If you want to bring your idea for a new product to market, what do you really need? Knowledge--not merely capital. So many entrepreneurs think, "If only I had the money!" That if they could just get their idea in front of the right investor, they would become successful. In my experience, that's simply not true. Do you need some money? Yes, of course, even if your aim is to license your idea, in which case you will only need a little. The reality is, you can have more than ample funds at your disposal to develop a product and still fail. In 2014, the Coolest Cooler raised more than 13 million dollars on Kickstarter, the largest amount ever at the time. This February, founder Ryan Grepper announced he was looking for additional investors. More than two years later, a fraction of backers have received their coolers. Far more important than funding is insight. To win, you need a solid game plan.
Experience is incredibly relevant when it comes to turning ideas into products. People who are new to this underestimate how much time it takes. They focus on the wrong things. They think short-term instead of long-term. Making sound decisions about how to move forward is critical, because unexpected twists and turns are all but guaranteed--even if your business plan is very simple. You need to be able to prepare for them. That's just the nature of this endeavor. At the same time, it's not as if you'll ever have all the answers. And that's okay. Experience is what's key. Not money.
Patrick Raymond, the inventor of a space-creating shower liner that won't stick to you, knows this all too well. Back in 2006, Raymond was riding high. The fact that his shower curtain always clung to him had annoyed him, so he had developed a solution. After quickly creating a prototype, he decided to test the market. Unlike most inventors, Raymond's background was in marketing, and he had conducted scientifically rigorous national polls for advertisers. Were other people annoyed too? Or was he just oversensitive? Before he went any further, he needed to know if his sticky shower curtain problem was valid. The numbers that came back were staggering, he said. "They sealed the deal for me. No way was I turning away from this," he explained in an interview last week.
Based on the strength on those numbers and his business plan, Raymond said he secured "a lot of money" from investors. But there were setbacks, primarily with design--and then the financial crisis of 2008 hit. His investors pulled out. And that was that. For the next 5 years, he went back to running the Inventors Association of Manhattan, which he had founded after being nominated and then elected to the United Inventors Association's volunteer board. The irony, he said, caused him a great deal of anguish. "People were turning to me for advice, and I hadn't achieved commercial success on my own. That felt hypocritical to me."
Eventually, he decided enough was enough. He was intent on commercializing his idea. But this time, he would go it alone. In fact, he went in what he describes as "completely the other direction." First, he focused exclusively on making the design work.
"I did it in an exceedingly Spartan way. The first time around, the final product was an expensive monstrosity. I knew the design needed to be extraordinarily simple--so simple I could make it on my kitchen table with glue and tape. If you're dealing with a mass consumer item, and you can't make it by hand on your kitchen table for cheap, don't expect a factory in China to be able to. The thing about industrial design is, you can very quickly end up with an SUV when all you really needed was a bicycle," Raymond said.
He taught himself how to design a better product in part by studying origami. The original product had relied on an external counterweight, which was clunky and overcomplicated. Discovering that he couldn't use too much external material (due to aesthetics and cost) lead him to focus in a solution.
"I realized that the way you can strengthen flat sheets with folds has elegance to it. Curvi today uses fins like the folds in an accordion to curve it out away from your body," Raymond explained. "This version, it's unbreakable... and much more efficient." He patented Curvi and decided to put the product online. If customers pre-ordered, he'd have sales. If they didn't, that was that.
Raymond succeeded. In July 2016, he began taking pre-orders for Curvi online. In June, a flattering review on Gizmodo described his liner as "an easy way to make [your shower] feel larger, spacious, and almost luxurious--without having to knock down walls or perform any kind of renovation."
He's currently in "advanced substantive talks" with potential licensees, he said. "I self-financed, tooled up, and am ready to go. I've done all the hard work! I've mitigated their risk. They really take you seriously once you start stealing their shelf space."
I asked Raymond why he thought he had failed the first time around. He was unusually candid with me. "I made a number of mistakes. Hubris was also involved. All of the major retailers were going, 'Oh my god, we love it!' But there was a failure to understand what it takes to run a supply chain at an international level. There was a failure of design. Failure to turn a profit, to make a product that worked and looked good, that could be manufactured affordably. I don't excel at everything!"
In the end, Raymond said having to invent and bring his product to market under constraints actually helped him. "Frankly, I was broke. I needed to save $120 to buy sheets of plastic. I had to make it work. And that was good, because this is a low-tech, super-mass product."
"Realize what you're not as good at," he advises inventors. Which dovetails quite nicely with my advice: If you don't have a specific kind of experience, find someone who does. Bring that person on as a consultant, your partner, as an equity shareholder--it's up to you.
When I came up with an innovative rotating label, I licensed it to a leading label manufacturer who had the contacts and insight I didn't. When I founded a guitar pick business, I partnered with a musician who played guitar, had run music stores, gone to all the trade shows, and really knew the business. His experience was priceless. When I founded inventRight, my one-on-one coaching program that teaches people how to license their ideas, I partnered with Andrew Krauss, who had years of experience mentoring inventors as the president of the Bay Area's inventors group.
Trust me: You will need money. But it's not the only thing you need. It's all about experience!