Solopreneurs tread a lonely path, launching ventures in which they alone will celebrate moments of success and bear the full weight of failures. More often than not, they also bootstrap their way to each new company, shouldering the bulk, if not all, of the financial risks. Either way, for better or worse, they go it alone.
Or do they?
“People say it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to bring a product to market,” Marni Peters says. “Even if you’re the only one behind the business, you need everybody around you, and you owe everybody in the end.”
Peters is the sole mastermind behind Idea Incubator Inc., a new company that offers stylus accessories for touch-screen devices. But she isn’t the only one pouring time, energy and capital into the business; for that, she’s turned time and time again to her entire village, including her friends, her family — even her friends’ families.
The Maryland native and longtime massage therapist says she has always had an entrepreneurial mind, first developing a retractable snowboard pole a little over a decade ago with the help of a close friend, each of them looking for a way to keep moving when they reached flat patches of snow. A few years later, Peters found inspiration when the oldest of her two children started crying on a long flight. She started working on an ultra-portable children’s activity tray, a project she put on the back burner when another venture started showing promise in recent months.
That one began in the spring of 2009, after Peters moved to Gastonia, N.C., and heard an NPR segment about senior citizens failing to communicate with younger generations because they weren’t embracing the smartphone and texting revolutions. Then and there, she decided to experiment with accessories for that market, and as an amateur jewelry maker, she initially focused on aesthetic designs — until her mother gave her some advice.
“When I showed my designs to my mom, she said, ‘No, no, they can’t just be pretty, they have to be functional,’” she says. “She told me she needed something to help her hit the keys on her BlackBerry.”
So Peters went back to the drawing board, first working on rings that would help users punch actual buttons but later shifting her attention to touch-screen devices after purchasing a new phone. She solicited the help of a local jewelry studio to work out the proper design, which in the end, combined a silicon ring with a small tip made of conductive materials. The rings fit onto users’ index fingers or thumbs, helping them more accurately type and navigate on smartphones and tablets.
Once she settled on a manufacturer and approved the samples, it was time to find seed funding to begin mass production. Originally, Peters planned to use an online crowdfunding platform called Kickstarter, but she was turned away, she says, for not having a Web site or other means of demonstrating the legitimacy of her business. So where did she turn?
“My parents decided to invest, and that was a big deal, because my dad is very conservative, never in debt, never takes risks,” Peters says, adding that her parents remain the sole source of outside funding for the company. “When he came on board, I knew I had something.”
Still, the issue of perceived legitimacy lingered, so Peters set out to establish an identity for her product. Fortunately, she knew a technology specialist named Michael Robinson who could help her build an attractive and effective Web site. Even more fortunately, she was married to him.
“My husband built the Web site and helped me with the name,” says Peters, who eventually called the product txtrng;). “We decided to write it like you would text it by dropping the vowels, and we also wanted it to be a feel-good accessory, so that’s where you get the smiley face.”
The first batch arrived last month and Peters began selling the txtrng;) through her new Web site. She is still nailing down her target market, but thus far, teenagers and adults over the age of 50 have been especially fond of the rings. However, with the market for tablets and smartphones getting younger and younger every day, she has also given a few pairs to her friend’s 11-year-old son out in Los Angeles.
He will be taking them to school with him this spring, and if he sells more than a thousand, she jokes, he has been promised a sizeable reward.
Most recently, Peters also got some assistance from her brother, who manages a company that sets up and cleans up after large events. He introduced her to several of the major technology trade shows, and Tuesday, thanks in part to his advice, Peters began showcasing her products at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. During the week, she plans to test some new colors and decide whether to continue selling solely online or partner with brick-and-mortar retailers.
Looking to the years ahead, Peters plans to partner with artists and graphic designers to create more stylish rings, hoping to one day build her brand into the “Tiffany’s of texting accessories.” Should that work out, she says she would even consider giving up her current massage business.
“I’ve told my mom, my goal is to have someone coming to my house to give me a massage some day,” Peters laughs.
However, she may need to save some of that excess capital for the day, perhaps a few decades from now, when her daughter comes looking for investors for her own great invention. After all, Peters all but assured her child would follow in her innovative footsteps right from the moment the little girl was born.
With a name like Tesla Edison Robinson, how could she not?