From the April 2003 issue of Entrepreneur

The Entrepreneur: Jeff Pettit, 47, founder of Floppy Sprinkler USA LLC in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Product Description: Rain on Demand is a water sprinkler with a silicone tube that can rise and rotate 360 degrees, distributing water in a 40-foot circle. The primary advantage of Rain on Demand is that its softer tube produces large water droplets without mist-so more than 90 percent of the water falls in the intended area. Traditional sprinklers, which use a piece of metal to disperse the water, create a substantial amount of mist that floats away, with only 65 percent of the water falling in the target area.
Start-Up: $150,000 in 2000
Sales: $250,000 in 2002
The Challenge: Getting your product sold over a home shopping network and maximizing those sales to get your product into normal channels

It takes a lot of time and work to get a new product featured on a home shopping channel. Here's how Pettit recommends handling the challenge:

Steps to Success
1. Make sure your product has the right features for the consumer market, and market the product so it appeals to as broad an audience as possible. Rain on Demand actually started out as an agricultural product for farmers. Pettit redesigned the product and packaging for the consumer market and dubbed it Rain on Demand. To make the product appeal to even more people, QVC, the cable channel home shopping network that first featured Rain on Demand, also came up with the idea of pitching the product as "a sprinkler for kids to run through," says Pettit.

2. Evaluate the networks. The various home shopping networks don't like to sell the same products as each other, so it's best to approach them one at a time. Says Pettit, "I watched all the shopping networks and decided that QVC had a no-hype, straightforward style that I felt most comfortable with and would be most effective with Rain on Demand."

3. Submit your idea. "I went to the QVC Web site (www.qvc.com) and downloaded the forms for submitting an idea," says Pettit. After filling them out, he waited for a response. If you're interested in selling via a home shopping network, you should check their Web sites monthly. The networks frequently go from city to city looking for new products, so you just might have the chance to present your product in person. The networks also set aside certain days for inventors who want to go to the network and present their products to buyers.

4. Answer any questions and document your claims. "After about three months, QVC contacted me for more information," says Pettit. QVC wanted a video of the product in action as well as substantiation of the claims made on the packaging. Any time you plan on selling a product, it's a good idea to start documenting your claims from the moment you begin developing the prototype.

5. Attend a class for first-time presenters. Preparation is essential for a successful TV appearance. QVC, for one, offers a free full-day seminar on all the dos and don'ts of appearing on a home shopping channel. "The class dealt with how to create one sentence that could sell your product, how to sell the features of the product, and what to expect when I went on the air," Pettit says. "The class was a big help in preparing my script."

6. Ship your product as soon as possible. QVC ordered 4,500 units from Pettit but wouldn't air the Rain on Demand spot until the product was in hand.

7. Trust the host. When the big day finally arrived in July 2002, "I had a script prepared, but I only got to talk to the host, Jill Bauer, for a few minutes before I was on the air," says Pettit. "The host did a great job and said the right things to sell the product."

8. Follow up with the buyer afterward. Because the buyer at QVC was pleased with Rain on Demand's sales, the station scheduled another airing.

9. Capitalize on your success with home-shopping in your regular markets. Getting your product featured on a TV shopping network is a big endorsement for most retailers. After all, TV shopping networks only feature products they know consumers want. Promote this in your marketing materials.

"Currently, we have the product in about 200 Gulf Coast garden centers and hardware stores," Pettit says. "I include information about QVC in my sales package and have attracted the interest of two distributors and a catalog retailer. With the combination of distributors and QVC, we are expecting sales [to quadruple] in 2003."

PATENT PENDING
Protect your idea with an "inventor's notebook" to document all your work. Drawings, written concepts and meetings should be recorded in the notebook.

Every two to four weeks, have witnesses sign the last page of your notes with a statement to the effect that: "The information on pages XX-XX [pages from the last witness signing] is confidential, and I have read and understand these pages." Since your notebook is a record that verifies when you had your idea, it is a key piece of evidence in any potential patent dispute. This kind of notebook is also valuable to potential investors and partners because it documents the work you've done to create and develop your idea. You can generally find permanently bound record books with numbered pages at office supply stores or on the Web, at sites such as CleanSweepSupply.com and Eureka Lab Book Inc. (www.eurekalabbook.com). Prices start at approximately $20.

Lessons Learned

1. Start watching the networks long before you're ready to sell your product. Pay attention to the particular products sold by the various networks as well as when they sell those products. For example, Pettit found out that QVC wouldn't sell his product after July because it was considered seasonal.

2. Approach the network well in advance of when you want your spot to air. The networks take time to respond. Once you get a response from the network, you'll schedule your initial meeting. After that, expect to spend weeks or even months working out details, attending the class, and getting your supply of products to the network before the spot runs. So start the application process six to nine months before the date you want to sell your product.

3. Have a persuasive demo tape ready. Products that sell well on TV are ones that can convince consumers with only a brief demonstration. You should be able to demonstrate your product in 10 to 15 seconds. The focus of the tape should be the product "selling itself" rather than having the narrator pitch the product's benefits.

4. Test the quality of your product. Home shopping networks are concerned about returns, and they won't sell a product they believe isn't reliable. If possible, you should try to document any product testing you or others have done before approaching the networks.

5. Approach another home shopping network if you get turned down by the first one. Networks plan products around themes, such as gardening or lawn care. So even if your product has the potential to sell well on TV, it may be turned down if it doesn't fit into the network's plans.

6. Expect the network to order just like a store. In other words, they'll typically pay you the listed wholesale price and offer you net 30-day terms.

7. Be prepared for some returns. The shopping networks order enough of a product to ensure they won't run out. But part of your agreement with the network states that the vendor may need to send products back to you if they don't sell. If your product doesn't sell, you could get stuck with substantial returns.

8. The network will be in charge of how your selling time is used. Don't try to dictate how your product will be sold, as the networks have much more experience in what approach will sell best.

Most Likely to Succeed
Does your product have what it takes to sell well on TV? Products with the following characteristics are most likely to be successful:

  • Visual image: You need to create a clear visual image that lets people immediately connect to your product. This can be a picture of it or of the problem it solves. For example, people can easily understand from a product picture the dispensing racks that hold multiple soda cans in the refrigerator. But they may need a visual of a weed remover in action to understand how it works.
  • Immediate customer response: Customers have to decide to buy a product quickly if it's going to succeed on TV. To generate an impulse order, products must satisfy a need or desire that's important to the consumer. If people have trouble with gophers in their yards, they'll buy a product that promises to solve that problem quickly. You can also get an immediate response if you tie your product to a customer's self-image. People who want to appear sucessful at the office will not hesitate to buy a product that helps them project that successful image. Among the strongest-selling products on TV shopping networks are beauty and fitness aids-two categories that meet well-known consumer desires.
  • High demand: The TV shopping networks sell to a broad spectrum of people, and they look for products that appeal to a broad spectrum of their target customer group-primarily women who spend time caring for their homes. Cleaning products, jewelry, cooking products, home decorating products, crafts kits and yard products all appeal to a wide range of target customers and will generally sell well.
  • Variety: Once your initial product is successful, you need to offer your products with several variations for buyers to choose from. For instance, offer different colors or new features, or pair the product with different complementary items. A painting tool, for example, might come with a paint-can opener one year and a masking aid the next year.
  • Promotional programs: Immediate buyer response is increased when a TV sales offer includes extra components, a free add-on product, or some other promotion, such as "Buy two, get one free."
WALK ON-AIR
Besides QVC, other major home shopping channels include the Home Shopping Network (www.hsn.com) and ShopNBC (www.shopnbc.com). You can log on to the Home Shopping Network Web site and click on "Vendor Information," where you'll find the "Getting Started Demo," an informative page titled "How to Get My Product on HSN," as well as the "Vendor Requirements Manual." ShopNBC uses vendor fairs rather than direct submissions; it posts vendor fairs on its Web site. You'll need to submit an application to attend a vendor fair, and you should check the Web site often to see what products ShopNBC is looking for and to get dates and locations of vendor fairs.

Don Debelak is the author of Think Big: Make Millions From Your Ideas. Send him your questions at dondebelak34@msn.com.