Selling Your Invention
Whatever your sales experience, we have the steps you need to get your product on the shelf.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
For some entrepreneurs, this one, simple word strikes great fear; it's just "not their thing."
Other entrepreneurs feel just the opposite, that sales will be a cinch. After all, they believe, their product is so great, it'll sell itself.
The reality, as is typical, lies somewhere between.
First, it's important to know that even if you're initially uncomfortable with the idea of selling, you can learn to do it. As the inventor/entrepreneur of your unique product, you alone are the most qualified person to sell it. You have the knowledge and the passion to make it happen.
On the other hand, even if you believe you can sell snow to an Eskimo, realize that there's a lot you need to know before you start pounding the pavement.
The process of selling a product is relatively basic--just be sure to clearly see your invention as a product, and yourself as a businessperson. It's a lot easier to grow sales if you understand the way a market adopts a product, especially when there's a lot of competition. It's also critical to establish your product's position. Once you understand the process, develop your position and create your sales plan, you can put your strategy in action and begin making the sale.
Your first step is understanding how to create demand for your product.
Unless you're very lucky or very connected, you probably won't launch your product directly into mass-market retail stores like Target or Wal-Mart. Instead, there's a product sales lifecycle you should follow that basically takes you from the ground up, allowing you to build sales in a smart, methodical fashion, starting with small independent retailers and moving up to the big guns.
So what is this "product sales life cycle," anyway? It's like working with a funnel--in reverse.
Picture a funnel lying on its side. Envision pushing enough units of your product through the bottom of this funnel to fill it up as you move from the narrow end to the wide end. The distance from the small end to the large end represents time. You'll need more units to fill the expanding funnel the closer you get to the top of the wide end. The narrow tip of the funnel represents the very beginning of your sales effort, and the top of the funnel represents the point in time when you've achieved the peak of your distribution goal. This process, in a nutshell, illustrates how you'll create demand for your product.
So how, specifically, can you put this idea into action? To create demand, follow these steps:
- Start by selling directly to end-users. This'll give you confidence in selling and create "referenceable" customers. You can also get their feedback on the product and packaging to make improvements before expanding your sales efforts.
- Once you've ironed out your product and packaging wrinkles, begin selling to local independent specialty stores and online stores. For instance, if you've designed a line of greeting cards, approach your local gift shops. Become successful with these retailers, and you'll have the leverage and negotiating chops to go on to the next level.
- The next level is selling to larger, independent regional stores and catalogs. Note that these buyers will want to see evidence of success at the local level before taking on your product.
- Finally, once you've achieved success with these retailers, you may decide to approach mass-market sales channels--traditionally, stores like Sears, Target, Wal-Mart and Kmart.
Of course, it's important to note that this process doesn't apply to all products and all people, so use the above as a guide, not an absolute. Some products will never be appropriate for a mass audience and will do better as specialty offerings. And some products will find great success in niche areas that may not be immediately apparent, such as school fundraising catalogs, for instance. Be sure to talk to people in your target market to learn where they shop, and continue communicating with retailers, reps and other contacts in your industry.
Okay. So now you understand the big picture--that you need to start out with small retailers, create ever-increasing demand, and eventually move on to the bigger retailers. But what else do you need to do to ensure you're reaching the right audience at the right time?
It's All About Positioning Your Product
Before you make your first sales call, it's vital to "position" your product the right way in the marketplace to ensure results. Market positioning is the discipline that allows you to examine the marketplace, analyze it for opportunity, and discover where your product fits in and how it can benefit people. Understanding your product's position is critical in helping you decide who to sell to and how to present it as unique and worthy of a buyer's attention. While market positioning is a huge and complex discipline, there are a few basic elements that can serve your purposes as you begin:
- First, define your target market. This exercise will dramatically improve your chances of success when you hit the road (or phone) selling. To the greatest extent possible, determine the potential for your sales efforts. This means clarifying if your product fits a narrow niche market, or if it has more of a mass-market appeal. For instance, a scrapbook designed for brides fits a niche market: women planning their weddings. A scrapbook designed for women in general fits a mass market. To define your own target market, identify who sells similar products and familiarize yourself with the competition. Then, once you've defined your largest potential market, you'll need to determine your customer profile so you can properly position your product.
What should your customer profile consist of, you ask? Factors including age, gender, income range, level of education, marital status, parental status, ethnicity, lifestyle priorities, geographic region and shopping habits. (These are also called "demographics.")
- Next, you'll need to position the product. To sell your product effectively, your customers must feel that your product provides a benefit worth the money they're paying. Product positioning is how you describe these benefits. Your positioning may also illustrate how your product differs from others already in the marketplace.
First, start by defining your product's features. These are the specific characteristics that describe your product. For example, if it's a specialized cleaning product, your features may include "cuts through grease," "antibacterial formula," and "fresh, clean scent." Next, outline your benefits. These explain how your product will enhance the user's life. In this example, it might be: "reduces the time it takes to clean the kitchen," and "cuts the spread of germs--making your family healthier."
Truly knowing your customers--what benefits they value, and what will motivate them to purchase--is essential. That's because if positioned incorrectly, even a great product won't sell.
Make a Plan
Now that you've positioned your product, you're ready to create your sales plan. This shouldn't be a complex hurdle; rather, it should be a simple written document that'll help you organize your approach to sales. Only you will see this plan (unless you're creating it for investors), so organize it in a way that works best for you. Basic elements of this plan should include:
- Your sales goals. Goals should be specific and measurable, and based on the specific nature of your product. Rather than your goal being to "sell a million units," be sure it's realistic--and break it down into attainable steps.
- A timeline. Assign a timetable to reaching your projected sales goals. This will help you reach real milestones and measure your progress.
- Establish tactics. These may include developing product sell sheets, attending trade shows, making appointments with local retailers, researching the web for appropriate retailers, etc. Write down these tactics in your plan and attach dates to these activities. You'll then be ready to begin putting your plan into action.
There's certainly a lot more to know about developing and maximizing your sales strategy. But by understanding and positioning your product correctly--and following the right steps, over time, to create demand for your product--you'll be well on your way to creating long-term success (and perhaps even selling those "million units" eventually, too!).