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Breaking the Ice

Want skeptical customers to warm up to your product? Here's the scoop on how to win them over.

The Entrepreneurs: Inventor Peter Lerman, 51, of Bethel, Connecticut, and licensee and marketer Lou Matinale, 42, president of Matony Products, a company that licenses products from inventors

Product Description: Lerman's invention, the Sno-Easy, is an ergonomic shovel that allows the user to shovel snow without bending or twisting. It features a "helper handle," which pivots on two axes in different directions: up, so the shovel can be picked up without bending over, and then in a second direction, allowing the handle to be twisted to dump the snow. After Lerman developed the product, he met Matinale through a mutual contact in 2001; Matinale agreed to handle the production and marketing. Now sold at retailers like Home Depot, Walgreens and Wal-Mart, the Sno-Easy shovel retails for $19.99.

Startup: $6,000, which Lerman spent on engineering drawings and patents before licensing the product

Sales: $1 million to $1.5 million expected for the 2004-2005 winter season

The Challenge: Overcoming skepticism from retailers and consumers when several other similar products have failed

Often, an inventor recognizes a problem that other inventors have already attempted to solve. That's certainly the case with snow shovels. There have probably been at least 10 different "easy on the back" shovels introduced over the past 15 years. Consumers in the market become wary after many similar products are introduced and then fail. But that doesn't mean success isn't possible, as Peter Lerman and licensee Lou Matinale found out.

Steps to Success

1. Understand the problem. "Shoveling snow is bad for the back," says Lerman. "You bend over to pick up the snow, and then twist and turn to dump the snow. Other 'back-saver' products reduce the bending but don't address twisting." To understand the problem, inventors should interview three or four users. Sometimes they'll experience problems the inventor missed.

2.Design a complete solution. There were three steps in Lerman's design. "I started with a helper handle for the hand that was not holding the end of the shovel," he says. "I added a two-way pivot hinge to the attachment point of the helper handle and main shovel handle. That way, a user could twist the helper handle and dump snow without twisting his or her back. The last change was to switch to a smaller shovel scoop. That lowered the weight of a shovel load."

3. Make your difference stand out. An inventor has 10 to 15 seconds to persuade people that his or her product is better. That time is cut in half when the market is skeptical, so you must have a solution that people can grasp right away. "When people try the Sno-Easy, they immediately get the product's benefit," says Matinale.

4. Produce a high-quality product. Lerman designed a prototype, but it wasn't complete. "I wanted the product [to be] more durable and easier to manufacture," he says.

To do this, says Matinale, "We re-engineered the two-way pivot, used steel rods for the handle and helper handle, and used a high-impact plastic scoop with a metal edge."

When the market is skeptical, you have to show your commitment to the product. A high-quality product demonstrates an investment on your part, which implies you have a strong belief that your product is better than past product failures.

5. Ensure the product stands out in the distribution channel. "Large home-improvement stores can have dark spots," says Matinale. "We packaged eight Sno-Easy shovels in a floor display that accents the product's features and catches people's attention." The display encourages people to pick up the product and try it.

Lessons Learned

1. Get professional marketing help. Buyers at distributors, retailers and catalogs will be skeptical of your product if similar products have failed. A marketing professional, either a licensee or someone with a successful past in the industry, can help overcome this problem in several ways. First, a professional will have contacts who will at least listen to a new product's story. Second, he or she endorses the product by representing it, which is more effective than an inventor stating that his or her product will sell. Finally, he or she will know how to deal with skepticism by showing why the product will sell when others haven't.

2. Don't be afraid of competing products. While many back-saving shovels have failed, a few are still on the market. Retailers prefer to offer more than one product in a category because it creates more interest to the shopper. When your product has a visual difference people can see, that will make shoppers curious about how the products compare.

3. Understand the fine distinctions that matter to the customer. For instance, a smaller shovel scoop implies a lighter load, and that can make a big difference in a buyer's perception of the product. When you test a product, show variations of every feature to see how customers react. A minor feature could be the final impetus for a customer purchase.

4. Consider a nontraditional approach to distribution. One of the Sno-Easy retail outlets is Walgreens. That's not a normal distribution point for shovels. But since the shovel is for people who suffer from back pain, it's a good fit for a drugstore. Try selling your invention where your target customers shop, even if your product type isn't usually carried in those stores.


Don Debelak is author of Entrepreneur magazine's Start-Up Guide #1813, Bringing Your Product to Market, and host of inventor-help website www.dondebelak.com.

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This article was originally published in the February 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Breaking the Ice.

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