Getting inventions to market: A personal story

Dec. 2, 1999
For every item on department store shelves, there’s plenty more that never made it

For every item on department store shelves, there’s plenty more that never made it. The reasons are varied but the outcome is the same. Money is spent by an individual inventor or company with little or no reward for the trouble.

When I interviewed here at MACHINE DESIGN about two years ago, the Big Whigs asked what I did previously. The meeting was a rather routine affair except for when I began describing how I once tried to market one of my inventions. There’s something about inventions that gets people’s attention. It’s probably all the stories about inventors getting wildly rich off of some really stupid ideas. What you don’t hear about is the other 99% who crash and burn. As an inventor, you’re a hero when you strike it big and a zero when you don’t.

My brainchild was a different type of eyewear holder. I’d lost two pair of good sunglasses in less than a year, and I hated those eyewear cords that dangle your shades on your chest and give you rope burns. So I designed a tiny clip that would hold eyeglasses securely in a pocket or attach them to a shirt. I filed an invention disclosure with the U.S. Patent Office and refined the concept. A toolmaker friend who owns a shop machined a few prototypes based on my CAD drawings. Later he built a simple mold and shot a few parts in nylon. I wrote a patent application, had it reviewed by a patent attorney, and eventually was awarded a U.S. utility patent. There was the first big expense. Next, I tweaked the design and approached a production toolmaker to build the molds. More costs.

I received positive feedback on the product from nearly all who saw it including fellow entrepreneurs, salespeople, and retired executives. Skeptical, however, was a marketing guru in California. The guru looked over my wares as we sipped cappuccino at a Pebble Beach clubhouse. “If a product convinces someone that they’re more beautiful or popular, or that it will make them wealthier, it’ll sell,” he said in a prerecorded tone. “I don’t see it with this.” I left with my tail between my legs and flew back home.

What I needed was a hook — something to catch people’s attention. So I hired a graphics designer and a video production company to produce a two-minute video, preliminary packaging, and counter displays. It was great fun; Slinky, bleachedsmile models paraded around dangling sunglasses from my clips on their halter tops.

With video and packaging in hand, I bugged the purchasing manager at the largest sunglass retailer to have a meeting with me. After two months of my unrelenting phone calls and letters, she finally caved in. The meeting at the headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., went well, I thought. “Interesting. Send me pricing for 10k and 100k units,” she said. Two weeks later, after several unreturned phone calls, I reached her. “We’re not taking on any new accessories at this time.” No reason. Nothing. Perhaps it was the packaging she didn’t like. I’ll never know.

Bruised but undaunted, I hired another package designer and the best Photoshop jockey in town to give it extra zip. The fancier packaging helped to get the product mentioned on CNBC, the NBC morning news in Denver, and in a trade magazine, but it didn’t boost sales. Another “guru” took an interest in the repackaged offering and also relieved me of more than a few of my dwindling bucks. Still, no sales to speak of.

So what went wrong? It’s hard not to take failure personally, but I chalk it up to consumer fickleness. Some things sell and others don’t, it’s as simple as that. In my mind, I did most things right. I hired talent I didn’t possess myself. The product works, is priced fairly, and I had a reasonable plan to bring it to a growing market. In fact, the loan officer at the bank said it was one of the best business plans he’d ever read and suggested that I charge others to write plans for them. I even got a loan.

I learned a lesson from all this. If you ask someone if an idea is good and they say yes, next ask them if they’d invest in it. If they say yes again, maybe, just maybe, you’re on to something. However, when enough people say no to the second question, go on to the next idea.

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