Beyond the Big Idea

You've got a million-dollar idea; now all you need is a strategy to make it marketable. These inventors brought their ideas to life--and hit it big. Find out how they made it happen.

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.

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Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer in Southern California.

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This article was originally published in the October 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Beyond the Big Idea.

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