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Selling Your Invention

Whatever your sales experience, we have the steps you need to get your product on the shelf.
May 1, 2006


For some entrepreneurs, this one, simple word strikes great fear; it's just "not their thing."

Other entrepreneurs feel just the opposite, that sales will be a cinch. After all, they believe, their product is so great, it'll sell itself.

The reality, as is typical, lies somewhere between.

First, it's important to know that even if you're initially uncomfortable with the idea of selling, you can learn to do it. As the inventor/entrepreneur of your unique product, you alone are the most qualified person to sell it. You have the knowledge and the passion to make it happen.

On the other hand, even if you believe you can sell snow to an Eskimo, realize that there's a lot you need to know before you start pounding the pavement.

The process of selling a product is relatively basic--just be sure to clearly see your invention as a product, and yourself as a businessperson. It's a lot easier to grow sales if you understand the way a market adopts a product, especially when there's a lot of competition. It's also critical to establish your product's position. Once you understand the process, develop your position and create your sales plan, you can put your strategy in action and begin making the sale.

Your first step is understanding how to create demand for your product.

Creating Demand
Unless you're very lucky or very connected, you probably won't launch your product directly into mass-market retail stores like Target or Wal-Mart. Instead, there's a product sales lifecycle you should follow that basically takes you from the ground up, allowing you to build sales in a smart, methodical fashion, starting with small independent retailers and moving up to the big guns.

So what is this "product sales life cycle," anyway? It's like working with a funnel--in reverse.

Picture a funnel lying on its side. Envision pushing enough units of your product through the bottom of this funnel to fill it up as you move from the narrow end to the wide end. The distance from the small end to the large end represents time. You'll need more units to fill the expanding funnel the closer you get to the top of the wide end. The narrow tip of the funnel represents the very beginning of your sales effort, and the top of the funnel represents the point in time when you've achieved the peak of your distribution goal. This process, in a nutshell, illustrates how you'll create demand for your product.

So how, specifically, can you put this idea into action? To create demand, follow these steps:

  1. Start by selling directly to end-users. This'll give you confidence in selling and create "referenceable" customers. You can also get their feedback on the product and packaging to make improvements before expanding your sales efforts.
  2. Once you've ironed out your product and packaging wrinkles, begin selling to local independent specialty stores and online stores. For instance, if you've designed a line of greeting cards, approach your local gift shops. Become successful with these retailers, and you'll have the leverage and negotiating chops to go on to the next level.
  3. The next level is selling to larger, independent regional stores and catalogs. Note that these buyers will want to see evidence of success at the local level before taking on your product.
  4. Finally, once you've achieved success with these retailers, you may decide to approach mass-market sales channels--traditionally, stores like Sears, Target, Wal-Mart and Kmart.

Of course, it's important to note that this process doesn't apply to all products and all people, so use the above as a guide, not an absolute. Some products will never be appropriate for a mass audience and will do better as specialty offerings. And some products will find great success in niche areas that may not be immediately apparent, such as school fundraising catalogs, for instance. Be sure to talk to people in your target market to learn where they shop, and continue communicating with retailers, reps and other contacts in your industry.

Okay. So now you understand the big picture--that you need to start out with small retailers, create ever-increasing demand, and eventually move on to the bigger retailers. But what else do you need to do to ensure you're reaching the right audience at the right time?

It's All About Positioning Your Product
Before you make your first sales call, it's vital to "position" your product the right way in the marketplace to ensure results. Market positioning is the discipline that allows you to examine the marketplace, analyze it for opportunity, and discover where your product fits in and how it can benefit people. Understanding your product's position is critical in helping you decide who to sell to and how to present it as unique and worthy of a buyer's attention. While market positioning is a huge and complex discipline, there are a few basic elements that can serve your purposes as you begin:

Make a Plan
Now that you've positioned your product, you're ready to create your sales plan. This shouldn't be a complex hurdle; rather, it should be a simple written document that'll help you organize your approach to sales. Only you will see this plan (unless you're creating it for investors), so organize it in a way that works best for you. Basic elements of this plan should include:

There's certainly a lot more to know about developing and maximizing your sales strategy. But by understanding and positioning your product correctly--and following the right steps, over time, to create demand for your product--you'll be well on your way to creating long-term success (and perhaps even selling those "million units" eventually, too!).