December 20, 2005

Dear Sir, I Have Invented A Revolutionary New [Insert Child-Related Product Here]

delorean_bttf.jpgHere's an email I received this morning. It's not unusual for me to get 2-3 of these kinds of email each week, and most of the time, I don't mind it at all. I'm a huge fan of parent-led innovation, and of start-ups, and of people getting rich and changing the world with their ideas. I usually try to help and give whatever actually useful advice I can.

And I've gotta give this dad credit, in a way, because even though I'm swamped with offline work, it's my day with the kid, and we've got Christmas a-comin' and the goose is getting Priority Mailed somwhere, his tone bugged me just enough to make me fire off a long, ranting-yet-fairly-substantive reply.

So if you're a crazy inventor out to change the world, read my advice to you below BEFORE emailing me. It'll get us much further along to the good conversations of how many L's to put in "llc" on my nine-figure royalty checks. Oh, one other thing, I suggest you don't title your email, "Where's my feedback?"

Dear Sir,
I wrote you a couple of weeks ago regarding a new patent pending stroller that I have designed. I was wondering what suggestions you had or advice for a dad to bring his new invention to market.

Don't think I am doing an LSD/Crack cocktail when I tell you that my stroller [does all kinds of stuff that I'm sure he thinks is top secret at the moment, so I excised it. I CAN tell you that, if you stuff it full of banana peels, his stroller will enable you to travel through time.]

Come on, moms and dads (Kids too)around the world are waiting for my little creation. Help a dad out.

[name removed, but he will be famous some day, I'm sure, and then he'll pretend he doesn't know me. Happens to me ALL the time.]

My reply after the jump.

Hey Doc [as in Brown, again, not his real name],

You mean the email you sent the day before Thanksgiving? Yeah, sorry I missed that one. That's what happens when I take a few days away from my email for the holidays. I wonder if any of the other several hundred emails I didn't get to are also from people offering me the opportunity to give them free advice for getting rich off of their world-changing inventions.

brown_mcfly.jpgAll/some sarcasm aside, I'm happy for you and will try to give you what little useful advice I might have.

First, I'd work on making the tone of your communications more professional. While I'm sure you're an ebullient, brilliant guy, the first thing I think of when I read "LSD/Crack Cocktail" is that you are insane. If you want to see your invention realized as a product--and a successful one--you should consider whether your presentation is more "product development, innovation, consumer expert" or "madman in a garage who just took apart a lawn chair." In the still rather staid and conservative stroller industry, people will respond better to the former. You can start acting like Richard Branson AFTER you get your first billion dollars.

Second, give up on the big stroller companies. Or the established companies, even. If what you've come up with is an incremental improvement on their product, they'll ignore you at best and reject you and decide to incorporate your idea later on at worst. I don't know of a single major stroller company that's set up to integrate new products or designs from outside the company's own R&D/development process.

What options does that leave you? 1) go to a smaller stroller company, 2) start your own company and make the thing yourself, 3) go to a non-stroller company and convince them this is how they should get into the stroller business.

1) most smaller stroller companies are founded by an inventor--like you--who had an idea and ran with it. They may be intetested in your idea, but they think they don't need an inventor. Because they already have one. Maclaren, Phil & Ted's, Bugaboo, BOB, these are all examples.

2) Orbit Baby is a startup introducing a revolutionary stroller/travel system to the world as we speak. Study their example and the backgrounds of the people doing it. These guys are well-funded, have a lot of buzz, and are getting a lot of press, and they're still facing challenges and haven't released their product yet, after introducing it last spring.

This is a multi-year process, it requires a team of experienced business, product dev, marketing, and manufacturing and distribution people--and a fair amount of startup capital and luck and insane amounts of work--to succeed.

True, you can have the thing made in China, and you can get international distribution from specialized companies like Regal Lager (who's in the US, but there are comparable companies in EU), and you can sell it yourself online, where everyone and their pregnant wife researches strollers these days anyway.

But then you'll have your garage, and then your storage unit, and then your warehouse, stuffed with inventory and you'll be burning through money and taking out a second mortgage on your house to do it--unless you've built a solid business plan, and lined up investors and got money committed to ride through your early success [which is the most challenging part and where most startups fail]. It sounds insane--right up your alley, maybe. heh, I kid--but this is probably the best chance you have to see your idea realized.

There is another path, a bootstrap, small businessman path, that is being taken by at least a couple of stroller makers: there's a guy in Iowa or somewhere who's got a stroller/carseat with built-in speakers. His website looks like it was made in 1995, and half of it's about how important the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to his business.

[Now, I'm as Christian and devout as the next guy, but big business doesn't handle People who work in mysterious ways very well; they like predictability and conventionality, so this guy's business is and will be limited. I'm sure he's happy with that, though, and I don't want to be the one to tell him he has to choose between a giant business empire or The Lord. I know how THAT story ends.]

There's another guy in Florida, I think, who makes very well-thought-of stroller/carseat adapters for twins and triplets. They kind of look like they were made in a machine shop in rural Florida--not the most elegant, sexiest stroller out there, but he appears to have a fine little business for himself.

The fact that I, a self-confessed stroller freak and an MBA to boot, can't remember the names of either of these strollers should be a sign unto you [sic] that this totally DIY route will probably not bring the world-changing stroller nirvana you might envision, but it might keep you busy and your kid fed for a while. Eventually. And he may have to go to a state school, not an Ivy. Again, choose what works and what fits your vision.

3) Stokke didn't make strollers before they introduced the Xplory; they asked an outside design firm to reimagine the stroller completely, from the ground up, inside out, etc. (the link to that design firm and some info on the design/development process is on stokke's EU corporate site.) Perhaps there's another kid-related company who can be persuaded to enter the stroller market with your idea. Are you a leading industrial design firm? I didn't think so. This will make it a tough sell for a risk-averse company that is contemplating moving into a new market where they have no experience.

Think hard about your design and what OTHER company's image it might fit SO well, they'd be willing to take this chance. Companies like Jeep and Reebok are out; they just license their name to a major manufacturer and sit back to count the royalties. Land Rover strollers have a fanatically loyal following in the UK, though; they're amazing, rugged, and cool. They also went out of business, and Land Rover--now owned by Ford--doesn't have anything to do with them.

Also, the Stokke is an expensive failure, I'd say, market acceptance-wise, that proved too revolutionary for the mainstream market (at least in the US), so I'd ask someone from the Stokke family--after getting them drunk--if they'd do it all over again. My guess is, they'd do it differently.

Do you have a prototype or just a drawing, or a CG design? How to you present your idea to people, on the back of a napkin pulled from your pocket [or the equivalent] or in a professional-looking format that shows it's really going to happen and that enables people to grasp it and see how revolutionary it is? This doesn't have to be a slickly produced, glossy brochure, especially if the idea is still in development. But you should be able to to show and explain to someone--use me for an example, if you like--what stage the design is at in a way that allows me to understand its brilliance.

Then, you need to show it to people and let them tell you you're crazy for reasons X, Y, and Z, and let them tear it apart and give you suggestions on how to improve it. Outsiders you can trust and who have relevant experience and insight--other parents who aren't mouthbreathers, in this case--should be asked to give their feedback and to help you debug your idea.

Because unless you have a factory in Guangzhou ready and waiting for your wire transfer, your idea is not as ready or as perfect as you think. Design and development and successful realization of an innovation is an iterative process. However many refinements and versions you've gone through to get to the stage you're at now, you should expect to go through dozens, hundreds more to get your product ready for prime time.

You'll need to figure a lot of this out before you show up at the JPMA expo in the spring. Or the ABC Kids expo [the one in Las Vegas, but I think it's in Sept.] [his Thanksgiving email asked what expo I was talking about in some post. ed.]

Your first step should be to figure out what the JPMA is; I'm not that huge a fan, personally, but then I only produce information. I'm sure they don't think much of me, either. But they're the giant trade assocation that will become a major part of your life if you decide to produce and sell baby-related products on any significant scale.

I'm sure they have info available for sale for new, gullible entrepreneur wannabes on how to become a member and to work with them. I'd suggest first that you attend a JPMA or ABC-type event and see and meet some of the other parent-entrepreneurs--like the seven mom-led producers of utterly indistinguishable grocery cart covers, for example--then meet and chat with and collect cards of whatever execs--stroller and non--you can envision yourself doing business with or competing against.

The hard thing to do will be to ask them questions, to listen, to drill into their brains, NOT to try and sell them on your own idea, at least until it's ready, and then NOT on the convention center floor. [They're there to sell, not to buy, remember.] YOU'D be there to pick their brains for any kind of useful market or strategic information--using questions and topics that you've determined and planned in advance--that'll help you figure out how and where your company'll happen.

How's that for starters? If you need me, I'll be over by my mailbox, waiting... heh. Good luck and best wishes,
Greg Allen



for being miffed, you still gave him a long and well crafted e-mail.

PS I was thinking of watching 'Back to the Future Part 2' the other day, just so see those hoverboards I remember liking back in junior high. almost as cool as the Delorean.

A really nice reply in my opinion.

You forgot to mention the $10-20K (minimum) in legal fees he'll need to pay to make sure that the stroller meets that various safety standards appropriate to each country heís thinking of selling his product.

[yeah, the sense I got was that he was still very far away from that step. I could be wrong. Rapid prototyping of something like a stroller would be great, too, as would designing most of/the whole thing on a CAD/CAM system first. But to "print" a functioning 3-D prototype of something that complex is probably $30K per round, and that's not counting engineering design time. It's the kind of thing you'd like to partner with some expert on, but then it's a question of finding & persuading that expert. -ed.]

That was a great response. It'll be interesting what he does... hopefully not ditch his efforts and sell strollers with a LSD/Crack cocktail glass holder

[hey, that's just to protect the paper rose from getting crushed! -ed.]

Perfect response. What nobody ever realizes is that the idea, while perhaps the most important part of a successful business, is also the easiest and most fun part. Getting the million dollar loan to finance inventory is when you need a little more than a good idea.

Forgot to add: depending on how the thing is going to be made, functional prototypes could be a lot cheaper than $30k, assuming the guy already has it solid modeled (which sounds doubtful), or even a good set of 2D CAD drawings. I think you could prototype a Bugaboo for under $5k, probably well under that if you knew what you were doing. Something with huge expanses of injection molded plastic, like most strollers, would require some expensive SLA time though. I could see a typical Graco stroller getting into the $20's, especially if you need a cosmetic prototype.

can you create an audio version of this post? i stopped being able to read that much text in one sitting about 17 months ago :-)

[volume volume volume! Maybe I should make it a powerpoint presentation and offer it as a NetMeeting. I just counted, and it's 1,700 words. That is too many. -ed.]

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