singular Sensation

A Slow Start

The road to Home Depot was a long one for Carter. Like most inventions, the Gutter Pump was born of necessity. Carter, an engineer, regularly encountered trouble with his home's downspouts-they always clogged during major rainstorms. Heavy rains pushed leaves into the downspouts, plugging them up and causing water to overflow. Fed up, Carter finally decided to solve the problem himself. In 1993, he created a simple, mechanical PVC gutter pump with no moving parts. For a while, Carter was quite content just letting his prototype do its work on his own gutters. But then in 1995, Carter's father-in-law fell ill-leaving Carter in need of extra money to pay the medical bills. He decided to develop and sell his invention.

By the spring of 1997, Carter had made 1,000 units and was ready to attend two trade shows-the Rocky Mountain Home Show and the Denver Spring Home & Patio Show. Using an effective display to demonstrate how the pump worked, Carter sold 500 units for $6 apiece. He also met several experienced salespeople who were selling a noncompeting product. They liked the Gutter Pump so much that those eight manufacturer sales reps committed to selling it during the 1998 home-show season.

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Later in 1997, Carter attended a QVC event in Denver, where hundreds of inventors competed for QVC's attention. "There were 250 people with new products at the event," Carter remembers. "QVC only chose 20, and we were one of the 20." The Gutter Pump sold so well on QVC that the channel did ask him back, but only a few more times. "QVC was our first big sale, but it didn't last," says Carter. "Fortunately, we had good sales from our representatives who worked the home shows throughout the country." Carter approached big retailers in this crucial early period. But, he says, "They just weren't interested in carrying our product."

Carter knew that even his success at the home shows wouldn't last for long. "They just want new products all the time." So he packed his bags and took the Gutter Pump to the 1998 Hardware Show in Chicago. Several catalogs bit-such as Brookstone, Improvements, Jerry Baher Master Gardener, Lee Valley Tools and Silvo Home. Those sales kept the company alive in 1999. But the big retailers? Again, says Carter, "We were perceived as just another 'one-SKU wonder.'"

That show opened up another door for Carter, though. While there, he met husband-and-wife reps Alden and Beverle Kottke of Beverle Alden Enterprises, who eventually sold the Gutter Pump to nearly every independent hardware store in Oregon and Washington.

At that point, Home Depot was starting to feel the pressure. People would see the Gutter Pump in a hardware store and think it was a great product but put off buying it till later. Then, they'd head down to Home Depot, money in hand. After two years of turning customers away, telling them they didn't carry the Gutter Pump, Home Depot's buyer for the Northwest finally went to see Carter. Customer pressure also helped Carter's company land an account to sell it in Ace Hardware stores nationwide.

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This article was originally published in the November 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Singular Sensation.

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