Waking Up a Tired Idea

How you can revolutionize a stagnant product on a limited budget and still win over your target market

The Inventor: Ron L. Wilson II, 38, and Brian Le Gette, 38, co-founders of 180°s LLCin Baltimore

Product Description: The 180°s Ear Warmers aren't your typical earmuffs-they have been modified to fit around the back of the neck rather than over the head so users don't mess up their hair. They sell in 1,800 upscale retail stores worldwide, including L.L. Bean and REI, for an average price of $20 each.

Start-Up: About $7,000 to finance the first 250 test units and approximately $100,000 (raised from 18 graduate school friends and other private investors) to launch the company in 1995

Sales: Approximately $50 million estimated for 2003

The Challenge: Launching an innovative product with a strong consumer need despite limited capital

Before Ron L. Wilson II and Brian Le Gette got into the earmuff business, the product category had become stagnant in terms of innovation-winter after winter, people warmed their ears by donning the same old style of earmuffs. But this tired product category spelled opportunity for these partners, who were sure they could catch consumers' attention with a better solution. From getting financing to test-marketing the concept, here are the steps they took to launch their innovative product:

Steps to Success
1. Draw upon your experience. Wilson first got the idea for the 180°s Ear Warmer in 1986 while attending Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. His ears were cold, but he didn't want to wear something that didn't look good. Because of his personal experience with traditional earmuffs, Wilson knew an improved version that was stylish and hairdo-friendly would be successful.

2. Consider improving a product that hasn't had much innovation. The 180's Ear Warmer idea had a key success criterion: "We were looking to reinvent a product where the existing products were stale," Le Gette says. "Nothing new had happened [in the market] for years."

3. Make sure there's a market for your product. "We knew people had cold ears but didn't want to wear hats or earmuffs because they ruined their hair," Wilson says. But to ensure the market was right, they polled friends, family and acquaintances.

4. Offer customers a product with perceived value. New products fall into three categories: low-priced goods that sell at mass merchandisers, midrange products that sell at specialty stores, and high-value products that target high-end shops. Because inventors without capital usually have trouble investing enough in manufacturing to keep prices down, they need a high-value product that can sell for a higher price. In this case, the 180°s Ear Warmers sell for $20 vs. $3.50 to $6.50 for regular earmuffs. As long as customers believe your product has value, they'll spend more for it.

5. Produce tangible results that show your product will sell. Wilson and Le Gette initially sold 250 of the Ear Warmers at their graduate school, the University of Pennsylvania, during a cold winter. "We sold [them] on campus out of a cooler with a thermometer in front showing the temperature," Wilson says. He and Le Gette used the profits to produce another 750 units to sell on campus.

6. Raise enough capital to launch the product. Once they had some sales, Wilson and Le Gette asked friends and classmates for money-and raised $100,000. Other options might have included either bank financing or acquiring an SBA loan. Inventors without cash can also choose to launch in disadvantaged neighborhoods, where loans and grants are available.

7. Use the edge you've developed to market other new products. Wilson describes the 180°s concept as "products that help people deal with the elements." Two new products build on this tradition-the 180°s Exhale Heating System gloves, which let users blow into the gloves to warm their fingers, and the 180°s Eyegear sunglasses, which fold forward instead of backward to protect the lenses from getting scratched during storage.

The National Mail Order Association (NMOA) is searching for unique, American-made products in its fourth biennial Made in America Contest. Winners get free publicity in Mail Order Digest, one year of placement on the NMOA Web site (www.nmoa.org), one year of free Web store hosting on 411Shops.com, $25 credit on wholesale bid-for-placement search engine Wholesale411.com, and a winner's publicity kit. Entry forms will be accepted from manufacturers of all sizes. But hurry: The contest ends on December 31, 2003. For more details on how to enter, log on to www.nmoa.org/contest/index.htm.
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This article was originally published in the December 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Warm Reception.

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