From the February 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

Inventors are known for having great ideas. Making those ideas sell-well, that's another skill altogether. Inventors frequently lack the expertise or resources necessary to really launch a product successfully.

Enter manufacturers' reps, who can bring extensive knowledge and expertise to a budding entrepreneur's sales approach. Having a manufacturers' rep represent your new product adds some serious advantages to the equation. For one thing, reps usually have large, established sales networks that ideally have significant market contacts. Plus, representatives get paid only when they make the sale, which is a far better alternative for underfinanced inventors who'd otherwise incur high costs associated with setting up an internal sales organization from scratch.

Not surprisingly, reps look very attractive to inventors. But unfortunately, inventors don't look all that attractive to reps. The primary problem is that inventors don't yet have existing sales, so reps are forced to pioneer the market. It's common for reps to lose money during the first few years spent selling a new product, because their sales costs may exceed their commissions. They won't actually cash in until customers start buying.

Considering the important role they just might play in your business, you'd be well-advised to learn how to locate, sign on and nurture such reps. After all, who wouldn't want a rep if it meant maximizing his or her company's profits?

Growing Strong
Jane McKittrick, 48, started out as most inventors do-by attempting to take on the big job of selling her innovative gardening products herself. Sure, she and her partners made some sales on their own, but the products didn't really take off until they hired a rep to take over.

McKittrick's innovative line of products stemmed from the simple realization that many gardening jobs were tough on a person's hands and arms, especially when using hand tools like small handheld hoes, trowels and cultivators. So McKittrick and partner Patricia Greene, 48, created six new garden hand tools that featured comfortable, upright handgrips and flexible arm cuffs to increase leverage. The main benefit of these products is in the design (refined by McKittrick's other partners, father and son Steve Kari, 57, and John Kari, 34), which effectively cuts down the strain gardening puts on arms and wrists.

Originally, the partners started out by selling a modest number of products at the Minnesota State Fair. That was before they hired a rep. Now, by year-end 2002, they expect their Forest Lake, Minnesota, company, Earth Bud-Eze, to sell at least 15,000 tools annually at retail prices ranging from $9.99 to $15.95 through large gardening stores and chains nationwide. Thanks to the expertise of Marshall Associates Inc., a rep group with extensive contacts in the hardware and gardening markets, Earth Bud-Eze is achieving the kind of success the partners had once only dreamed of.

Like many innovations, the design of these tools was inspired by real-life observations. "Six years ago, Jane was doing a lot of landscape gardening, but she didn't have enough arm strength to keep up with the men on the job," Greene says. So the partners developed a product that would preserve her strength while gardening. Soon enough, they found they weren't the only gardeners who appreciated easy-to-use tools. "Our products are for everyone who wants to make gardening less work," explains Greene.

Although they knew their products had the potential to sell well, actually getting them into the hands of customers proved difficult. In addition to introducing the products at the 2000 Minnesota State Fair, the partners tried licensing their products to another company-to no avail. Having to rely solely on sales from the fair wasn't really enough to put the company on the map.

In the fall of 2000, Greene was introduced to Terry Byrnes, a member of her church who happened to work for Marshall Associates Inc., a nationwide manufacturers' sales agency that specializes in gardening products. The agency liked the products and added them to its line-and in one short year, Earth Bud-Eze went from respectable sales at the state fair level to retail success at mass merchants and hardware stores nationwide. What convinced the agency to pick up the products? Greene says Marshall Associates had noticed a tremendous need in the gardening industry for tools that were easy to use-and Earth Bud-Eze fit the bill.

Time-Tested Tips

Think your product might have what it takes to catch the attention of a manufacturers' rep? Try these ideas for getting off to the right start:

  • Maintain product quality. Greene and McKittrick started out making the products in their garage, but they switched over to a local manufacturer once they signed with a rep firm. That way, they could ensure the product would be durable and also look like it was made by a large company.
  • Be honest. Provide upfront information about your business' situation without holding anything back. Reps don't like to be surprised by bad news you "forgot" to mention. Reps will quickly stop working for an inventor who doesn't communicate honestly.
  • Develop a personal relationship. Visit your reps, support them at major trade shows and keep in constant contact with them. Greene happened to know her rep from church, and the regular face-to-face contact helped nurture the business relationship.
  • Provide all the support you can. Although Greene and McKittrick can't afford an expensive advertising campaign, they have hired a public relations firm to send out press releases to the local papers whenever Marshall Associates lands a new store. "We also try to provide whatever the rep needs for trade shows or retailer presentations," says Greene.
  • Play an active role. Help your reps get off to a strong start with retailers. In addition to helping with PR, like Greene and McKittrick, special promotions, product displays, extra discounts and in-store demonstrations are other low-cost tactics sure to help the rep sell your product to customers.
  • Sign an agreement that offers mutual long-term benefits. A rep's greatest fear is that he or she will pioneer a product line, only to have the manufacturer take it away once it becomes successful. Reps who take on a new line typically invest in that line for at least two years before earning any significant commissions, so they want to be assured the line will still be theirs once sales start to skyrocket.

Experienced marketers know that strong relationships with their reps are vital to success. As Greene and McKittrick have found, appreciating reps and focusing on a marketing program based on their needs really pays off. If you want to someday enlist the help and expertise of reps, follow Greene and McKittrick's lead and treat them like your most important customers. The result will be big profits for you and high commissions for your reps. That's a win-win situation sure to help your business grow.

READ ALL ABOUT IT
If you've never worked with manufacturers' sales representatives, look for a copy of the MANA Directory from the Manufacturers' Agents National Association, available at most larger libraries and online at www.manaonline.org. The directory includes articles on figuring out what reps are looking for, signing agreements and choosing the best reps for you.

Are you a first-time inventor or trying to license your product for the first time? Check out The Inventor's Bible by Ronald Louis Docie (Ten Speed Press). The book offers an easy-to-understand process for licensing an invention and covers all the necessary steps, from patenting to negotiating a licensing agreement.


Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant and author of Think Big: Make Millions From Your Ideas.

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