The Entrepreneur: Missy Cohen-Fyffe, 43-year-old founder of Babe Ease LLC in Pelham, New Hampshire
Product Description: The Clean Shopper is a quilted cotton cover for shopping carts to prevent children from being exposed to disease-causing bacteria. The product features Velcro strips for the shopping cart's handle, two loops for attaching toys, and a strap to hold the baby safely in the cart. The Clean Diner is a similar product for restaurant highchairs. Both products are sold in 400 independent baby stores; several midsize baby store chains, including Learning Express; and some grocery stores, such as Whole Foods Market.
Startup: approximately $20,000 for patents, a phone system, attorneys fees, trademarks and early production runs in 1999, prior to selling the product online (www.cleanshopper.com) and via a toll-free number
Sales: approximately $1.8 million in 2004, $3 million projected for 2005
The Challenge: How to "brand" your invention from the beginning so that you're prepared to expand beyond one product to an entire product line
When Missy Cohen-Fyffe started out, she only sold her product online and via a toll-free number-primarily because her manufacturing costs were so high, she couldn't discount the product 50 percent for retailers. In 2002, however, with help from the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, she found a lower-priced manufacturing source and was ready to approach the retail market. People who were interested in her idea suggested that she would have an easier time selling if she built her brand with a multiproduct line. The effort paid off--her sales immediately jumped 20 percent when she introduced the Clean Diner.
Steps to Success
1. Establish a brand name. "I wanted to create a brand name everyone could identify with," says Cohen-Fyffe. "I also wanted the name to be easy to remember. That's why all our products start with 'Clean.' The term clean is important because our products are designed to protect infants and toddlers from the disease-causing bacteria found on common surfaces." Inventors should consider branding possibilities when deciding on both their company names and their first product names. The best names clearly reflect benefits the products offer consumers. In Cohen-Fyffe's case, the word clean is a better branding tool than her company name, Babe Ease, as it more accurately conveys the product's benefit.
2. Create a unified look. Inventors can reinforce the brand name by having a packaging strategy that clearly identifies the product's brand. Cohen-Fyffe's packaging strategy reflects a uniform look. "I wanted a recognizable look that reinforced the brand name," she says. "That's why all of our packaging now sports our signature color splash."
3. Make quality a priority. A branding strategy only works if your first product has a high-quality reputation. In fact, Cohen-Fyffe absorbed big losses early on to ensure every customer was satisfied. In 2003, when her Clean Shopper product was just gaining popularity, Cohen-Fyffe's staff unknowingly shipped out some defective products. "We started to receive calls from customers complaining of sewing defects and other problems," she says. "We had never had complaints like [that] before." So Cohen-Fyffe recalled the defective items, exchanged them for high-quality replacements and refunded some customers' money. "I thought the costs might bankrupt my company, but my customers stood with us because we took care of the problems."
4. Find complementary products. A new product does better for your distribution channel of reps, distributors and retailers when it's part of a multi-product line that can be sold at the same stores to the same target customers. According to Cohen-Fyffe, "Once we offered the Clean Diner [in addition to the Clean Shopper], getting it onto store shelves proved much easier than anticipated. I believe that having only one product significantly limited our sales potential."
5. Show new product activity. A steady stream of products is key. Cohen-Fyffe came out with the Clean Changer and the Disposable Clean Shopper in 2004, and plans to come out with the Twins Clean Shopper and the Disposable Clean Diner in 2005. That's good news to her distribution channel, and it will help Cohen-Fyffe add new reps and retailers in 2005.
1. Brand from the start. Branding includes a naming strategy, a product look and a packaging strategy. Before launching your first product, try to choose a name and package with elements that can be used for any subsequent products. Neglect to do this upfront, and you may be faced with a costly overhaul when you finally decide to pursue a branding strategy.
2. One-product vendors face strong resistance. Independent manufacturers' sales agents and retailers incur high costs--due to phone calls, record keeping, inventory tracking and paying invoices--when dealing with vendors. For that reason, agents and retailers prefer vendors with multiproduct lines. One-product companies need an innovative product with strong consumer appeal to overcome this resistance.
3. Customer requests are your best sources of new, complementary products. Customers who like your product will often send in requests for similar products for other applications. Listen to those customers--they often suggest products that could be big winners.
4. Create a high-quality product. Reps and retailers worry that a startup will go out of business, and they'll be stuck with inventory and no support. The worry increases with quality problems. Reps and retailers may stop supporting a product after just one poor-quality lot.
Capitalize on your intellectual property by making your patent work for you.
Millions from the Mind: How to Turn Your Invention--or Someone Else's--Into a Fortune (Taletyano Press) by Alan R. Tripp provides a different take on the inventing process. It's written by a patent attorney who doesn't believe in patents for patents' sake, but is more interested in examining how inventors can use a patent to add real value to a product.
The book shines in the areas of using a patent as a business weapon, capitalizing on intellectual property and striking a licensing agreement. Read it for a balanced view of what makes a strong patent, when a patent is worth getting, and how to use a patent as a tool to enhance a product's introduction.