A Fitness Pom-Pom, a Custom Bow-Tie and a Waterproof Shirt: How 3 Entrepreneurs Turned Their Unusual Products Into Successful Businesses
Earlier this year, I headed to LA for three weeks to spend time with the contestants of ABC’s Funderdome -- inventors and small business owners who competed for seed funding from a studio audience.
I was wowed by each entrepreneur’s story. While each journey was unique, every one of them overcame challenges and displayed a grit and resilience that’s gotten them to where they are today. Three inventors embodied those qualities in particular: Sherry Leatham, chief cheer captain at PoundPoms, Marlon Rhodeman, tie-master at Tri Bow Tie, and Daniel Goldman, inventor of the Best Shirt Ever. All three are on their own path to success, but there’s much to learn from the road they’ve traveled so far.
Prepare for the dip.
Every idea and business takes time to find its audience; no entrepreneur should expect immediate success after launching. Goldman, who started his company after developing the waterproof-yet-stylish Best Shirt Ever, acknowledges this, and says entrepreneurs should “prepare for the dip.” It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of starting a new project, but it’s important to remember that it can take time to gain traction.
“Our brains are wired to celebrate at the beginning of the journey, and then quit when things get hard,” Goldman said. How can you avoid the urge to throw in the towel when things get hard? “Before you start, ask yourself if you have the resources, strength and resiliency to push through the dip,” he said. Find a mentor that can help you set a realistic timeline for profitability -- sometimes years away from when you begin -- and help you figure out how to measure success before you make it to profitability.
And, don’t forget -- it’s not just about allocating budget to buoy you at the beginning of your venture. Preparing mentally is equally important. Embark on your project with the mindset that it may take some time for your idea to catch on and gain a following, and you won’t want to give up when results aren’t immediate.
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If you want your product to endure, make it personal.
Leatham came up with the idea for her fitness business, PoundPoms, based on her experience as a former cheerleader. “I was reminiscing to my neighbor about how sore I’d be after returning to my college to cheer as an alumni, and at that moment, the cheerleader in me and the fitness pro in me realized that those cheer motions were really just weight-training movements with pompoms.” A lightbulb went off and Leatham started developing PoundPoms, a weighted pompom, and a cheerleading-inspired exercise routine to go with them.
Along the way, she encountered setbacks -- devastating health issues and rejection from manufacturers among them -- but Leatham’s will never wavered. She spent years designing and perfecting the product herself, and until recently, made each set of PoundPoms in her garage, encouraged by her own customers’ fitness journeys.
Leatham’s passion for fitness and cheerleading helped propel her to where she is today, and she recommends that anyone starting a business hold onto that feeling. “I can’t help but think of the line that Whoopi Goldberg’s character says in Sister Act 2: ‘If you wake up in the morning and you can’t think about anything but singing first, then you should be a singer, girl.’”
But, once you’ve got your product, how can you make sure it gets in front of people?
Spend time researching marketing strategies, and then stick with one.
You’ve done your homework; you’re ready to commit to your business for the long haul, and you’ve built a business around something that resonates with you. But, how do you make it resonate with others?
What’s the right marketing program for your small business? Should you use email marketing to stay top of mind for customers? Should your business be on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest? Goldman says the answer is no. “Don’t be a master of none by spreading yourself too thinly across too many different channels.” He suggests learning which marketing channel fits your product and target market best and focusing your energy there. With a little research and some A/B testing, you’ll figure out what programs give you the most engagement, and which one to put your resources towards.
Rhodeman, founder of Tri Bow Tie, shared a similar sentiment. It took awhile for orders of Rhodeman’s bow ties to pick up, but once he discovered that sharable, funny videos demonstrating how the ties worked resonated with viewers and raised awareness -- and translated into sales -- he knew where to put his energy.
You'll need a little preparation and a lot of resilience.
These three entrepreneurs exhibited tenacity and perseverance, even when everything else was telling them to quit. It took Leatham years of knocking down doors, asking materials engineers to look at her samples; reimagining her vision with different components; asking for help from strangers and friends alike before she could come up with a prototype that she liked. But, recently, it’s all started to pay off. A few months ago, Leatham began working with a manufacturer to help keep up with growing demand for PoundPoms. “When I sent him my prototype, he said, ‘This is the best I’ve ever seen.’”
“People can talk you out of your dream if you allow them to,” said Rhodeman, but believing in yourself and your product is essential for success. With a little preparation and a lot of resilience, there could be an entrepreneur in all of us.