Corey Talbot is vice-president of marketing and product development at Hyde Tools, a manufacturer and seller of painting, drywall, and home improvement products that has embraced open innovation. Founded as a cutlery manufacturer in 1875, the company produces more than 1,200 different products today.
At the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, Talbot shared with me how much Hyde Tools values the creativity of independent inventors.
For example, all of the following products in its line came from inventors.
An all-purpose mixer that won't stress your drill.
Spray paint twice as fast!
Balance your painting project over the surface so you can paint both sides without waiting for it to dry.
Refresh old caulk with a single tool and minimum effort.
I followed up with him over the phone to find out more about how Hyde works with independent inventors to find and develop its next hits.
So, Hyde Tools embraces the benefits of working with inventors (also known as open innovation)?
"Very much so. Once you have a process in place for working with inventors, it's much easier. If you're just doing it off the cuff without a plan or process in place, it can be very grueling and result in a lot of wasted time for both the inventor and the company. I've been in product development and marketing for over 25 years. The process and speed have changed. These days we are taking in more information online. It's easier for us to collect it that way, and easier for inventors to submit their inventions.
We have found that working with inventors who are properly screened and who have been briefed upfront about the process and expectations can actually increase speed to market and cut down on development costs.
So, what happens after you receive a new product idea submission?
At stage zero, we're just gathering enough info to decide whether or not this product fits within a set of rudimentary criteria. Does it match up with who we are and what we offer and who we serve? Does it have a certain market size? Everyone on my product development team has more than 10 years of experience in understanding how big something might be based on how many consumers are in the marketplace. We have a margin requirement, meaning we need to be able to make a certain amount of money given the effort required to develop new products. These factors help us make a fairly quick decision.
Help me understand your invention submission process.
It is a stage and gate process with the first stage being handled through an online portal from our website. Our first question after you click the link asks the inventor to select a category for their invention. These categories aren't broad, and sub-categories are included as well. We really want inventors to understand what it is we're looking into. From there, right off the bat, we lay out terms and conditions, putting the legal piece out in front of people right away.
We tend to work with products that have patent applications filed or actual patents. We still receive a lot of product ideas that are not a good fit. One of my favorite stories is about my first week working at Hyde. I spent a couple of hours on the phone with a passionate gentleman who was trying to get me to understand his invention. This person did not have a patent or had filed a provisional patent application and wanted me to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). When we ran through our criteria with him -- which, going back and forth, took the better part of a week -- everything matched up! But then when this individual visited our office and handed me his tool, I handed him one back that looked exactly like it.
I had wasted my time and his, so I quickly decided to streamline the process. If he had an application filed, our phone conversation would have lasted about a half a minute because I would have seen a photo or drawing or video and that would have been the end of it.
There are many benefits to our online system. I can log in and give feedback any time, day or night when I am able. It's sped up the entire process. I can let inventors know when we've reviewed their submission and ask questions through the portal, creating a record. Many times, we ask inventors to go and gather more information. Sometimes we get back to an inventor within a day; sometimes, if we're interested but need more information, it can take as long as a year before deciding to move forward. It becomes very collaborative with the inventor taking an active role instead of wondering what is happening inside the organization.
That whole first part of the process? At big companies, it's like you've entered a black hole. No one wants to talk to you until they have done some due diligence from a legal standpoint. (And that legal person is not a product manager and not connected to product in any way.) Good ideas die from lack of understanding and legal concerns. Our online process allows people to see what's happening, and the legal piece has already been covered.
After we accept or decline the submission, there are phone calls and sometimes, face-to-face visits.
I think what sets us apart is that we're more forward-facing with inventors. We set expectations right away. During that first phone call, I lay out exactly what our process is, including how long we think it will take, the steps required, how much the inventor will be involved, etc.
About how submissions do you receive a year?
We've received about 800 submissions since we set up our online portal about six years ago. Not as many as you would think! To be clear, that number is just what has come through the portal. Of the submissions that have made it through to commercialization, half came from trade shows. For example, a buyer at one of our retailers connects us with an inventor who has a great product.
Do you check out new product ideas at trade shows or prefer to follow up later?
Every year our process becomes more refined. Trade shows have changed for suppliers and manufacturers. Fifteen to 20 years ago, we were at shows primarily to sell to our customers, which are retailers. That's not necessarily the case anymore, especially for national shows. Now they are a way to launch new products from an advertising standpoint and share product knowledge with representatives who sell for us.
The first couple days at a show, I'm busy doing marketing. The last day of every show I keep open to meet with inventors. We host a kind of mini Shark Tank. We have a sign-up sheet. That way, inventors know they're going to have a certain amount of time to pitch and have us look at their invention right there.
Do you sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)?
This is very fast-paced and competitive marketplace in which we play. Unless the inventor claims a benefit of the product that is so compelling, like it does the job in half the time or 10 times as many jobs as before, we usually don't sign non-disclosure agreements and will direct the inventor to do a patent search, file a provisional patent application, and then resubmit.
We're here to make good decisions and to make money as well. It's a two-sided street. If you have a patent or provisional patent application, you're pretty much covered. It's not worth your time to do an NDA at that point. If someone tells me they have a drywall tool, well I have 15 on the drawing board!
I will sign an NDA if it's worth it, but I need to be convinced of that.
What are some red flags when working with inventors?
'We're going to sell millions of these things!' When I hear that, I shut the conversation down. Because 99% of the time it's not true. That doesn't mean your idea is bad. And it doesn't mean you can't make a lot of money!
Realistic fact-based expectations are important.
What do you wish inventors understood better?
That there are only so many hours in a day, for one. We're all people at the end of the day. We all have expectations of what we're supposed to get done and how we're supposed to function. Spending an hour on the phone with you means there is one hour less for proving out if the idea is marketable. I've been involved in organizations that aren't thinking of the person behind the submission. It's a number. The same is true for inventors. The most successful, in my experience, value time and fact-based honesty as much as I do.
We're small enough that we still have individual conversations with inventors. It's important to remember that companies are risk averse. Space at a retailer isn't kept easily. Every year, buyers and retailers need to show gains in the right direction to stakeholders; more margin, more sales. You're constantly evaluating out of the 100 products on the wall, which is the worst? What can I replace it with to hit the buyer's goals? That's how we make sure we're doing right by our customer and meeting their expectations."
Product developers, here's my advice. Approach companies like Hyde that genuinely want to work with inventors and that have a system in place for doing so. Always be respectful of their time. At a minimum, that means knowing your product idea actually has a point of difference -- which you can only be sure of after thoroughly searching the Internet.
To become successful at licensing your ideas for new products, you need to act like a team player.