Smart Ideas 03/06
Ahead of the Game
The goal for this pair of video gamers: make controllers comfortable, and put the joy back in joysticks.
What: Faux-suede padded covers for game controllers; gel thumb pads for analog joysticks
Who: Steinar Skipsnes and Curtis Harris of TruGamerz
Where: Germantown, Maryland
When: Started in 2004
You've got the enemy locked in your sights when, suddenly, your hand cramps, your thumb slips, and you realize you're already dead. Steinar Skipsnes and Curtis Harris of TruGamerzknow this video-game players' frustration all too well, which is why they created the Glovesplay and the Thumbmaster, respectively.
Skipsnes came up with the Glovesplay--a padded controller cover--in early 2004. While playing video games with a friend, he realized how uncomfortable the controllers were. So Skipsnes, 24, set out to create a proto-type, learning how to sew, gathering intellectual property rights and finding a manufacturer, while a friend helped him raise $35,000 from private investors to cover startup costs.
Meanwhile, Harris, 28, was trying to bring his gel thumb pads for analog joysticks to the market. He had founded TruGamerz in 2002 with about $50,000 out of his own pocket. When he heard of Skipsnes' product through a business associate in 2004, he knew he had to meet him.
"Curtis and I were in a similar situation, and after a few flights and hours of phone conversations, it was apparent that combining our efforts and resources [would make] us stronger," Skipsnes says. "We decided the best move was to merge both products under the TruGamerz name."
"It just made sense to bring the products together," Harris adds.
The TruGamerz entrepreneurs are now looking to get their hands on controllers for the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. The Glovesplay is currently available for $14.95 on their website and on retail sites such as
What: A dish that cools kids' food in less than one minute
Who: Denise Marshall of Tudy's Inc.
Where: Tempe, Arizona
When: Started in 2003
Tired of running around the house busy with chores, Denise Marshall, a mother of three, began looking for ways to maximize quality time with her family. As she went through her routine, she noticed she spent too much time blowing on her kids' food every day to try to cool it down.
Marshall, 42, wondered if there was a product that could help. She searched stores and even attended the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association trade show in her quest, but found nothing. So she decided to get serious about making something herself in 2002. Using about $37,000 from her and her husband's savings, Marshall developed just what she needed: the Mac and Cool, a plastic bowl that's filled with one cup of water, placed in the freezer, and used to cool off a serving of piping-hot macaroni and cheese, or any kid-friendly meal.
After a year of development and production, Marshall began marketing the product to specialty baby stores. She found the most success at the JPMA trade show that first helped set her idea in motion.
Marshall began distributing the Mac and Cool nationally in 2004, grossing $60,000. With the product's rise in popularity, 2005 sales reached $120,000, and now Marshall can hardly keep her supply in stock.
What's next for the Mac and Cool? Marshall has been in talks with major food manufacturers to produce the bowl as a promotional item in conjunction with their products. She expects this type of fusion to help her garner $500,000 to $1 million in 2006 sales.
Marshall hopes the Mac and Cool will alleviate some of the stress associated with family life. "This product speaks well to families that are busy," she says. "And that's almost everybody."
The Best Medicine
What: Electronic submission services and software for the pharmaceutical industry
Who: James Walker, Neal Walker and Kirk Gallion of Octagon Research
Where: Wayne, Pennsylvania
When: Started in 2000
When James Walker and Kirk Gallion saw a chance to make some changes in their industry, they jumped on it. As consultants to pharmaceutical companies, James, 36, and Gallion, 33, felt the industry needed to streamline how companies electronically submitted new drug proposals to the FDA and health authorities worldwide. Says Gallion, "It was less about starting a business and more about how we could do this better."
In 2000, the two friends came together with James' identical twin, Neal, a dermatologist who was also working as a pharmaceutical consultant, to form Octagon Research.
"Because Kirk had an extensive technology background, Neal is a physician and I had a regulatory background, we were able to create a solution that resonated in the marketplace," James says.
Combining $15,000 from their personal savings for startup costs, the partners leased a small office in early 2000. Then they had to convince their clients that their proposal-submission method would work. "When you think about it, they have potentially [invested] hundreds of millions [of dollars'] worth of drug development costs. They have to package it for review by an agency, and they're going to hand it over to you. It's really a zero-defect product we have to produce," James says.
But by relying on contacts they had made while working as consultants, their reputation grew. With 2005 sales at $20 million, the company has grown to more than 200 employees, with additional offices in Costa Mesa, California, and Amersham, England.
Do Me a Favor
What: Online seller of elegant wedding favors
Who: Jennifer Nichols and Brad Fallon of MyWeddingFavors.com
When: Started in 2004
How much: Less than $1,000
While searching the net for the perfect place-card holders to use at her upcoming wedding, Jennifer Nichols saw a great opportunity waiting to be unveiled. She recognized the huge demand for wedding favors, but they lacked variety. "There were over 150,000 people [doing internet searches on] the term 'wedding favors' every month," says Nichols. So the former corporate sales agent decided to start a part-time online business.
Nichols, 35, went to a wholesale mart and spent a couple hundred dollars on wedding favors. Her tech-savvy fiancÃ©, Brad Fallon, 38, helped her set up a Yahoo! storefront for $50. Nichols credits the "no paper" approach to helping her keep startup costs low.
In January 2004, MyWeddingFavors.comopened with 40 products. Nichols' basement served as business headquarters, and to keep expenditures low, she didn't stock inventory, but kept just enough on hand to fill orders. In June 2004, with sales of $1 million, the business became a full-time venture.
Nichols had a lot more ideas for wedding favors, so she and Fallon traveled to China and struck a deal with a manufacturing company to create their own line. In October 2004, they formed a wholesale company, Kate Aspen, not only to provide product for MyWeddingFavors.com, but also to help other retailers find a stylish assortment of favors, including silver heart-shaped measuring spoons and miniature wedding-cake candles. The site now features 1,000 different wedding favors, and 2005 sales reached $3.85 million.