For the entirety of my career, I've been reaching out to companies to ask, "Will you look at my product idea?" That's how I made a living for 30 years. Most of the time, I got rejected. But enough liked what they saw and asked to see more, leading to lucrative licensing deals.
Put another way: I got used to living in a world of rejection. My wife didn't understand. "How can you do it?" she asked me. "You're like a punching bag... you just keep getting back up!"
At first, I contacted just a few companies about any one idea before moving on to another. That's what most of us do, right? We give up after getting turned down. Being rejected doesn't feel good. But the same disturbing scenario kept playing out. I'd be in a store, happen upon a new product and think, "Hey! That was my idea!" Only someone else had brought it to market. I think that's happened to every inventive person at least once. It dawned on me that I had been giving up too easily.
So I decided to be dogged. I needed to reach out to many more prospective partners. And sure enough, when I did, I became more successful. I was able to license more of my ideas. That's how licensing is a numbers game.
For example, I contacted what felt like at least one hundred companies about my idea for a rotating label innovation before hearing, "We want to see more." The product that resulted ended up generating revenue for me in the form of royalties for more than 20 years!
I admit: Contacting people you don't know to ask for something is not easy. I've been teaching people how to get in to companies looking for ideas for nearly two decades now, but until last week, it had been a while since I picked up the phone.
I recently started another business and my team has been having trouble getting in touch with retailers to pitch them on our new product. Marketing people are busy. For whatever reason, we weren't making enough progress quickly enough. So I volunteered to take a whack at it. I used to do this, I told myself. I mean come on -- I show other people how! Why not try?
Even still, I felt a little intimidated. The people I needed to get in touch with are high-level marketing executives at major convenience stores.
I began by following the advice I give here in this column and to my students: Meaning, I searched LinkedIn for the names of said executives. I even paid for premium so I could identify the right people quickly. The short initial message I crafted was smart, or so I thought. I made sure not to ask for anything. I didn't pitch. I just quickly introduced myself.
But, no one responded. Not one person.
Okay then! I felt a little defeated. Rejection chips away at your confidence. I had forgotten.
No matter. When it comes to pitching your product ideas for licensing consideration, if the first method you use doesn't work, try another. It's not about how you prefer to communicate. It's about how the individual does! David Fedewa, a product developer who has licensed about six of his ideas, drove this point home in a recent video on his YouTube channel. (Full disclosure: After I mentored David, he became an inventRight coach.)
So after my efforts on LinkedIn failed, I looked up and wrote down the corporate number of all of the companies on my list. Armed with names and numbers, it was time to begin calling.
But first, a bit of stalling.
I go downstairs.
I read a couple lines of encouragement from Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss' new book.
I start talking to myself.
I shake out my limbs.
I'm trying to get in the right headspace to make these calls!
I practice what I'm going to say.
Finally, I feel ready. I can do this! I'm going to call these companies. I don't care how many times. If I cannot get in, I will try again. I promise to not stop until I've contacted all of them.
When the first operator picks up, I calmly state the name of the person I am looking for. The operator puts me right through, but it goes to voicemail. So I leave a quick voicemail. That wasn't too bad. I feel pretty good about it! Until I realize I forgot to leave my telephone number....
I make a note of that before dialing the next number on my list. This time, when the operator puts me through, the vice-president of marketing picks up! Tim has been with the company for 27 years, which I know thanks to LinkedIn. And now he's on the phone with me. My heart skips a beat.
"Hi Tim, this is Stephen Key. We've never met before, so I'll make this very short because I know you're extremely busy."
I make my pitch short and sweet. At the very end, I say the magic words. I'm just asking for permission to send you some samples.
"Absolutely," he says. "Send them to me. And let me give you the name of another person who will need to weigh in on your request."
I thank him profusely and when I hang up, do a little happy dance.
What was I so nervous about?
Soon enough, I'm on a roll. Someone has even called me back already!
Want to know what my ultimate piece of advice is regarding cold calling?
I'm guessing you've heard it before.
Just do it.
Here are my other best tips:
1. Do what it takes to stand out. In today's world, people are extremely busy. Actually picking up the phone and cold calling someone? That's old school. But it still works partly because sending emails has become so popular. People don't want to make cold calls. In my opinion, cold calling is still the fastest, most effective way of getting to the right person.
2. Get a name from LinkedIn. For product licensing, you want to look for someone in the marketing, sales, or new product development departments. Being able to ask for someone by name is very helpful. That way, when you call the company's operator, they'll be able to connect you right away.
3. Practice, practice, practice. You won't hit it out of the park on your first try. Focus on what you can do for this person and company. That's the way to get anything you want. How will your product benefit them? That's what you need to lead with. Practice your benefit statement out loud until the words roll out of your mouth comfortably. Don't simply say, "I have a new product." You need to let them know how your product will benefit the company and/or their customers! That's the key to getting a call back. Make it about them.
4. Never sell on the phone. It's way too difficult. You will fail. What you should focus on is making a good first impression. Say the bare minimum needed to get the person to say, "Sure I'll take a look at that. That sounds interesting." You just want to get their permission to send them more information.
5. Be exceedingly polite. When someone picks up, be very respectful of his or her time. Remember, you're just looking to get their permission to send them a sell sheet. If you have to leave a message, be brief. State your benefit and ask for permission to send them something.
6. Be persistent. You might have to call back three times, maybe even more. You aren't being a pest. You're a professional. Most people will appreciate your determination and persistence. By being consistent, you send a message. You have something very important they need to see. So please, don't feel like you're bothering anyone. You aren't! I cannot stress how important mindset is.
7. Be prepared for when you do get that callback. When a company calls you back about the invention you pitched them, negotiations have begun. Don't kid yourself! And don't let yourself get caught off-guard.
Think about it. When people are extremely busy, you absolutely must do something to differentiate yourself. One surefire way to stand out -- to get on top of their list -- is by being persistent. Some high-level executives have even told me, "If someone doesn't call me at least three times, I know they aren't serious."