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Like many successful entrepreneurs, Jolene Schwartz happened to be in the right place at the right time. As the owner of a men's grooming salon in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, the 39-year-old had no idea her clientele would expand to include plush toys. That she'd become the inventive force behind Minnetonka Brands-manufactured Foamy Friends, a line of bath "poufs," just a few years later was an even greater surprise.
To explain: Appearances For Men, the salon Schwartz has operated since 1987, shared an office complex with giant Tyco Toys (which has since been acquired by Mattel). Besides cutting the hair of Tyco executives, Schwartz rendered her services to toys in progress--like when the research and development team needed to shrink a Big Bird doll. Rather than create a new one, they asked Schwartz to shave its plush.
Her 1990 debut as a contract "toy stylist" for Tyco gave Schwartz a peek inside toy manufacturing and instilled in her the desire to create. But after developing her own doll in 1995 and having it politely dismissed by seven toy companies, playthings seemed a bit more complicated. "I realized companies have market plans and target areas they're trying to find products for," says Schwartz. "Even if your product is good, it might not fit into their plans."
Luckily, her second product, which she developed in 1996, was a winner. Capitalizing on the popularity of bath poufs, Schwartz designed one of her own with a sponge lion attached. A product developer formerly employed by Tyco helped her create low-cost prototypes of the lion pouf and five more animals. When toy companies didn't buy the concept due to its lack of toy potential outside the shower, Schwartz scoured the bath aisle of a local drugstore to see which health and beauty companies might.
One of the three companies Schwartz contacted, bath and body product conglomerate Minnetonka Brands Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, immediately saw the promise in what are called Foamy Friends. Schwartz signed over manufacturing and distribution rights to the company in 1997 in exchange for quarterly royalties on each unit sold--not a bad choice, since Minnetonka owns licenses for Sesame Street and Looney Tunes characters, and expects to sell between 6 and 8 million Foamy Friends next year, totaling about $10 million in sales.
Based on the success of her Foamy Friends, Schwartz was inspired to start her own marketing and product development consulting business, Market Visions. To fellow inventors, Schwartz offers this advice: "Be open and flexible to people's input even though it's your idea; have an actual prototype, because verbiage can be misunderstood; and ask for help."
Think your invention could be the hottest new thing to grace toy store shelves or QVC but don't have the means to manufacture it yourself? One thing's for sure: Keeping the idea to yourself won't get you very far. If you're uncertain about the best way to approach manufacturers, heed the advice of our "Bright Ideas" columnist, Tomima Edmark. Aside from inventing the popular TopsyTail, Edmark was the force behind My Pretty TopsyTail, Tyco's top-selling doll in 1994:
- Ask friends and business contacts in various industries to introduce you to the appropriate people or spread word of your product.
- Secure your legitimacy by seeking an attorney's representation. Not only will your proposals be formally delivered, but you'll have a third party to bear witness. An accountant will also suffice.
- Make cold calls. However, keep in mind that Edmark has found cold calls don't seem to be as successful as some sort of introduction.
Market Visions, (609) 866-1484
The TopsyTail Co., P.O. Box 671269, Dallas, TX 75367