Beyond the Big Idea

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."

Get Noticed!

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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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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