The Bigger, the Better

If you need quick cash flow to stay in business—and who doesn't?—skip the small retailers and go straight for companies that buy in bulk.

Let's say you design a new clothing product. The conventional approach taken by many underfinanced inventors is to start by selling to small, local customers. The goal is to slowly and steadily build a market for their products. Problem is, this approach isn't likely to generate the kind of revenue your business needs to survive.

Here's a better approach: Go after the biggest customers you can find. After all, it often requires the same amount of work to land a small sale as it does a big one. And the benefit is, when you do finally make a sale, it will generate revenue to grow your business. This was the approach taken by 33-year-old Sharon Thomas-Ray when she launched her Chicago business, Y-Tie Neckwear.

Slow Going

Thomas-Ray's idea originated in 1995 when she took a marketing class at National Lewis University in Chicago. One of the assignments was to develop a product and create an introduction plan. While working at a fashion show, she noticed how long it took models to tie their ties to the right length. Thomas-Ray decided that an adjustable tie with a zipper would solve the problem, as well as make a good project for her class. Once the school assignment was completed, she practically had her business in place. "Lots of people told me they liked how easy it was to adjust the Y-Tie, so I decided to try to introduce it," says Thomas-Ray. In 1998, she got a patent on her invention and was ready to go.

Thomas-Ray's first efforts were spent targeting the local Chicago retail market. She made some sales, but progress was slow. Then she got her big break: Publicity in the Chicago Sun Times and on the WGN Morning News led to an $8,000 purchase from The Salvation Army. Landing that deal gave Thomas-Ray the idea that maybe she was wasting her time chasing after small retail orders when she could be pursuing bigger ones.

Sharon Thomas-Ray's experience of developing a product as a school project isn't new. It's part of a lot of colleges' curriculums. But how does that help you?

Well, many college students don't have a product to promote. So if you don't have the time to work on your invention yourself, you might find a college student who will agree to use your product as a school project. Even better: If you make the student a partner in the project, he or she is eligible for prototype assistance and other resources, as well as outright grants, from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA).

For more information on the program and some of its past successes, go to or call (413) 587-2172.

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This article was originally published in the October 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Bigger, the Better.

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