The entrepreneur: Allen Kenner, 43, of Ashland, Oregon
Product description: The Grip-N-Drive is an upgrade from the typical ratcheting screwdriver. Kenner patented the product's rubber grip mechanism: It spins freely in either direction, but then deforms to grip down on the screwdriver's handle when squeezed. A package of five Grip-N-Drive screwdrivers (two Phillips and three slotted screwdrivers) sells for $19.99 at Sears stores nationwide under the Craftsman label.
Startup: Approximately $15,000 for a patent and a working prototype
Sales: Pratt-Read, the Bridgeport, Connecticut, company that licenses the product, expects Grip-N-Drive sales to reach between $1 million and $5 million this year. Kenner gets a percentage as royalties.
The challenge: Getting your innovation on the shelves of a major retailer that prefers not to buy from one-line, underfinanced inventors
You've invented a unique product you're sure will sell millions. Think that was hard? Get ready to face the greater challenge of getting the product on the shelves of a big-name national retailer. While you could go it alone, you'll encounter a lot of resistance. Instead, your best bet is to make a connection with a company that already sells to your target customer. That's what Allen Kenner did with his innovative screwdriver, and once he got a current supplier on his side, the doors began to open.
Steps to Success
1. Push yourself to develop the ultimate design. "The handle grips on my early prototypes could spin, but not smoothly," says Kenner, who started developing the product in 1998. "Some people who tried them had a ho-hum reaction to the product. I realized that the Grip-N-Drive needed a grip people could get excited about--one that could spin faster and [more] easily in either direction with a single twist. Once I produced the easy-twist screwdriver, everybody who tried it wanted one."
A big "wow" factor helps, but simplicity also counts because it appeals to people. "I believe in the SMAC tenet--'simple machines are cool,'" says Kenner. "People fall in love with inventions that are simple to use, simple to understand and that work really well. The Grip-N-Drive exemplifies SMAC, consisting of only two nylon snap-rings and a special rubber grip mounted on the screwdriver. Due to the extreme simplicity of the Grip-N-Drive, I had concerns that my idea would be stolen if I manufactured overseas. Fortunately, the simplicity of the design, in combination with the automated product process used to manufacture screwdrivers, allowed me to have the Grip-N-Drive produced in the U.S."
2. Make sure consumers like the product. "I got feedback on the design and conducted market research by showing my product to friends at parties and other places in town, always getting signed nondisclosure agreements," Kenner says. "I asked successful businessmen for advice and, through networking, found local people who had worked in the hand-tool industry. They provided valuable information and reinforced my belief in the viability of the Grip-N-Drive. Once I felt comfortable with the manufacturing-to-retail price ratio, I began looking at options for produc ing and marketing my screwdriver."
3. Develop a strategy. Kenner wanted to license his product to a company that could sell it to Sears. "I decided I would have the greatest chance of suc cess approaching a small to midsize company. I also wanted to keep travel expenses down and work with a company I could trust. A local manufacturer, Professional Tool Manufacturing LLC in Ashland, Oregon, which sells its Drill Doctor, a drill-sharpening machine, through Sears, met my criteria."
4. Make networking a priority. Having trouble getting your foot in the door of a potential licensor? If possible, have someone who already knows people there recommend your product. "Rather than going directly to the company, [in 2002] I asked a friend with a connection [to Professional Tool] to arrange an introductory meeting by explaining to one of the owners that he knew someone with an exciting invention."
5. Don't sign a deal too soon. Kenner signed a nondisclosure agreement with Professional Tool, but no other agreement. When Sears requested that some changes be made to the product's design that would raise upfront tooling costs and production costs, Professional Tool graciously backed out of the deal and let Pratt-Read, a leading private-label supplier, take over. By October 2004, the Grip-N-Drive was being sold in some Sears stores, and a nationwide rollout soon followed.
1. Protect your idea. The only way to know if your product has the "wow" factor is to show your idea to those with whom you network. Just make sure everyone signs a confidential nondisclosure agreement. For sample agreements, go to the United Inventors Association website and click the "Novice Inventors" box.
2. Be patient. Inventors get excited and often rush to meet with a company. You're better off, however, networking and attending trade shows and association meetings, even if it takes three to four months. The goal is to find someone with a connection to executives at the target company who can tell them about your product.
3. Be careful with your agreements. You may talk to three or four companies about licensing a deal, and some of them may help you get to the final deal. However, you don't want to be forced to share royalties with a company that doesn't end up making and selling your product. Prevent this by having an agreement stating that you are discussing with the manufacturer the possibility of it manufacturing and selling your product in return for a licensing agreement. That way, you are not obligated to pay part of your royalties to a company other than your eventual licensor.
The Juicy Details
Are you stymied in your efforts to come up with your own can't-miss product idea? Then check out Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors by Evan I. Schwartz (Harvard Business School Press, $24.95). The book shares the stories of how top inventors--from Thomas Edison to Dean Kamen of Segway fame--developed their inventions. These innovators observe the world around them differently than most people. The book shows how they think in a way that sparks creativity and how they transcend the boundaries that most people have trouble breaking through when trying to be creative. What makes the book most valuable is the wide range of tactics, lessons and strategies that anyone can use to get their creative juices flowing.