A pitch to make utensils eco-friendly

By Special to Capital Business
Monday, April 19, 2010;

Many Washington area residents are eager to do their part to improve the environment -- and not just because of a new tax on plastic shopping bags at D.C. retailers. The proliferation of reusable grocery bags and colorful stainless steel water bottles suggests consumers are willing to change their behavior for sustainability's sake. Does that create a business opportunity?

Alison Willman thinks so and made her pitch to the University of Maryland's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. School of Business.

The Problem:

Alison Willman wants to make it easier to be green. She has always been a bit bothered by the number of plastic forks, knives and spoons used once and thrown away at quick-serve restaurants. She cringed thinking about the germs no-doubt clinging to unwrapped plastic utensils in open bins for customers to grab. Willman tried bringing a set of silverware from home, but carrying around a dirty fork in her purse was a bit messy -- not to mention the risk she'd stab herself when reaching for her wallet. So she came up with an idea for a better option.

The Pitch:

Alison Willman:

"My product idea -- YourTensils -- solves this problem. It allows Earth-conscious and health-conscious young professionals to carry their own, attractive silverware out to lunch in a small case that snaps closed. After work, the case and the silverware can be placed in the dishwasher for cleaning. My product provides a sanitary, trendy way for people to cut down on the amount of plastic they throw away."

Willman is looking to develop a prototype and find a source to produce the colorful, patterned case she has in mind for the set. She hopes to sell a few sets to her friends before making a major investment and shopping her product to boutiques in Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Alexandria.

The Feedback:

Asher Epstein, managing director, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship:

"I really like the idea, but you need to take a step back. In this case, you're asking your market to change its behavior, and that's always the most challenging business model. Before you invest in an idea that asks people to change the way they do things, first figure out whether your market is actually willing to change.

"Spend $25 to $50 and buy several utensil sets to pass out to your friends to use for a week, then get their feedback. You have to have a good sense of whether they'll actually use these at a restaurant. Don't worry about the product cases or what it will look like now -- just worry about the concept."

John LaPides, entrepreneur-in-residence and board chairman, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship:

"You also need to really figure out your target market. You need to think about who you are selling to here and how they are most likely to use it. How would I -- and most men in general -- carry the silverware set around? I don't usually have a bag with me, and the product wouldn't easily fit into a pocket. I'd suggest you should start out targeting women."

Entrepreneur Reaction:

Alison Willman:

"I purchased 10 sets of camping silverware and I have begun distributing them to my female friends who are interested in sustainable living. I have asked my friends to keep the utensils for a few weeks and let me know how often they use them. I am developing a survey that I will issue to my test customers to determine what they like and dislike about the product and the concept of BYOS (bring your own silverware.)"

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.

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