A decade ago, Adam Kasha, the founder of Akasha Crystals--a company that imported and sold decorative river rocks, sea shells, and glass gems--faced the biggest challenge of his career: A renegade business partner in China, Rex Wang, held his inventory hostage, forcing him to race overseas and find new suppliers in time to fill a massive Walmart order (a story told in Inc.'s March 2013 issue). Now Kasha describes what happened since, a journey that included the demise of one company--and the birth of another. --As told to Burt Helm

I felt like I got hit badly again and again, you know? First I got punched by Rex. Then, starting in 2009, the recession squeezed our margins. I'd brought all this care and attention to this little product niche, river rocks and sand and sea shells and all that stuff, and achieved my dream of selling ten million bags of them every year. But in 2010, after seven consecutive years of profits, I started losing money.

Over the next four years, I took in additional investors, and I raised my prices--which led Walmart to drop seven of my 40 items from their stores. I felt fully overwhelmed. Exhausted. Five years on, and Akasha was still unprofitable. How long was it going to take me to dig out of debt?

I scrambled for new clients. What if I partnered with online florists? I sent three floral arrangements with decorative fillers in them to Lynda Resnick, the owner of Teleflora--to her office, to her home in Aspen, to her home in Beverly Hills. I got a meeting with Teleflora's president and V.P. of marketing. My pitch: They could include my fillers in their vases, and charge extra for them.

"The president says "OK, Adam, I've got it--if we partner with you, we'll sell more of everything. Great! But you need to understand: My customer is the florist. And they don't like your product. It's hard for them to make your rocks look nice like they do in the picture. Second, when you put rocks in a vase like that, you're displacing the water. And without water, everything dies."

I had felt in my gut that this was the most important meeting in my life. I went away from it feeling, well, that was a B-minus! I spent the next week thinking: What is the solution? Then, very quickly on a piece of paper I drew this thing, a vase that was double-walled, with an opening at the bottom.

It sparked my imagination. At the end of the day, decorative fillers are a commodity. This was a chance to create something new--a double-walled vase that could house both fillers and flowers.

Manifesting this idea turned out to be really, really tough. The first result was really clunky. It was going to take a lot of trial and error, a lot of R&D, to make it elegant.

I cobbled together almost $1 million in capital. I sold my condo, my 401(k), and any insurance I had, to cover my existing debts. I sold Akasha to my direct competitor for a song--for half the value of our contracts. That certainly hadn't been my original vision--to get down on my knees, to give back the key. But I wasn't alone. Four investors from Akasha came over--loyal friends who knew me. My longtime manager in China, Apollo Li, helped me vet glassblowers and factories.

We wanted a seamless design, not two ugly pieces of glass glued together. We figured something called the pocket technique: You blow the outside form, and while it's curing you drop another ball of molten glass on the top. But if there's too much temperature variation, the thing will explode. We tried underwater techniques, and even lasers! You can laser-cut through glass, but now you're talking about a $50,000 to $100,000 machine. Finally, we designed it so that it had a neck with an opening on it, that we could cut off.

A good friend of mine suggested I sell to QVC--you could really demonstrate what's cool about the product on TV, filling the outer container with river rocks, or candy, or family photos, then changing the flowers. QVC made my first big order. But then a furnace melted down at the factory in China. I'm like, this is supposed to be my comeback! Am I cursed? 

I ended up working with one of the factories we originally passed on. They turned out to be my best partner. They invested in a brand-new furnace and now I have two factories with tremendous capacity. In March of 2018, we finally sold on QVC. Since then I've gotten contracts to sell Vunder vases to Bed Bath & Beyond, Wayfair, and FloraMart, a distributor to independent florists. And Michaels is testing our products in 34 stores.

On April 6th I went back to Teleflora. They put me in the same conference room that I'd been in when I presented to the president. Their entire design team met me and I was able to show them this finished product that solved all of the problems they'd mentioned. 

They're testing our vases now, too.

How to Design a Top-Selling Product
From the July/August 2018 issue of Inc. Magazine