The Bigger, the Better

Branching Out

Thomas-Ray decided to approach the Chicago Police Department and the local Pace Bus Service in an effort to learn more about how the uniform market worked. She discovered an entire network of uniform shops existed nationwide. "In Chicago, the important store serving the market was Kale Uniforms, which is a part of the Flying Cross by Fechheimer, a major uniform distributor," says Thomas-Ray. With the help of Kale Uniforms, Thomas-Ray added the Chicago Transit Authority and the Chicago-Area Suburban (Pace Bus Service) to her list of customers in 1999 and 2000.

Thomas-Ray also discovered the restaurant uniform market through Chef Direct, a Chicago-area restaurant distributor. Attending the 2000 and 2001 National Restaurant Association Shows led to business with chains such as Pizzeria Uno. Thomas-Ray also exhibited at the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors, where she signed on 15 independent sales agents.

And the business continues to add customers as major distributor Fechheimer added the Y-Tie to its catalog for the first time this year. "Being in the catalog gives buyers nationwide a chance to see and stock the Y-Tie," Thomas-Ray says.

Retailing for $12.95 (polyester) and $24.95 (silk), the ties are also sold on the company's Web site and advertised in Made to Measure, a uniform trade magazine. The ads have led Thomas-Ray into yet another new market: "I've been getting orders from tuxedo shops, which is why I introduced the silk tie."

Soon Thomas-Ray was seeing potential markets everywhere. She wondered: What about the military or even the Post Office? Landing even one branch of the military would be a major coup, but Thomas-Ray didn't know how to go about it. Then she attended a fund-raiser for her congressman, Jesse Jackson Jr.

"I took a Y-Tie necktie to give to him," Thomas-Ray says. "He thought it was a great idea, and he started to arrange meetings with the appropriate purchasing people. I met with Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy people, and I was flying out to Washington about every other week in the summer of 2001." Unfortunately, 9/11 interrupted that activity, but Thomas-Ray has been able to reconnect with her contacts and hopes to land some government business in 2003.

Steps to Success

Don't be intimidated. Big buyers are often easier to deal with than smaller customers with limited budgets. Read industry trade magazines for stories on big buyers in your market. You can find lists of trade magazines at the library in the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media (Gale Publishing). Check the magazines for listings of contacts in your area. They can recommend trade shows for you to attend.

Don't be afraid to use sales agents, other manufacturers, contacts at association meetings or even your local congressperson to get your foot in the door. And follow up many times. It's not unusual to make seven to 10 calls before landing a big account.

Thomas-Ray projects 2002 sales of $750,000, and there's no telling just how big Y-Tie Neckware will become now that the company has a nationwide sales network and contacts at big institutional customers. Thomas-Ray's strategies can work for any inventor: Find out who your major customers might be, and chase them first. Not only will it give you a jump-start in sales, but you'll also get the cash flow you need to grow your business.

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recently boosted inventors' odds of having a more meaningful patent. In the case of Festo Corp. vs. SMC Corp., two makers of air cylinders for industrial equipment, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court's decision that placed restrictions on patents with amendments. Had it not been overturned, the decision would have limited the scope of a patent's claims.

For more than a century, according to Don Kelly, ex-director of the Independent Inventor Office of the U.S. Patent Office, courts have held that inventors could challenge infringers who had similar, though not exact, replicas of their inventions. The overturned decision, which impacted patent applications for several years, prevented inventors from challenging inventors with such similar, though not exact, products.

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

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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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