Tool Time Product Launch
How one entrepreneur built a better screwdriver and used smart networking to get it placed on the shelves of Sears.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
The entrepreneur: Allen Kenner, 43, of Ashland,Oregon
Product description: The Grip-N-Drive is an upgrade from thetypical ratcheting screwdriver. Kenner patented the product'srubber grip mechanism: It spins freely in either direction, butthen deforms to grip down on the screwdriver's handle whensqueezed. A package of five Grip-N-Drive screwdrivers (two Phillipsand three slotted screwdrivers) sells for $19.99 at Sears storesnationwide under the Craftsman label.
Startup: Approximately $15,000 for a patent and a workingprototype
Sales: Pratt-Read, the Bridgeport, Connecticut, company thatlicenses the product, expects Grip-N-Drive sales to reach between$1 million and $5 million this year. Kenner gets a percentage asroyalties.
The challenge: Getting your innovation on the shelves ofa major retailer that prefers not to buy from one-line,underfinanced inventors
You've invented a unique product you're sure will sellmillions. Think that was hard? Get ready to face the greaterchallenge of getting the product on the shelves of a big-namenational retailer. While you could go it alone, you'llencounter a lot of resistance. Instead, your best bet is to make aconnection with a company that already sells to your targetcustomer. That's what Allen Kenner did with his innovativescrewdriver, and once he got a current supplier on his side, thedoors began to open.
Steps to Success
1. Push yourself to develop the ultimate design."The handle grips on my early prototypes could spin, but notsmoothly," says Kenner, who started developing the product in1998. "Some people who tried them had a ho-hum reaction to theproduct. I realized that the Grip-N-Drive needed a grip peoplecould get excited about--one that could spin faster and [more]easily in either direction with a single twist. Once I produced theeasy-twist screwdriver, everybody who tried it wantedone."
A big "wow" factor helps, but simplicity also countsbecause it appeals to people. "I believe in the SMACtenet--'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-Driveexemplifies SMAC, consisting of only two nylon snap-rings and aspecial rubber grip mounted on the screwdriver. Due to the extremesimplicity of the Grip-N-Drive, I had concerns that my idea wouldbe stolen if I manufactured overseas. Fortunately, the simplicityof the design, in combination with the automated product processused to manufacture screwdrivers, allowed me to have theGrip-N-Drive produced in the U.S."
2. Make sure consumers like the product. "I gotfeedback on the design and conducted market research by showing myproduct to friends at parties and other places in town, alwaysgetting signed nondisclosure agreements," Kenner says. "Iasked successful businessmen for advice and, through networking,found local people who had worked in the hand-tool industry. Theyprovided valuable information and reinforced my belief in theviability of the Grip-N-Drive. Once I felt comfortable with themanufacturing-to-retail price ratio, I began looking at options forproduc ing and marketing my screwdriver."
3. Develop a strategy. Kenner wanted to license hisproduct to a company that could sell it to Sears. "I decided Iwould have the greatest chance of suc cess approaching a small tomidsize company. I also wanted to keep travel expenses down andwork with a company I could trust. A local manufacturer,Professional Tool Manufacturing LLC in Ashland, Oregon, which sellsits Drill Doctor, a drill-sharpening machine, through Sears, met mycriteria."
4. Make networking a priority. Having trouble gettingyour foot in the door of a potential licensor? If possible, havesomeone who already knows people there recommend your product."Rather than going directly to the company, [in 2002] I askeda friend with a connection [to Professional Tool] to arrange anintroductory meeting by explaining to one of the owners that heknew someone with an exciting invention."
5. Don't sign a deal too soon. Kenner signed anondisclosure agreement with Professional Tool, but no other
Agreement. When Sears requested that some changes be made to theproduct's design that would raise upfront tooling costs andproduction costs, Professional Tool graciously backed out of thedeal and let Pratt-Read, a leading private-label supplier, takeover. By October 2004, the Grip-N-Drive was being sold in someSears stores, and a nationwide rollout soon followed.
1. Protect your idea. The only way to know if yourproduct has the "wow" factor is to show your idea tothose with whom you network. Just make sure everyone signs aconfidential nondisclosure agreement. For sample agreements, go tothe UnitedInventors Association website and click the "NoviceInventors" box.
2. Be patient. Inventors get excited and often rush tomeet with a company. You're better off, however, networking andattending trade shows and association meetings, even if it takesthree to four months. The goal is to find someone with a connectionto executives at the target company who can tell them about yourproduct.
3. Be careful with your agreements. You may talk to threeor four companies about licensing a deal, and some of them may helpyou get to the final deal. However, you don't want to be forcedto share royalties with a company that doesn't end up makingand selling your product. Prevent this by having an agreementstating that you are discussing with the manufacturer thepossibility of it manufacturing and selling your product in returnfor a licensing agreement. That way, you are not obligated to paypart of your royalties to a company other than your eventuallicensor.
The Juicy Details
Are you stymied in your efforts to come up with your owncan't-miss product idea? Then check out Juice: The CreativeFuel That Drives World-Class Inventors by Evan I. Schwartz(Harvard Business School Press, $24.95). The book shares thestories of how top inventors--from Thomas Edison to Dean Kamen ofSegway fame--developed their inventions. These innovators observethe world around them differently than most people. The book showshow they think in a way that sparks creativity and how theytranscend the boundaries that most people have trouble breakingthrough when trying to be creative. What makes the book mostvaluable is the wide range of tactics, lessons and strategies thatanyone can use to get their creative juices flowing.
Don Debelak is author of Entrepreneur magazine'sStart-Up Guide #1813, Bringing Your Product to Market(www.smallbizbooks.com), and hostof inventor-help website www.dondebelak.com.