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A Sample Can Be Simple and Cheap
By Sarah E. Needleman Kimberly Isaac used to dream of an easy way to transport the heavy tanks she relies on to indulge in her favorite pastime, scuba diving.But after getting laid off from an accounting job last summer, she set out to create the solution she envisioned -- a compact scuba-tank dolly -- and a new career as an entrepreneur.There was just one problem: "We're not engineers," says Ms. Isaac, referring to herself and Thomas Spiegle, a fellow diving enthusiast she recruited to be her business partner.Nevertheless, the duo set out to make a prototype using spare pieces of metal, foam, a glue gun and a hammer. "It was like a high-school science project," recalls Ms. Isaac. Now the two sell professionally manufactured versions of that crude model for around $300 apiece through a Thousand Oaks, Calif., venture they named Shark Bite Scuba. Thirty of the dollies have been purchased so far and another 30 are currently in production.Have a vision for an original product or an enhanced version of an existing one?Experts in entrepreneurship say only a rudimentary sample may be necessary to articulate to manufacturers how it should look and function. Or, you may be able to piece something together on your own by combining premade parts or ingredients."People think you have to spend a lot of money and make something elaborate," says Jen Groover, a serial entrepreneur and creator of the Butler Bag, a line of compartmentalized handbags sold by major retailers. But even ordinary household items can suffice."In my case, I took a dishwasher utensil tray and stuck it in an existing bag," says Ms. Groover, who wrote "What If? & Why Not?: How to Transform Your Fears Into Action and Start the Business of Your Dreams."Of course, it's typically a good idea to do some testing of your prototype and research into its marketability before investing in large quantities of a final version to sell. One way to do this is to make several low-cost prototypes and give them to people in your target market for free in exchange for their feedback, says Howard Hawkins, a counselor for the Orange County, Calif., chapter of SCORE, a small-business mentoring group. "Have them use it for a while and report back to you," he says.Even if your due diligence shows that there is indeed a demand for your product and it works smoothly (or tastes good if it's food), don't go overboard on your first production run, warns Mr. Hawkins. "Start small" and wait to ramp up after you see sales take off, he says.Last year, Terri Denno, a stay-at-home mom in New York, began creating a product from scratch after her husband got laid off from a copywriting job. She combined various plastic and silicone containers she bought from wholesalers she found online to assemble a lunchbox that could store items separately."Kids don't like their foods to touch," says Ms. Denno, who came up with the idea for the device from observing her two children's eating habits.After comparing different arrangements and prices, Ms. Denno settled on seven items totaling just $6 that together would make up her product. She ordered enough parts to make 50 units, plus wrapping paper and boxes to ship them in. Meanwhile, her husband created a website for her business, which she named Little Lunchbox, and a friend designed a logo.Today, Ms. Denno's website sells about 10 to 20 lunchboxes per month for $15 each. She regularly promotes the lunchboxes at no cost on a free online newsletter for parents. She also once got a mention in a New York kids magazine after sending its editors a sample product, which temporarily quadrupled sales.Heather Kenzie and Jennifer Love took it slow when developing their product. Using common ingredients, they initially produced just 100 of the chocolate health bars they cooked up last year in a commercial kitchen they rented in New York. The business partners then asked about a half-dozen local food stores to consider carrying the bars, called NibMor."We were just out there pounding the pavement and getting the product into people's hands," says Ms. Kenzie, an amateur chef and Broadway performer who turned to entrepreneurship after acting gigs started drying up.She says buyers soon emptied out their inventory, prompting them to whip up a second batch, with a slightly altered recipe, and approach more retailers, including some outside New York. These days, they're churning out 4,000 NibMors a month and expect to triple that number by the end of the year.One thing entrepreneurs should consider: filing for a patent with the federal government if they are looking to create and market an original product that could be easily copied. While this process can cost upward of $20,000 and take as long as five years to complete, "a patent may be your best barrier to competition," says Greg Bernabeo, an intellectual-property attorney at Saul Ewing, a Philadelphia law firm.
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