Beyond the Big Idea
Brilliant ideas don't get shelf space in big retail stores or airtime on TV shopping channels. They don't have legions of screaming teens coveting them. They don't have dozens of VCs writing big checks, nor do they demand a high price on eBay.
The fact is, brilliant ideas are just that-ideas-until they get turned into salable products. And the difference between an idea and a salable product is extreme-just ask an inventor who tried and failed to get his product to market, then ask an inventor who determined the proper recipe for turning a brilliant idea into a must-have in the minds of consumers.
"A lot of inventors assume people will flock [to them]," says Robert Smith, president of Rockton, Illinois-based Robert Smith & Associates PR, whose expertise has landed clients' products in the likes of Wal-Mart and Walgreens, and on home shopping channel QVC. "They find they're in for a rude awakening. Just because you created the product doesn't mean people will buy it."
That's something John Abdo learned when he first attempted to bring his invention, The AB-DOer midsection aerobic machine, to market. Granted, the odds were against him: In 1999, he was $100,000 in debt and near bankruptcy, in spite of a successful stint from 1985 to 1997 hosting his own weekly syndicated TV series Training & Nutrition 2000. Chronic back pain caused by a cracked vertebra often made it hard for Abdo, 49, to exercise, and in between tapings of his show, he would frequently gain weight. He invented The AB-DOer to help him exercise without putting undue stress on his back.
When Abdo first began seeking interest in The AB-DOer in 1994, he met with stony-faced VCs who were less than amused by his unorthodox investor presentation. Clad in workout gear and toting an "old, funky gym bag" which contained his invention, the Marina del Rey, California, inventor would say: "Gentlemen, guess what's in the bag. There's a hundred million dollars sitting [there].
"Needless to say, they kicked me out every time," he continues, adding that one such investor had also turned down Tae Bo the year before. "I wasn't being arrogant; I was just so confident [in my product]."
Fortunately, one investor happened to be a fan of Abdo's TV show, which was popular in Chicago at the time. The investor funded Abdo's product engineering as well as legal costs in exchange for a percentage of his business. After some success with self-producing an infomercial (in partnership with marketing and production companies), in 2001, Abdo was eventually able to secure a slot on home shopping channel HSN. Acting as his own product spokesperson, he sold 21,500 units his first day on HSN, for a grand total of $2.5 million in sales.
"I made sure I was secured as a spokesperson," notes Abdo. "I nursed the idea and gave birth to it, and I'm a living testimonial to it." Continued sales and success on HSN brought first-year sales to $22 million. Abdo's current sales volume? He's now sold nearly 3 million units of The AB-DOer to date, and sales have surpassed $320 million.
So I've Got This Great Idea...
If you think you may have a winning product like The AB-DOer on your hands, you'll want to know how to get it into the right hands. Abdo advises new inventors to study the process of bringing a product to market, from start to finish. Remember, just having a good idea doesn't necessarily mean you've got a good seller.
"You might have a good idea, but [if] it costs hundreds of dollars to manufacture, or it weighs too much [to be shipped], it's not a [direct-response] TV product," notes Abdo. "You have to know your product, how your product is going where, how to secure your intellectual property, how to teach people to use your product and teach them in a fun way."
Developing a prototype is one surefire way to determine whether your product will sell. You can hire someone to do this for you, but developing it yourself-or at least having a sharp understanding of how your product is put together-has many benefits. Not only will you have a better knowledge of how your product works, but you'll also uncover any glitches in product design. "Build the best functional prototype you can, not a duct-tape prototype that you whip together in your garage," says Abdo. "People only understand what you're showing them."
Also check in with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), an excellent place to begin your self-education. Browse the USPTO Web site, and read up on how to obtain patent-pending status, trademarks and other protections. The USPTO also holds an annual Independent Inventors Conference with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, where top USPTO officials, successful inventors and other experts will advise you on marketing and intellectual property protection.
Hiring a patent attorney like Abdo did is also a good idea. That was just one of many steps that Kelsey Wirth, 35, and Zia Chishti, 33, took when first starting Align Technology in midwinter 1997, the year they were completing their MBAs at Stanford Business School. Using Chishti's background in computer graphics, and aided by some Stanford computer graphics majors who ditched their Ph.D. programs to work for Align, the co-founders created Invisalign, a product that combines 3-D computer imaging technology with orthodontic science. The Santa Clara, California, company appeals to adult consumers who want to straighten their teeth discreetly using the company's "aligners," a series of removable, clear plastic orthodontic appliances.
Like Abdo, the Align founders met with initial opposition. They put together the necessary computer graphics and brought on a local orthodontist, "but we talked to a dozen VCs, and most of them were not interested," says Wirth. Finally, big-name Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers bit. Excited by the idea, the firm was willing to take a risk. Wirth and Chishti closed their first round of financing, $3.2 million, in August 1997. They then went on to raise three more rounds as well as go public in January 2001, raising approximately $260 million altogether.
The co-founders got patients into clinical studies within six months of startup and introduced Invisalign in two test markets: Austin, Texas, and San Diego (the cities where they'd hired two sales reps with experience in the industry). They then trained scores of orthodontists nationwide, laying the groundwork for a $30 million national consumer advertising campaign, launched in fall 2000. The partners gambled that if they advertised directly to adult consumers, the product would be so appealing, orthodontists would jump on board. "Essentially we had a product that we knew ultimately would have tremendous consumer appeal," says Wirth.
What Wirth and Chishti found, however, was that consumers who asked their orthodontists about it were often told to try braces first instead. "We hadn't done enough of a job convincing orthodontists that Invisalign worked," recalls Wirth. "We had tremendous brand awareness in a very short period of time. But when it came to getting patients into treatment, we didn't have the results we had originally hoped for."
They refocused their marketing dollars in 2002 to include general practice dentists, reaching 120,000 dentists nationwide (compared to about 8,500 orthodontists), and giving the company the broad appeal it needed. "There are plenty of GP dentists who can put braces on," explains Wirth, who estimates the company's 2004 sales will be $175 million to $180 million, up from $122.7 million in 2003. Wirth stresses, however, that she's not sure where the company would be without first going through the national consumer advertising campaign.
To create consumer awareness of your product, you have several options, including press releases to editors of trade magazines, direct mail, classified and display ads, and speaking events and conferences with you as an expert. If your product is off-the-wall, try getting on a talk show such as The Oprah Winfrey Show or The Tonight Show, which occasionally have "gadget" shows. (For more information, see "Lights, Camera, Action!" in last month's issue of Entrepreneur.) "The wackier it is, the better," says Smith of showcasing your product on a talk show. Just be prepared to move your product: "Once your product is shown, it will hurt you if you're not able to meet the demand."
Your Name in Lights
Being able to meet the demand becomes a much more prominent issue with any TV exposure you might garner, including home shopping channels and any type of direct-response TV. But if you're prepared, TV can be a godsend.
To get yourself on a home shopping channel like HSN, QVC or the like, watch plenty of home shopping yourself, advises Marilyn Montross, director of vendor relations for West Chester, Pennsylvania-based QVC. "And not just products in the same category as your product, but [also] different kinds of products," says Montross, whose department fields 16,000 inquiries per year, with 90 percent of them from entrepreneurs. QVC airs more than 250 new products per week, many of them with an entrepreneurial story behind them. "Develop an understanding of the kinds of things that sell on QVC," says Montross, and on any channel on which you hope to sell, taking a close look at value, quality and pricing for the products.
Look at the shopping-channel Web sites for information on submitting your product once it's ready to sell; don't just drop a prototype in the mail, because "samples would overwhelm us," says Montross. Instead, send photos or brochures. QVC also holds an annual product-search tour event, where QVC visits cities nationwide and holds open casting calls for products. "But you can submit anytime," says Montross.
You can also follow Abdo's lead and showcase your product on your own TV show. Says Smith, "Contact your local cable company, and talk to the program director about local access-" free, government-sponsored access granted to taxpayers. "That's a full hour on cable [where] you can talk about your product," says Smith.
Another cable-TV option is lease access, which, for a small fee, allows you to get sponsors. "You can show your product and charge [sponsors] to have product placements," says Smith. Any profits you make beyond that initial lease-access charge are yours to keep.
When No Doesn't Mean No
Like Abdo, the Align founders created their product out of necessity-a commonality among successful inventors. Chishti had braces as an adult and noticed that every time he removed his retainer, his teeth would start to shift. "That was the 'aha moment,'" says Wirth, who took a step away from the business in 2001 to sit on Align's board of directors. (Chishti is no longer involved with the company.)
Beyond creating their products to meet a need, both Abdo and the Align founders had the courage to bring a product to market because they believed in it wholeheartedly. "Have the conviction that what you're doing is worthwhile," advises Wirth. "You inevitably run into a number of stumbling blocks along the way."
"I truly believe in my product and in my technology," says Abdo. "Being focused on the future of my product allowed me to never take no for an answer."
Planning to pitch to a home shopping channel? With thousands of inquiries flooding the channels yearly, getting noticed is a challenge-but not an insurmountable one. "It's your product that [will] get you noticed," says Marilyn Montross, director of vendor relations for West Chester, Pennsylvania-based QVC. "Certainly, having a professional, well-put-together presentation is important; but, first and foremost, we'll be looking at 'Is this a product that's right for QVC?'"
Make sure it's a consumer product, not B2B, and one that's highly demonstrable, "because it's a TV show," says Montross, so people need to see the benefits. "Not all products we sell and [that] sell well are like this, but it's an advantage."
The product should also be something that's unavailable elsewhere and clearly innovative, says Montross: "Products that solve a common problem are very appealing to QVC customers."
The Great Wal
Ready to take your product to mass retailers? Jordan Kavana, founder and managing director of KGI Consumer Products-a $15 million Miami-based toy company that sells directly to mass merchants-says there's no magic formula to get into a Costco, Target or Wal-Mart, but there are ways to better your odds.
"First, marketing research is key. [You] cannot fall in love with an idea until it is somewhat proven by research," says Kavana, 26, whose first invention was the SuperStarz Karaoke Dance Mat, a dance mat/karaoke machine product he brought to market via Wal-Mart in 2001. "Second, it's important to see your buyers face to face, more so than by e-mail. Personal contact still goes a long way."
You should also walk through the mass retailers to see what they're already selling-or not selling. "Wal-Mart executives say the biggest problem is [that] people try to sell something [Wal-Mart] already sells," says Robert Smith, president of Rockton, Illinois-based Robert Smith & Associates PR, whose expertise has landed several clients' products in the likes of Wal-Mart and Walgreens. "Do some grass-roots market research. What is it about your product that does something their current products don't do?"
Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance writer in Southern California.
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