Coming up with an innovative product is one thing; marketing it successfully is another.
Buford Whitman, a Memphis barber, musician and inventor, has come up with a safety-oriented nylon replacement lawn mower blade. But moving the Miracle Grass Blade from concept to hardware store distribution is proving complicated.
The "blade" consists of 24 flexible, flat nylon sticks about nine inches long and one-quarter-inch wide with a slight "T" at one end. Each blade is pulled through two parallel slots in a magnesium-zinc hub until the "T" locks in a groove alongside one circle of slots. The hub then is attached to a lawn mower in place of the original metal blade . Assembly time is 10 minutes, according to Whitman Enterprises' engineering vice president, Lawrence Wilson.
The hub, one set of blades and an assortment of nuts and bolts appropriate for different mowers will sell for $25, while a new set of blades will cost $2 or $3, Wilson said. He figures that the average person will change blades every spring.
Wilson said the blade won't cut fingers or toes or pick up and throw stones, sticks or other objects the way standard metal blades can. What it will do is cut grass. "We've cut several acres with one set of blades," Wilson said. He claims the blade "cuts material up so fine, it's hard to find the clippings if you don't have a bag" attached to the mower.
The blade was born when Whitman was shocked to learn from a television program that more than 300,000 people are injured each year in lawn-mower-related accidents. "I just couldn't believe it," he said. "Well, at that time, it just registered on my mind. The next morning, I found myself taking the blade off my lawn mower.
"I've been inventing all my life--just tinkering around," Whitman said. He said he came from a poverty-stricken family and never got a toy for Christmas. "I made my own from baling wire," he recalls. That background led him into part-time inventing, and he also has produced "a soapless sponge we've been using in my house for three years" and the Instachord, a device that attaches to a guitar to "teach anybody all the major chords in one hour."
Whitman began his search for a safer lawn mower blade by trying to substitute aluminum wire, part of a mousetrap, guitar strings, rawhide and, finally, nylon packing straps, for the standard metal blade. He tried nearly 20 kinds of nylon materials before hitting upon an appropriate one. He was helped by his brother Robert--who recently had sold his roofing business in Toledo--and by Wilson, a product analysis and structural testing consultant who had worked with Robert Whitman. The latter's willingness to bankroll the venture eliminated one usual inventor's problem: money.
They located companies to produce the blades and hubs. The first production order of 30,000 blades had to be scrapped when it was discovered that they were breaking. New blades were designed that are thicker at one end. This necessitated redesigning the hubs to accommodate them.
Wilson says that a big advertising campaign would cost between $2 million and $3 million--more than they can raise--so they are displaying their product at hardware shows. He fears that Japanese manufacturers could copy the Miracle Grass Blade and blitz the country with their own version. "The only thing we can do is move cautiously--don't overinvest in inventory," he said.
One potential distributor is Sammy Smith of S and D Distributors, a wholesaler of lawn mowers and lawn mower parts through most of Georgia and parts of Alabama and Tennessee. He is enthusiastic about the Miracle Grass Blade's potential, but notes that its introduction late in the grass-cutting season is a minus. He has shown the new blade in about 100 stores that he services and finds the reaction mixed.
Operators of stores that do not repair mowers "think it's fantastic" but say that the blade "won't lay on the shelf and sell itself"--clerks will have to explain its advantages to potential customers, Smith said. Operators of repair shops, on the other hand, "would rather not sell it" because the new blade not only could reduce blade-sharpening but also the need to replace crankshafts and flywheels--parts often damaged when mowers with standard blades hit large objects.