How do you come up with a unique concept and actually bring it to market? These entrepreneurs got started by noticing common consumer problems by...

Meeting the right partners
John Hall spent years in the diaper business, both at Kimberly Clark, where he worked on the Huggies brand, and later when he left that job to join a couple of inventors as they launched a new diaper pail business.

Known as the Diaper Genie, their patented "disposal system" keeps germs and odors locked within a long canister that fits dozens of diapers before they need to be thrown out in a special refillable bag--"like razors and razor blades," says Hall. To get it to market, Hall spent months in the early 1990s researching consumer interest and raising $5.5 million for development along with his team members. After the first one shipped in 1993, Hall targeted childbirth classes, where he managed to get the pale placed in an educational video shown to parents-to-be. Baby magazines eventually took note, as well as some major retailers, and by 1998 the business was generating around $42 million in net sales.

"At the time, Diaper Genie was a very attractive, high-quality business with strong cash flow," says Playtex, which paid $72 million in cash and $50 million in convertible debt to acquire the business in 1999.

Since then, Playtex says it has been "continuing to innovate and strengthen the original Diaper Genie," which includes a $32.99 model that came out earlier this year.

Drawing on their own experience
Julie Austin literally ran into her aha moment--after she passed out during a run and was taken to the hospital for dehydration. Accustomed to jogging with her keys, but with nowhere to hold her water bottle, she created "swiggies"--wrist-based water bottles that can be sucked without removal. The Los Angeles resident invested around $300,000 to secure its patent and create prototypes.

But retailers didn't seem interested. And she struggled to generate interest at sporting goods tradeshows. Then someone suggested she try the advertising specialty industry, which promotes "the newest and most unique items" to product distributors and suppliers.

"People were flocking in the aisle to see it," says Austin.

Distributors soon began purchasing thousands of swiggies for schools and tourism gift shops in South Africa. They also placed orders of 10,000 to 30,000 for an insurance firm, a telecommunications business and a coffee chain that sponsored international marathons. And some alcohol brands bought them for events such as Mardi Gras.

"You never know where your market is going to be when you come up with a new invention," says Austin, who notes her sales have reached nearly 1 million units.

Getting inspired by family
It was always an inside joke in Bobby Edwards' family:

"Mom can't go," he says. "Growing up, she was always constipated--and it was actually very painful for her."

In much of the world, people squat when going to the bathroom, and Edwards argues the position is actually easier and better for the body. After he helped create a special stool designed to fit around a Western toilet--known as the Squatty Potty ($25 to $69)--his mother felt almost immediate relief. It generated around $1 million in annual sales when it debuted about three years ago, then $2.7 million and $2 million during the first half of this year.

Most sales have come through the Web, though Edwards expects his business to earn more than $7 million this year. After all, Squatty Potty is now selling through Bed Bath & Beyond and was recently featured in the 100th episode of Shark Tank, where Edwards struck a deal with investor Lori Greiner. Other Squatty Potty versions that have come out, or are in the works, include a blow-up (travel) edition, a bamboo model and an adjustable stool.

Not bad for something that began as a prototype for mom one Christmas.

"At that point we didn't know it was going to be a business, and she started giving them away as Christmas gifts," says Bobby. "My mom knew she had something big--she knew it was a secret, and she knew and it was up to her to get this out."

Published on: Dec 9, 2014