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Business Rx: Getting a product to market before someone steals the idea

By Special to Capital Business
Monday, October 11, 2010; 31

The entrepreneur

Deborah Wiener is a Silver Spring-based interior designer who says she started her own furniture line out of necessity.

"I married a slob, we had two boys, and together these three destroyed our home," she said.

Wiener incorporated design tricks into her business -- such as using durable fabrics and dark patterned rugs -- that could hold up to daily abuse from kids and pets. Her tips led to an interior design book she wrote titled "Slob Proof! Real-Life Design Solutions." But she didn't want to constantly have to hide stains and replace furniture and knew her clients felt the same. When Wiener couldn't find attractive options to really stand up to the wear and tear, she decided to develop her own furniture line.

Wiener

"My Slobproof seating is odor-proof, moisture-proof and anti-microbial. Clean, green (sustainably forested hardwood frames) and made in the USA, our furniture is perfect for families, pets, pet lovers and public spaces where staying spill-proof, odor-free and anti-microbial is a must.

"Each seat cushion straps down the base, so it won't move unless you want it to. No sofa skirts to get dirty; no oversized arms to mat down; and all leg finishes can be touched up with a Sharpie marker."

The pitch

For Wiener, Slobproof is more than stylish upholstered couches and chairs -- the brand is a way of life.

Wiener

"We hope to be adding rugs, toss pillows and paint implements to our Slobproof brand for clean, green living everywhere in your home.

"Some of my suggestions in my 'Slob Proof' book for touching up scuffed walls got my son, Sam, and I talking about an idea for a new touch-up paint tool. Sam designed a product this past summer. We found a manufacturer in China to create a prototype and we've filed for a patent. How do we approach distribution for this new product?"

The advice

Asher Epstein, managing director, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

"I really like this idea, and it sounds like you're doing things right so far. However, with a product like this -- a new tool -- it's very easy for others to steal your idea and produce it themselves. A patent would be very difficult to defend. The way you can deal with that is through branding. Come up with a good product name and establish a brand.

"Your other big challenge is distribution. One option is to try and saturate the market. The advantage there is you can sell it anywhere -- from paint retailers to big-box stores to QVC.

"If you can get an opportunity with QVC, that's probably your best bet to get to the market. You have the potential to sell a lot of volume quickly through a cable shopping channel. But for that to work, you have to have a lot of units available.

"Your other option is to forge an exclusive agreement. I think your paint tool is much more compelling to retailers if they have an exclusive deal to sell it for a year. Target four to five stores and shop your product around for a 12-month exclusive deal. This will only work if retailers think they can get some brand traction with your product in a relatively short amount of time. For you, it could be a trade-off.

"Here's your homework: Come up with a list of five to 10 best-case scenario retailers to carry your product -- think Home Depot, Lowe's, Benjamin Moore, etc. And try to determine how big the paint tool market is. You want to have a good assessment of the landscape and the market potential for your product before you invest too much in it."

The reaction

Wiener

"We're waiting to get our prototypes back from the manufacturer so we can test them. Sam is working on developing relationships with potential suppliers and coming up with retailers we can target first."

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