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Break The Chain

Need an audience for your latest invention? Skip the giant retail chains-mail-order catalogs might do a better job of hitting your target.

This story appears in the May 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Inventors who think they have the next great product have been asking the same question for years: How can I move my products from local stores to national retailers? Because that jump is almost impossible to make in a single bound, many inventors opt for mail-order catalogs as an intermediate step.

Why catalogs? For a variety of reasons, actually: Catalogs will order based on a pre-production model and place orders of up to $50,000; they'll provide valuable proof for how well your product sells and let you make all your sales calls right over your telephone; additionally, catalogs are generallyprompt with their payments.

Chris McKay, 52, co-invented the DoodleTop, which was a big hit in the toy market in the mid-1990s. The product, which consists of a marker pen point that draws spirals while it spins, is currently sold in toy stores nationwide. But in 1997, when McKay came up with his next invention, the Magnawatch (a watch with an extra lens that can be used to magnify small print), he decided to launch the gadget through catalogs instead of large chains. With Magnawatch featured in about 5 million catalogs this past Christmas, McKay predicts that this will be yet another banner year for his Direct Hit Products, located in Carmel, California. He expects to see sales of up to $5 million this year.

Initially, McKay thought to only market the watch to seniors, but it turns out the product appeals to travelers who use the watch's magnifying lens for reading maps, and business people and lawyers who need to read fine print in contracts and Net addresses on business cards. McKay has since found the most success in catalogs such as National Geographic, Signal and Norm Thompson, which sell unique products for travelers. Products in those catalogs tend to sell for less than the Magnawatch's $49 street price, but McKay is currently developing a premium version that will be a better fit in higher-priced catalogs.

Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant and the author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons). Send him your invention questions at

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