Developing a good relationship with your supplier is vital to securing a quality manufacturer. The better the history you have with them and the more loyal they see you are the more leverage you’ll have. You may be able to secure more favorable terms, negotiate flexible installment schedules, have input in future product development, or receive preferential treatment.
As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Connie Inukai.
Connie Inukai had a distinguished career as a technical writing professor at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University. This was her First Act. Her Second Act was being an entrepreneur and inventor of a device to help people read the menu and pay the bill in restaurants. For her Third Act, she developed a service to help people write their life story in pictures.
She is a well-known author, encouraging seniors to have an active retirement through business or social entrepreneurship. www.grandmapreneurinventor.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Growing up with a divorced mother raising six kids was difficult, but it taught us all to be resourceful.
My saddest memory was in high school, when my boyfriend, Clayton, was killed in a car crash. After three solid months of crying, I decided to live my life to the fullest in his honor. You see, Clayton was an over-achiever, 4.0 GPA and already accepted to Yale in his junior year. I will always remember him, as I strive to accomplish more than I am capable of through every step of my life. I still honor Clayton — more than 50 years after his death.
We grew up with no luxuries, and I had jobs throughout high school and college.
In college, I had three jobs at the same time so I could help pay for my tuition. With one of my first paychecks, I bought a dress. It was my first piece of clothing that wasn’t a hand-me-down. You see, I had an older sister and a younger brother who were both bigger than me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“What if I fall? Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?” by Erin Hanson
This quote is on my desk, and I look at it every day.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Of course, I can relate to the movie “Joy,” but the movie came out just when I was starting to get my own publicity. The movie was about Joy Mangano, who invented a mop and went through many difficulties with manufacturing. Manufacturing has also been problematic for me, as it’s hard to control overseas suppliers. Joy didn’t give up, and neither did I. I learned something interesting from that movie. One of Joy’s friends called QVC to place an order and gave a great review. I’ll try that, too.
This may sound surprising, but I was also impacted by the movie “Rocky.” Sylvester Stallone watched a championship match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner on March 24, 1975. Wepner, a virtual unknown, was not expected to last more than one or two rounds, but he lasted till the end of the fight! Sylvester Stallone always liked the underdog. He ran home after the fight and wrote the screenplay for Rocky in three-and-a-half days. As a 72-year-old inventor, I am an underdog and a fighter. Passion has no age.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
If you had asked me five years ago what I would be doing today, I would have never come up with this.
I used to be a college professor, teaching Technical Writing at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University. I inspired countless college seniors to think about their careers and to learn good writing skills to support their technical skills.
I didn’t think about a future in inventing at that time.
Then one day while having dinner with some friends, we had to pass around reading glasses because none of us could read the small print on the menu and bill. And the restaurant was too dark. Also, when the bill came, we had all had a few drinks, so one person would inevitably offer to figure out the tip and split the bill. This was never ME. I was good at writing, but math was not my strong point.
I decided to make dining more enjoyable by inventing Tip ‘n Split.
Tip ‘n Split is an innovative LED magnifying tool that not only helps you see the menu, it can calculate a tip and split the bill for each member of your group. It’s easy to use for all and keeps dinner in fun mode with a gadget that takes the stress out of paying the bill — plus it keeps your smartphone away from the table! It’s a unique product for people who like to dine out but can’t read small print on the menu or bill!
I knew nothing about inventing!
There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
My first challenge was in actually creating my invention, but I was fortunate to have an ex-husband who was a brilliant electrical engineer and mathematician. I told him my idea, and we worked together. He came up with the algorithms to make my product work smoothly!
People invent for a variety of reasons. Some invent in order to meet basic human needs. Others invent to fulfill their own creative desires. Many inventions are inspired by social or economic reasons — by the desire to make life easier and more comfortable or by the need to make money.
Most people think of at least one good invention in their life. Some people keep the idea in their head, some just write the idea down in a journal, and a few move forward toward invention success.
Although it takes a lot of money to develop an invention, manufacture it, market it successfully, and protect it with patents, it’s exhilarating.
Few people actually proceed, mainly because they don’t know where to start.
But I had a computer, and my computer had Google.
I Googled “inventing,” “inventors,” “starting a business,” “entrepreneurship,” and many more search words. Each one led to more searches.
Getting on QVC was my first big break and was an enormous challenge. The retail giant sees more than 10,000 vendor applications a year, and only about 500 get the greenlight to appear on its TV channels and digital platforms. Three qualities helped me:
I took my product idea to an INPEX trade show for inventors in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met representatives from QVC searching for new sellers. I told them “I’m so sorry, but I only have pictures. Here’s what my product is and what it does.” They were interested, but couldn’t move forward without seeing more. It was disappointing. But when the woman in charge told me to come back with a prototype, I knew I would take her advice. I don’t give up too easily. The following year, I met the same reps again, and this time it was a YES. In fact, they loved the Tip ‘n Split so much that I was on-air six months later.
QVC hosts have a lot of personality. They are so good at what they do. Concerned that I couldn’t match their big personas, and that it would hurt my chances of getting on-air, I focused on what I did have: friendliness and relatability. It turns out those qualities are just as important on QVC. Without realizing it, I had honed in on a huge part of the retailer’s success formula: The backyard-fence chat, where on-air interactions are meant to feel like a casual talk between neighbors.
When my friends and I started struggling to see dinner menus in darkened restaurants, I knew there had to be a way to solve the problem. People assume you don’t do much at my age, but that is not in my DNA. Born from personal experience, Tip ‘n Split became a passion project. I get so excited when talking about it. QVC loved that. They knew I genuinely believed in my product.
Getting on QVC was the start of my inventing journey. I feel my success in selling my product might never have happened had I not showcased these all-important qualities, which first caught the eye of QVC.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Have you Googled it?
One of the first thoughts inventors have is “How do I know if my product is new and patentable?” Google your idea! If your product is out there, Google can help you find it! After you have Googled your idea, and you want to move forward, I suggest a patent search.
The U. S. Patent & Trademark Office https://www.uspto.gov/ will provide a list of previously patented and/or patent-pending concepts that may be related to your idea. Patent searches are complex procedures and with almost nine million issued patents and millions more pending, you may want to hire an experienced patent researcher. I hired a patent attorney to do this.
After using Google and a patent search to confirm my concept was indeed new, I moved forward with the patent process.
Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?
I wish I could say that my parents inspired me through the inventing process, but I am 72 and my parents passed away long before I started my journey of being an inventor. But, looking back, they were both inspirational. My mom graduated from high school at age 15 and law school at age 20. She was obviously an over-achiever. Divorced, with six kids, she knew how to succeed in the face of adversity…and passed that on to her children. I think I got my inventing spirit from my dad, although I didn’t know it at the time. He was a barber in the army during WWII. After serving in the military, he used to tinker with inventions in our basement. I was about six, and he showed me a curling iron he had invented; he took a metal comb and connected it to a heating element to dry and curl your hair at the same time. He didn’t take it further. There were no internet searches to learn about patenting at that time.
Without my parents for inspiration, I turn to two mentors who are still alive.
My first encounter as an inventor was attending a meeting in Clearwater, Florida five years ago, and meeting Bob Circosta. Bob Circosta is considered one of the pioneers of the home shopping industry and has achieved over one billion dollars in personal product sales on live television. His offices are just a few miles from the Home Shopping Network’s corporate building, and he took me there. I already had the spark, but this ignited the flame. Bob Circosta continues to be my trusted mentor.
I had some disappointments with my manufacturer and lost a lot of money, but beyond the money, I was getting discouraged. That’s when I went to SCORE and met Ed Coleman. Ed, my mentor, probably doesn’t know how much he helped me restart my business! He invited me to a Pitch Contest, where I was selected to work with a company that is now taking my product, Tip ‘n Split to store shelves!
For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
My answer here is lengthy, particularly about manufacturing, because my patent attorney, Richard Blank, is writing a book on the subject. Richard asked me to help with the writing, and he is allowing me to share his words, so I hope this is helpful.
Here are the steps you’ll need in developing your invention:
- Build a prototype.
- Get a patent.
- Decide on how to manufacture your product.
- Find a manufacturer.
- Negotiate favorable terms.
- Get your product into stores.
- Market your invention.
Build a Prototype
A prototype is a model of your invention that puts into practice all of the things you have for your patent and will demonstrate the design of your invention when you present it to potential lenders and licensees. Do not file a patent before you have made a prototype. You will almost always discover a flaw in your original design or think of a new feature you would like to add. If you patent your idea before you work out these kinks, it will be too late to include them in the patent, and you will risk losing the patent rights of the new design to someone else.
Here are some general rules to keep in mind when prototyping your invention:
1. Begin with a drawing. Before you begin the prototyping phase, sketch out all of your ideas.
2. Create a concept mockup out of any materials that will allow you to create a 3-D model of your design.
3. Once you’re satisfied with the mockup, create a full-working model of your idea. There are many books and kits that can help you create prototypes. If your invention is something that will cost a lot of money or is unreasonable to prototype, like an oil refinery process or a new pharmaceutical drug, consider using a computer-animated virtual prototype.
Whether you’re making your prototype at home or hiring an engineer, seamstress, or machinist, it’s exciting to see your idea transformed into something tangible.
What should a prototype look like? First, it depends on your idea. Second, it depends on your budget and your goals. If possible, it’s great to start with a handmade prototype, no matter how simple, even made from household items.
You can also get a prototype using 3D printing. Generally, 3D printing small objects is inexpensive and 3D printing large objects is expensive.
Prices for 3D printing materials depend on the quality of the material, the type of the material, and the manufacturer. The average 3D printer material cost for standard resins is approximately $50 per liter. That means cheap resins may be under $50.
You can also buy your own 3D printer from as low as $200 up to several thousand dollars. An average printer is about $700.
Get a Patent
Some people confuse patents, copyrights, and trademarks. Although there may be some similarities among these kinds of intellectual property protection, they are different and serve different purposes.
A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Generally, the term of a new patent is 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the United States or, in special cases, from the date an earlier related application was filed, subject to the installment of maintenance fees. Once a patent is issued, the patentee must enforce the patent without aid of the USPTO.
There are three types of patents:
1) Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;
2) Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and
3) Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.
A trademark is a word, name, symbol, or device that is used in trade with goods to indicate the source of the goods and to distinguish them from the goods of others. A servicemark is the same as a trademark except that it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product. The terms “trademark” and “mark” are commonly used to refer to both trademarks and service marks.
Trademark rights may be used to prevent others from using a confusingly similar mark, but not to prevent others from making the same goods or from selling the same goods or services under a clearly different mark. Trademarks that are used in interstate or foreign commerce may be registered with the USPTO.
Copyright is a form of protection provided to the authors of “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished. Copyrights are registered by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but if you spend years developing a great invention and put all your life savings into getting it manufactured, you’re unlikely to be “flattered” when someone tries to copy it and make money on the back of it. That’s why the world has patents. A patent is a legal document that records, in great detail, how an invention works, what makes it original, when it was first invented, and who owns the rights to it. Society moves forward through the development of great ideas but, for that to happen, the people who come up with those ideas have to be able to make at least some money out of them (even if they don’t get rich). Patents make it possible for inventors to earn money from their inventions for a limited amount of time before the rights expire. At that point, society as a whole benefits because the idea behind the invention effectively becomes public property, i.e. “public domain”.
Despite all these difficulties, taking out a patent is an essential step to protecting an invention. Find a good patent attorney, preferably one recommended by another inventor. You can join Facebook groups for inventors and request suggestions. I found my patent attorney, Richard Blank, through a friend. Filing a patent can be lengthy, complex, difficult, and expensive; typically, it takes about two years from the date when you apply for a patent to the time when it is formally granted to you (largely because there are so many patents being applied for — several hundred thousand a year in the United States alone).
My patent took about two years, but I have since learned that you can get a prioritized patent quicker and with no fee if you are over 65. (I wish I had known that.)
Now that you have all of the kinks worked out of your design, it’s finally time to file a patent. There are two main patents you will have to choose from: a utility patent (for new processes or machines) or a design patent (for manufacturing new, non-obvious ornamental designs). You can write the patent and fill out the application yourself, but do not file it yourself until you have had a skilled patent professional look it over first. If the invention is really valuable, someone will infringe on it. If you do not have a strong patent written by a patent attorney or agent, you will regret it later when a competitor finds a loophole that allows them to copy your idea. It’s best to get legal help now to avoid any legal problems in the future.
Follow these steps to help you choose the best patent professional:
1. Do your homework. Have your prototype and notes. This will save them time and you money. This will also help persuade them to work with you.
2. Make sure they are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
3. Ask them what their technical background is. If your invention is electronic, find a patent professional who is also an electrical engineer.
4. Discuss fees. Keep your focus on smaller patent firms. They are less expensive and will work more closely with you. Agree to the estimated total cost before hiring your patent professional.
Decide on How to Manufacture Your Product
Once you have a prototype of your product, it’s now time to determine which type of product supplier you’ll need to get started. The following descriptions of different product supplier types can help you decide:
- Manufacturers: Some manufacturers will sell products directly to you. Manufacturers tend to request high Minimum Order Quantity, or MOQ. MOQ refers to the least amount of products or units that a supplier is willing to produce at one time. MOQs are set by suppliers to cover their cost of production and ensure that they make a profit from each production run.
If you’re prepared to buy direct, then this is a good option, as you can save money over the long term. However, if large bulk orders are a problem, you might be better off purchasing from middlemen until you’re prepared to purchase in bulk.
- Foreign Companies, Importers/Import Agents: Consider sourcing your products internationally. Many import companies are prepared to help you find deals abroad and act as a domestic distributor for overseas firms. However, if you do your due diligence and are prepared to handle import details, you may want to bypass import houses and deal directly with foreign manufacturers yourself.
On a personal note, I used an agent for my manufacturer, but I would deal directly with the manufacturer/factory in the future. The reason is that I felt like the agent did not communicate my needs with the factory any better than I could have done.
Should you manufacture your product domestically or overseas?
When you have your invention and want to produce it, it’s important to decide where to manufacture it. Deciding whether to manufacture in the United States or overseas depends on many factors:
Depending on your product and your needs, the decision may already be made for you based on what domestic or foreign manufacturers can offer.
- Domestic Manufacturing
If you have a specialized product that is in high demand and needs to be delivered reliably on a schedule, domestic sources are probably the best alternative. The United States has higher manufacturing and labor standards, ensuring a quality working environment, safe employees, and a better product. In contrast to some disasters at overseas factories, this is essential. Manufacturing domestically is also an ethical choice. Using a domestic manufacturer allows you to say “Made in the US,” which is a valuable marketing tool.
Domestic manufacturers also maintain strict intellectual property protection. With IP protection, your product cannot be copied and mass produced. And because the majority of Americans speak English, there isn’t a language barrier, limiting confusion in communications.
Without customs and shipping time, orders can be turned around faster and shipped much sooner.
The drawbacks to domestic sourcing are mostly associated with cost. Labor laws in the United States require higher wages and better facilities than other countries, increasing your expenses.
- Overseas Manufacturing
Foreign manufacturers are much cheaper than domestic sources; therefore, your costs could be as much as 80% lower. This can save you money to spend on other expenses such as product development and marketing.
Some countries have also implemented incentives to attract companies, such as minimal taxes and fewer regulations or red tape. This allows you to start your operation quickly and scale the business as needed.
Most foreign manufacturers are cheaper due to the large number of workers who are willing to do the labor for much lower wages; this keeps delays to a minimum since there are always employees ready.
Foreign manufacturers, on the other hand, have some problems. They have a reputation as being inferior in quality, and other countries have fewer intellectual property protections, putting your business at risk. Shipping time can be weeks or even months instead of days, due to a lengthy customs and import process. Recent tariffs are now causing increased costs for overseas goods.
In addition, a potential language barrier can cause confusion.
Ultimately, the decision lies in your manufacturing needs. There is no one right answer for all companies or all products. What makes the most business sense is dependent on your unique needs. My own product is a consumer electronic, and I had a difficult time finding a manufacturer in the U.S. that could compare with the electronics factories in Hong Kong.
There are a number of factors to consider in making the best choice for your business. Don’t go with the cheapest option; choose the one which will deliver the most value in the long-term.
Find a Manufacturer
Finding a quality manufacturer for your business is essential to your success. If you have a great relationship with your manufacturer, you can potentially secure better installment terms, giving you much-needed flexibility in your business. On the other hand, an unreliable manufacturer may deliver defective products, cause customer complaints, and leave your shelves empty.
There are many ways to find an ideal manufacturer:
- Trade Shows: One of the best places to find quality wholesale product suppliers is at a trade show. Attending trade shows is a good way to build and grow your business. These events are for retailers just like you. If you have a booth, the manufacturers will come to you, and you can ask questions and get their information. If you don’t have a booth, you can just roam the floor and spot manufacturers by the badges they are wearing. You can ask questions and get their information and follow up after the trade show.
The largest directory of trade shows is at TSNN.com. You can search for a trade show by industry, date, city, state or country and/or event name.
- Trade Publications: Magazines specific to your industry are another source of potential manufacturers. Get every magazine or newsletter that targets retailers in your industry. Every advertiser in the magazine will be a product manufacturer or distributor looking to reach you. You should have many options from the ads in the back of the magazine. Also, subscribe to all of the online newsletters, blogs, and other sources of information available to you.
- Peers: Other people in the trade may be willing to steer you towards first-rate suppliers. Online forums are another place to swap stories, ideas, and experiences. The Facebook group Entrepreneur Exchange consists of members who are willing to offer help in finding a manufacturer.
- Online Searches: Most quality wholesale product suppliers will have a good website and make it easy to find. However, you can also go through sites such as Alibaba and Wholesale Central, which includes a free subscription to Independent Retailer Magazine.
When assessing potential manufacturers, do your homework! Ask for references, get opinions from your peers, search for reviews online, and contact the Better Business Bureau.
I found my first manufacturer/agent at an inventor’s trade show. I didn’t do my homework, and suffered from missed deadlines, defective products, and years of frustration before I fired them. Please don’t make the mistake I made.
Negotiate Favorable Terms
Understand the terms of the agreement. It’s a good idea is to get advice from your patent attorney, who may recommend more favorable terms. Quality product suppliers want great relationships, so if you’re dealing with someone doesn’t have time for your questions or concerns, you may need to keep shopping around. Consider these questions:
- What are the shipment terms?
- Do you pay for shipping, or do they?
- What are the installment terms?
- How much credit are they willing to extend?
- How quickly can they ship the product?
- Do they offer expedited shipping if you sell out of your products?
Developing a good relationship with your supplier is vital to securing a quality manufacturer. The better the history you have with them and the more loyal they see you are the more leverage you’ll have. You may be able to secure more favorable terms, negotiate flexible installment schedules, have input in future product development, or receive preferential treatment.
Get Your Product In Front of Retailers
- Start from Small and Dream Big
Retailers always want to keep trustworthy products in their shops. So when they add a new product they want to see a record of accomplishments behind them.
- Research Your Target Market
Study the small or local stores that you are planning to target in the beginning. It would be very good if you go to a shop from where you buy products often as the store owner will be a good acquaintance. Ask the owner various questions to get a better understanding about buying cycles, regional and nationwide buyer information, customer preferences, etc.
The next step will be to take a note of the design of the store.
- What’s the store layout?
- What are the various product categories?
- How are the products grouped together?
Look for the products that would give good competition against your product. Compare your product against those on the basis of utility, packaging, quality, etc. Then think of answers to convince the retailer how your product will fit in there, how it is equally good like those products, or better than them.
Choose the right store. When you are done with your above research, you will have a good idea which stores will be the one to start with: the store layout, location, types of buyers and their need will help in the sales of your product.
- Make the Pitch in Person if Possible
Retail owners get bombarded with e-mails and brochures, to which they pay little attention. So try the old-school way; try to set up an appointment with the retail owner. You can also create a detailed presentation on your product mentioning the key factors.
- Get the Margins Straight
The primary thing a retailer is looking for is profit. So you’ve got to acknowledge the beneficial aspect from the retailer’s point-of-view as well. If you have done your homework right, there should not be much of a problem when it comes to common grounds of interest.
So when you pitch your product, the main focus should be on how much they are going to make out of it. Your pricing methods should reflect their profit margins. You should be very thoughtful about the various situations they are going to face once they make a deal with you and especially when your product is high in demand.
For example, you should provide them with enough margin to cover their transportation cost, storage costs etc.
- Leave a Sell Sheet
Most of the retailers will want some time to consider bringing your product into their stores. While they are making up their mind, get yourself some leverage by providing them sell sheets.
Sell sheets contain critical information about your product. They provide just the right amount of information to boost attention and interest. Utilize the research that you had done on the buyer’s need to customize the sell sheet. Try to make it eye-catching and alluring.
A regular sell sheet is a colored brochure that includes following points:
- Advantages of your product over your competitors
- Complete layout of pricing, while considering their needs
- Specimen of your product
- Patent documents for protecting your idea
- Your contact information
- Illustrations and photographs of the product
- Get Your Packaging Right
When it comes to a brick-and-mortar retail store, one of the important aspects retailers consider is: Does your product fit in their store? Does it take up too much space?
So the packaging is something that you need to focus on to get the first impressions right. You should probably hire a packaging expert for this.
The key is being catchy, something customers will stop and stare at for a while. Skilled designing is required to make your product worth their space. Bring some sample products to get their mind acquainted with the idea of the product in their store shelves.
- Market Your Invention
The success of your idea is only as good as your marketing plan. A good product successfully marketed is worth more than a great product poorly marketed.
You have three choices on how to bring your product to market:
- You do everything — manufacture, market, and sell.
- You subcontract the manufacturing and concentrate on marketing and selling your invention.
- You license your intellectual property rights to a company that arranges the manufacturing, marketing, and selling aspects and pays you a royalty (a percentage on each unit sold).
Find out as much about the industry your product sells in as you can. Educate yourself about wholesalers and distributors, manufacturers, and competition. Use every resource you have for assistance, including the Internet, the Small Business Association, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, local college and university business schools, and inventor organizations.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This is not funny, but it’s embarrassing. I went to a trade show for inventors, INPEX.
My manufacturer was late and I didn’t even have a prototype, but I had already bought a booth, so I went without a product.
At the show, I pitched my product to a panel of judges from QVC. I didn’t have a prototype, only pictures, I was so embarrassed, but the judges like my spirit. They recommended that I come back with a product.
I went to INPEX the next year WITH my product. The judges remembered me, and I got a standing ovation. They invited me to show my product on QVC.
I learned about the importance of persistence.
The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I started getting success after I attended an inventors’ conference, INPEX. My invention won the Gold Medal for “Best New Gadget.” That’s also where I pitched my product to QVC and was selected to actually appear on QVC. The Today Show contacted me to be on a show called “Gadgets Galore.” Then I pitched my product to “The View.” I found other venues on HARO, Help a Report Out, and got booked on NBC and Fox News. I definitely recommend HARO for other inventors.
I hired a few PR companies to help, after my initial success, but I found many of them just took my money and did not get me publicity. My takeaway is to not throw away money to PR companies. You can do it for yourself.
So…I wrote a book to help other inventors: “How I Got My Product on QVC, The Today Show, The View, and More…In Retirement.”
My suggestion for inventors is to try more than one avenue to propel your success.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be careful about spending money on publicity. I will not mention the PR companies who took my money and did nothing, but there were many. Inventors are vulnerable. We believe in our product, so we are easy prey. Whenever I want to hire someone, my trusted friend reminds me to “get a grip and read the book you wrote!” So, If you want advice on getting publicity, I offer 8 tips in my book:
- Buzz Tip #1 Be Positive and Surround Yourself with Positive People
- Buzz Tip #2..Be Attentive and Prepared
- Buzz Tip #3..Be Visual
- Buzz Tip #4..Be Current
- Buzz Tip #5..Be Grammatically Correct
- Buzz Tip #6..Be Charitable
- Buzz Tip #7..Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
- Buzz Tip #8..Be Creative and Persistent
2. Find a SCORE mentor https://www.score.org/.
For over 50 years, SCORE has served as America’s premier source of free business mentoring and education.
As a resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), SCORE has helped more than 11 million entrepreneurs through mentoring, workshops and educational resources since 1964.
I found my SCORE mentor, Ed Coleman from Arlington, VA, who immediately asked me to write a business plan. Projecting milestones for the next five years showed me how to proceed. You can get help with writing business plans at the Small Business Administration https://www.sba.gov/. Ed also introduced me to a company that helps small businesses get into retail. They are working with me now, thanks to SCORE!
3. Check unrealistic expectations. We can’t all get on Shark Tank. I know. I tried three times. The business of invention development is far more complicated and detail-driven than the snippet you see on TV.
4. Hire a virtual assistant. You can’t do everything. I have hired workers from Fiverr https://www.fiverr.com/ for around $10 — $100 to help me with design tasks and Facebook Ads so I can concentrate on what I do best. Someone from Fiverr helped me design the cover for my book and also helped me get it on Amazon. I am currently working with Fiverr to manage my Facebook ads and Instagram account.
5. Try to find a company to license your product. I wish I had known about licensing when I first started to develop my product. Stephen Key is the guru of licensing and has an online course, a podcast, and a few books which are easy to read and will help with all aspects of licensing. “One Simple Idea” takes you through the process step by step. It’s best to try to license your product before you start the manufacturing stage. The licensor can help with the costs. I didn’t know about licensing when I first became an inventor. I know now, and with my next invention, I will try for a licensing deal at the start. It saves time and money for the inventor.
Note: There is no pretty way to put this. Some inventions fail. If you are having no luck, with your product, perhaps it’s time to move on to something else.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
If you think you’ve got a genius idea, be prepared to put in the legwork to see it through!
Here are the steps I took and that you’ll need in developing your invention:
- See if the product has been invented.
Check your idea on Google and also with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. If a similar product exists, proceed if your product is an improved version. Check out the competition.
You can check out the competition by a Google search, or by going to a store and seeing where your product would be located. My product, Tip ‘n Split would be sold in drug stores near the reading glasses and magnifiers. I couldn’t find any competitors. There are apps that can figure out a tip and split a bill, but they cannot help you see the bill. Also, many ‘mature’ diners don’t use apps, especially when dining with friends.
2. Research the target market.
Ask people whether or not they’d buy your product. Make sure to ask people that can be objective (mom and dad probably won’t be) so that you can get honest feedback. Try to sample your ideal audience, and not just anyone.
3. Make a prototype.
Use your creativity. Only you know exactly what your invention will do.
4. Look into licensing.
A licensee is a company that agrees to manufacture and sell your product idea. Licensees usually send you installment in the form of royalties, so for each product sold, you earn a percentage. If you’re more interested in inventing things, this may be a good idea as licensees do all the hard work for you: producing the item, shipping it, marketing it, assuming liability, and so on.
A great way to find potential licensees is to look for products similar to yours and then to look for the name of the manufacturer. You can usually find it right on the box! Compile a list of these so that you can start reaching out to them once you’ve patented your idea.
You can submit an idea for licensing before you even have a prototype. The licensing company will pay you about 2% to 5% royalty and you won’t have to spend any money on manufacturing. Stephen Key’s book, One Simple Idea, gives you everything you need to know about licensing.
5. Go to pitch competitions.
The first time I pitched was at a Women’s Power Conference in Washington, DC. It was called “DC Shark Tank.” I won and also made long-time connections with other entrepreneurs. To this day, we are still rooting for each other. I pitched to QVC, The Today Show, the View, and others.
In February, I pitched to a company that partners with entrepreneurs and small businesses needing funds to grow their companies and helps them bring their products to market to propel them faster on the road to success.
They selected my company! I am so grateful and always pitching.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
We see them on late-night TV. You have an inventive idea and you are ready to move forward and see your inventive idea come to life.
If you are ready to hand the project off while it is just an idea (usually at this stage a very crude undeveloped idea) then you may consider invention services companies. This decision is a personal choice that should be made based on your assessment of various factors including your own skill set or abilities or lack thereof in this area, your experience or lack thereof, your available time that can be dedicated, your budget, etc.
I recommend you research these invention companies before you choose one. The field has some very good organizations interested in helping you to hopefully make your idea/invention a success, but the field is also filled with others that are not so good.
Many of my inventor friends advise against using invention services companies because they have paid lots of money with no results. Do your research, and check for customer reviews/complaints.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Bootstrapping is the minimalistic approach to starting a company, characterized by extreme sparseness and simplicity. It usually refers to the starting of a self-sustaining process that is supposed to proceed without venture capital.
Raising money through venture capital involves meetings, events, networking, and pitching. It also requires that you figure out ways to be introduced to the right people. I was introduced to three venture capital meetings. I prepared my PowerPoint presentation and had a glass of wine beforehand to calm my nerves. I thought each presentation went well, but I’m not the one that counts.
Since I had no luck with venture capital, I decided to stick to bootstrapping. Bootstrappers take an idea and using talent and professionalism — build a worthwhile business without the backing from investors and having little or no starting capital. It takes great dedication, sound work ethics, and pure single-mindedness to achieve success this way.
- Entrepreneurs who bootstrap their companies start with very little money and no outside funding to build their business.
- Instead, these entrepreneurs rely on sweat equity, cash from sales, personal debt, or personal savings to provide initial capital.
- For new companies, bootstrapping might be an effective model because it encourages lower operating costs and flexibility during the early-growth phase.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
For my mature population especially, donating and having a greater purpose is important.
I wanted to connect my product to a cause. My product is for people who have difficulty reading small print, so I donated Tip ‘n Splits to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation and Glaucoma Research Foundation. AMDF wrote an article about my charitable efforts:
Founder of Tip-n-Split, Connie Inukai
How inventing a product to help restaurant goers with aging eyesight led her to discovering Age-Related Macular Degeneration and inspired her to give back.
“A few years ago, as she was approaching retirement, Connie Inukai found herself facing a challenge many do as they get older — reading small print in dimly lit restaurants. Instead of letting it go, she decided to find a solution. She set out to create a fun and useful product for restaurant goers who didn’t want to bring their smart phones to dinner. The result is Tip-n-Split, a pocket sized magnifier, light, and calculator rolled into one…”
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As a college professor for 40+ years, I sought to inspire college seniors to follow their dreams. I did that for a long time and loved it. Now I want to encourage seniors (not college this time) to lead an active and creative retirement life.
There are about 77 million baby boomers in the U.S.
Whether as volunteers or for profit, the mature population brings valuable skills like worldly wisdom and problem-solving abilities that can give them an advantage as entrepreneurs or inventors.
Far too often, society fails to view the over-50 crowd as creative problem-solvers. There are times we forget this demographic has massive purchasing power — especially when it comes to products for their age group.
Clearly, we boomers are much more capable than most give us credit for. Believe only young people can find success as entrepreneurs? Think again.
In my experience as a grandmapreneur, I have found that the over-50 crowd has some advantages:
- Fear of failure is minimal.
At this point in our lives, we have experienced ups and downs. We have found successes, and are no longer afraid of failure. In short, we second-act entrepreneurs have experience, knowledge, focus, and wisdom on our side.
- Money is less of an obstacle for older inventors.
Inventing requires capital — and most young people do not have a wad of cash they can draw from to develop their product. In my younger years as a single mom, I worried about money all the time. Now, as a woman with grown children, I don’t have that added pressure
The best part of being an older inventor is that we aren’t doing it for the money. The driving force isn’t a paycheck, but passion!
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.