Be Ready to Spend Money: There is no road map to inventing something and there is no way you can create a budget. Expenses will fly at you and its your job to figure out if each expense is crucial or something that can be changed or not needed. The most erratic spending was during the manufacturing phase- we had to pay for a certain ‘tool’ for Wingerz to be made, materials and time on the machine. We had all these costs thrown at us and there was absolutely no way to plan for them, but you have to do them.
As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Lefrancois.
Mike is the inventor and President of Wingerz- a Rhode Island based company that created disposable finger covers people can use while eating buffalo wings in restaurants to keep their hands clean. Wingerz started off at Mikes kitchen table and after hard work and determination- his product and company were hand-picked to be featured on The Today Show as a ‘tailgating must have’- his product has been sold nationwide and most recently was invited to the NFL Combine and Nickelodeons Kids Choice Award as gifts to be presented to each celebrity and athlete. Mike is 38 years old and lives in Rhode Island with his wife and three young children.
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”?
Thanks for having me- I’m 38 years old and I live in Rhode Island with my wife Michelle and three little kids (1.5 years to 7 years-our house is chaos!)- I was born and raised in Rhode Island, went to school in New Hampshire and settled back in RI near the water with my family. Coming out of college I worked in the corporate world, commercial real estate world and know I’m the president of Wingerz and official inventor ( I have a plaque)- I grew up in the suburbs have a great family and enjoy being near the ocean, traveling and golf.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was first inventing Wingerz it was extremely difficult, and I would have this word document of my desktop that was titled “Read This Every Day”. This word document was two pages full of motivational quotes I would read every morning to get my engine going.
The strongest trees in the forest aren’t those trees which are most protected. The strongest trees are the ones which must struggle against the elements and other trees and surmount them against the odds to survive. Back in the old days when wagon wheels were made, wagon makers knew all too well which trees would make great wagon wheels — it wasn’t the trees wrapped in cotton wool. // When trees were cleared to grow crops, a few oak trees would be left standing in the open fields where they were exposed to the red hot sun, severe winds and all of the forces of the elements. // The trees which strained against nature ended up being far stronger and much tougher than protected oak trees which were growing deep on the forest. // It was the timber from these trees, the ones which struggled and won against nature, which were used to make wagon wheels which were then bent into arc-shaped segments . . . with the knowledge, they would not break. Because these trees had struggled against all odds, they had grown strong enough to bear the heaviest loads.”
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?
There wasn’t a book, podcast or film that made an impact- it was actually a cartoon I remember seeing in Entrepreneur magazine- the cartoon showed a miner digging a long tunnel looking for a huge piece of gold- the tunnel was extremely long and you could tell the miner spent a long time digging it- the cartoon showed the exhausted miner at the end of the tunnel stopping and turning around saying “I’m done”- little did he know the huge piece of gold he was looking for was just one more swing away- he gave up right before he had reached his goal- that cartoon made me paranoid that if I ever gave up success could be right around the corner.
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?
My wife and I had buffalo wings at a local restaurant- as everyone knows buffalo wings are very messy. We both used the wet naps they hand out and washed our hands- but the sauce never really comes off no matter how much you try-especially if the restaurants have those sinks that are motion censored and only give you a few drops of water. Driving home we were telling each other how annoying it is that buffalo wings are great to eat, but the sauce left on your fingers takes away from the experience. Once home, I started searching the internet for something that prevents this- I thought someone definitely had to come up with something by now. I searched and found nothing-
At this point in our lives, my wife and I were grieving the loss of our four month old son Michael who had passed away from Spinal Muscular Atrophy 1. Michael was our first born and was born perfectly healthy, but after two months he wasn’t hitting certain milestones and our pediatrician instructed us to bring him to Hasbro Children’s Hospital immediately following a checkup. As first time parents we had no idea what was going on, but as soon as we brought him to the hospital doctors were running around us and were very concerned about him. After being there for a week were told he had SMA 1 which is similar to ALS- they slowly loose basic motor functions including breathing. Again, we didn’t know what SMA 1 was, until the lead pediatrician explained it to us and told us he won’t make it to his first birthday and to go home and enjoy him. That was the beginning of us becoming hospice nurses for him until he passed away. The day he passed I remember walking out of the hospital and seeing the world still carrying on like nothing happened- that affected me in a profound way. I expected the world to stop.
Seeing what my son went through was brutal and it taught me that life is extremely fragile it showed me to not let life just take you for a ride- grab it by the reins and do the best you can to make it yours.
If I didn’t have that experience with my son, I probably wouldn’t of pursued inventing Wingerz after I searched the internet and found nothing. But, because of my experience with my son and I took the extra step to pursue- I remember thinking’ why not try’- what’s the worst that could happen.
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?
Brick by brick — after I decided to go after it and take a shot at inventing something (no engineering experience at all- hanging pictures is sometimes a problem) I created an excel spreadsheet that was my ‘To Do’ list- I would sit and write what I thought my next move should be- there were steps such as design prototype, talk to attorney and I would check off each item as I completed the task. As you move along and complete each step the ‘To Do’ list grows and changes based on the tasks you completed before. This helped me stay focused and as you complete each task (even a small one) it gives you a sense of accomplishment as you are moving towards your goal and actually doing something about it.
I also tried not to think too far ahead- If you think too far ahead you may get overwhelmed and miss crucial small steps you need to get to your end goal- I definitely had a vision of where I wanted to go-which you need in order to have a game plan- but I tried to train my brain to take a step back and just focus on where I needed to step next and to not look down.
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?
The internet- if you have an idea spend some time searching the internet to see if anything pops up- that’s what I did that night after the restaurant. When you start to develop a business plan you will probably do a little more digging and then when you go for your patent typically your attorney will do a complimentary search for you-
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?
My son Michael inspired me to persevere through all of the obstacles- no doubt about it. When things got tough (which they do) I would think I’m doing this for my son so I can’t stop now. He was my ‘why’- which I is crucial for anyone who wants to start a business or invent a product. You need something to keep the fire in your belly lit or else you will fold when obstacles arise- An example of an obstacle was when I was first started contacting manufactures to make my first prototype- I had contacted a manufacture is some state and they told me in order to make this I would have to invest 1mm dollars in a machine because my prototype was too complicated to make. I was told this literally as I started trying to find manufactures- obviously this was not the greatest thing to hear- but instead of curling up into a ball on the floor I thought- well I don’t have a million dollars so I need to figure something out. I started reaching out to people that invented well known products to see if anyone could give me some advice. I honestly didn’t think anyone would answer (but again, why not try?) — I received a reply from Todd Greene who invented Headblades- Todd took the time to look over the ‘sell sheet’ I was sending to manufacturers and told me I should probably think about changing the design on my prototype to make it easier for manufacturing- this may sound like a no-brainer, but if you’ve never invented something before and do not have a degree in engineering all of this is uncharted territory and your brain is not trained to think this way.
Talking to Todd was a gamechanger and was a crucial pivot on my journey to creating Wingerz- I am forever grateful he took the time out of his busy schedule to reply and give advice. After that my brain went into overdrive thinking ‘how can I make this simpler’? After many sleepless nights I was in the gym and all of a sudden ‘finger stickers’ shot through my brain like a bolt of lightning- I remember thinking that’s it- and raced home and began drawing. This is when Wingerz was born.
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.
Once we had the idea it was time to design a prototype- we honestly just tried to design something- our first prototype was literally small bags that you could fit over your fingers and we had small straps that would wrap around the finger to keep them on- the goofiest thing you will ever see (have the photos if you want to see) but it was something and we were at least starting the process. Once we had a prototype and were ready to contact manufacturers to help us- I asked a family attorney if he knew any patent attorneys. He recommended one in Providence RI and we met with them to discuss Wingerz.
The patent attorney was with us from the beginning which was important as it gives you a piece of mind- all inventors think someone will steal there idea-. We filed a provisional patent which is not a full patent, but gives you some protection and costs a lot less that a full patent. The provisional patent was great as we would file a different provisional as our design changed. Once we had our final product we started the full patent process which took about 3 years.
Once we felt we had our MVP (most valuable prototype)- basically the best design we could do without spending too much time spinning our wheels- I started to search for a manufacturer. This was by far the hardest part of the journey.
For our product the pool of able manufacturers was very small- I think if someone develops and app, you know there are app developers out there that can help you or if you want to invent a different kind of pencil- there are manufacturers that specialize in making pencils so you can reach out to these companies to help you- or at least you know where to start your search.
For us, our product would be sticking to a persons skin and also be touch food that they would then be putting into their mouths- kind of tricky. I remember thinking do we reach out to a sticker company or a bag company- had no clue where to start. Then I tried to think what Wingerz most resembles- its kind of like a band-aid. I thought this was a good start- at the very least maybe someone I contact can push me in the right direction.
Every night I would search for manufacturers that were in the medical industry- I would contact them through the ‘Contact Us’ section on their website and if they were nice enough to reply I would send over my ‘Wingerz sell sheet and an NDA (non-disclosure). I received a lot of ‘No’s’- it wasn’t they didn’t believe in our product- it was they didn’t have the capability. I think a lot of inventors don’t realize (maybe just me) is that not only do you have to find a manufacturer-, but they also have to believe in you and your product. A manufacturer isn’t going to waste their time (even though you are paying them) on something they do not believe in. That is why I believe finding a manufacturer was the hardest part- you need to find one and they have to believe in your unproven product.
After sending out numerous emails and receiving numerous ‘no’s- we found someone who thought ‘Wingerz’ was awesome and wanted to help us develop our prototype. At this point I felt like I had accomplished something- Wingerz was about to come to life. Working with the manufacturer was very interesting- there was an R&D Development team assigned to Wingerz and they would help us pick out the right materials (medical grade) and the overall design to ensure it covered the fingers correctly. This was a tedious process as materials can get expensive- we had to figure out how to create Wingerz at a price point that made sense to our end user- we were able to create Wingerz at a price that makes sense to restaurants and consumers.
I will never forget the day I flew out to our manufacturer and saw the machine that would be creating Wingerz- it was surreal-
Once we had our prototype- a real one- I knew I needed to validate Wingerz. What I mean by validate is I needed to make sure before I kept going forward and really investing in Wingerz that it was something- your friends/family don’t count. You need to get it out there and get unbiased feedback- even though your invention is your baby you have to get honest feedback- if everyone tells you it’s the greatest idea in the world- you haven’t asked enough people.
I contacted Bryant University a great business school here in RI to see if I could come in to present Wingerz to their business students. They agreed and I was able to present to multiple classes to get feedback from their students. I told them before I started not to hold back- they were incredible. They did not tear me a part but gave great insight into Wingerz and offered some ideas on how to market it to their age group etc. The feedback from those classes was another huge pivot- it wasn’t just the comments that were told to me directly- it was the comments that I heard as they were walking out of class. The comments made to me directly consisted of ‘my buddies and I love wings- but we don’t go that often, because of the mess- its annoying. The comments made between the students were even more powerful. As they were walking out of class I could hear them saying to one another ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ once I heard that I knew it was time to turn it up a notch and keep moving forward.
At this point we had a manufacturer in place, best prototype possible so it was time to do a soft launch. We started on social media and developed a website where people could go online and purchase Wingerz. It was definitely weird launching- you are putting yourself out there to everyone. Along with the soft launch we had gathered our friends and family and told them what we have been up to- this helped spread the news faster and would speed up our social media presence (family and friends knew we were launching so they would like on FB etc.).
After the soft launch we started to get positive feedback and decided to push harder- we hired a marketing firm to help us gain more exposure- during your journey you have to remember you can’t do everything yourself- even though it gets expensive. Again, not all marketing companies are going to take you on- you have to find a marketing firm that has experience in your market and believes in your product, which is difficult when your product is in its infancy and unproven. They were a large firm and started helping us right way- we were featured on a lot of little things (blogs/magazines), but then we were chosen to be featured on ‘The Today Show’ with Steve Greenberg in a segment for the top must haves for football season- this was huge for us and being on the show crashed our website- good problem to have. After being on the Today Show we starting selling across the country. Wingerz was on the move! The rollercoaster began and were featured in more articles, our social media presence grew and we were most recently asked to be part of the NFL Combine and the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards (although it was canceled due to Covid 19)-
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?
When I was first starting developing Wingerz I would literally save every prototype I made- I would not throw them in the garbage as I thought someone would be going through my trash- find my prototype- and steal my idea. I had a large bag full of unused prototypes. The lesson I learned from that was to start the conversation about IP protection early so you can sleep at night.
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?
The early stages were very challenging- I think we had a few tipping points. The first one for me was getting validation that we had ‘something’- this was validated by our manufacturer, students at Bryant U and our marketing firm- that was my confidence tipping point. Once we were chosen to be on the ‘Today Show’ it was fun from there as most of the grunt work was behind us and were just focused on getting the Wingerz name out to the masses.
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.)
- Reach out for Help: If I could do it all over again I would ask my local manufacturing association for help. In Rhode Island we have RIMA (RI Manufacturers Association)- I should have reached out to them and asked for help deciding which type of manufacturer could create Wingerz. This would of saved me a lot of time as I was trying to figure it out for myself.
- Be Patient: Inventing something is a journey and there will be ups and downs. You have to be patient and not get frustrated when things go wrong or take time. There were numerous things that didn’t go according to my plan such as my website crashing during The Today Show or sales not flying out the door the first week. You have to remember it’s a journey with no map and you just have to take it as it comes.
- Create a Business Plan Early: I had never written a business plan and thought I have my plan in my head so I’m all set. That’s the wrong way to think. Once you have an idea of where you want to go you need to develop a business plan. The business plan acts as a roadmap that keeps you on track- without it its easy to veer off and lose the path to your vision.
- Enjoy It: Inventing something or starting a business is extremely difficult- but it’s a journey that is well worth it and not a lot of people pursue. I know its easy to say now, but I look back and wish I didn’t get so stressed out in the beginning- it was a great experience, but again when you’re in it its hard to relax.
- Be Ready to Spend Money: There is no road map to inventing something and there is no way you can create a budget. Expenses will fly at you and its your job to figure out if each expense is crucial or something that can be changed or not needed. The most erratic spending was during the manufacturing phase- we had to pay for a certain ‘tool’ for Wingerz to be made, materials and time on the machine. We had all these costs thrown at us and there was absolutely no way to plan for them, but you have to do them. Also when you hire a marketing firm- they can get expensive- but its probably a good idea to hire one.
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?
First step is to search the internet for anything that resembles your product and if you don’t find something that is exactly like your idea start writing down an action plan.
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?
I honestly don’t know how the invention consultant process works or if successful products have been created by using them. I think it’s a personal choice and would just recommend doing your due diligence before hiring a consultant.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
We bootstrapped everything, which I think helped us be very conservative in regard to spending money. I think if someone came up to us and said here’s 5 million dollars go have fun- we probably would have made a lot of money mistakes. I think deciding on Bootstrapping or VC depends where you are in the process. In the early stages we were able to bootstrap because our product wasn’t that expensive to make and get out into the market. But, now we are starting the VC conversation as we want to grow and in order to do so it may make sense to bring on a partner.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I don’t consider myself a success just yet- our goal since developing Wingerz was to be able to donate large amounts of our profits to CureSMA in our sons name and the Ronald McDonald house- which we stayed in for two weeks while at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. When I’m able to donate portions of our profits to those two organizations I will feel very successful and be grateful I was able to give back.
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.
Be Nice to People Movement- Remember that everyone has a story
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.
Michael Jordan- obviously he was a great basketball player- but I also admire his leadership, business acumen and how he gives back the community. I would love the opportunity to pick his brain.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.