For more than 25 years, Sporn has taken those dreams—the moving parts in his head as he calls them—and brought them to life. More than two decades of trusting his instincts and embracing innovation has resulted in over 20 published patents and a host of products sold both domestically and overseas.
Year after year, his sales figures rank in the millions, and he shows no signs of slowing, at least, not according to his dreams. In fact, one of his latest inventions followed true to form—the idea came to him while he slept.
“In my dream, I actually saw the product, but there was nothing inside its moving parts,” Sporn says. “It was only when I got up that I realized what it was.”
Immediately upon waking, he moved to his workspace and set himself to task. The result? The Perfect You Bra, which allows the wearer to enhance or minimize her cleavage by adjusting the straps. As to how or why the idea developed, Sporn admitted he has no idea. His only explanation? He dreamed it and then was compelled to create it. “Inventing is a calling for me; just something I have to do,” he says.
Nevertheless, the bra, like many of his other inventions, has proved marketable and is set to hit store shelves early next year.
This has been the method to Sporn’s madness for years. “You know how some people talk about how great things happen when all the stars are aligned? That’s how it is for me,” he says, adding that something resonates inside him and tells him that what he’s seeing in his head is right. “I literally see my invention and then I make it.”
Throughout his career, those instincts have rarely proved wrong, beginning with the idea for his first invention, the Sporn Non-Pull Dog Harness. He secured a patent in 1989 and sold the harness throughout the 1990s before establishing The Sporn Company, Inc. in 1999. After finding success with the harness, he stayed the course, developing a variety of products for dogs and their owners, many of which can be purchased at major retailers such as WalMart, PetSmart and Petco.
A Knack for Innovation
But it seems the tides have turned, at least for now, as Sporn is preparing to launch not only the Perfect You Bra but another invention geared toward the human set—the Swim Assist training harness. He came up with the idea for the product, which aids in swim instruction, while he was teaching his son to navigate the family swimming pool. The lesson wasn’t going so well, as Sporn struggled with his son’s anxiety and fear of the water.
After several failed attempts to make the boy feel secure by holding him beneath his belly, Sporn felt defeated. In frustration, he grasped his son’s bathing suit waistband and lifted him up. The fledgling swimmer came out of the water and locked eyes with his dad, the fear gone from his eyes as he sensed the support of his father’s grip. Sporn says he instantly knew he’d found a better way to teach his son how to swim.
Sporn says he’s always possessed a knack for having ideas that appeal to other people, even if they don’t know they need it. “I remember from early childhood being copied all the time. I’d get a new pair of sneakers and then all my friends would get the same ones,” he says. “I’ve always had an eye for what other people might like, but that they wouldn’t necessarily notice themselves. So with my business, if I think of something that I believe can be useful, I’ll just keep working at it until I make it.”
Sporn says this element—usefulness—is essential to his process when he aims to invent and potentially market a product. He insists aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs must create goods that solve problems or enhance people’s lives if they hope to build a viable business.
Despite his own success, Sporn calls himself an accidental entrepreneur. Earning his keep as a dog walker in New York City in the late 1980s, he developed the dog harness when he was walking a large German Shepherd and the leash became tangled behind the animal’s front legs. It halted the dog, and in that moment Sporn realized not only was he able to control him easily with the leash in that position, but he could do so in a way that didn’t put pressure on the dog’s throat. It was a humane way of handling the animal.
That spark of discovery was a revolution for Sporn, and he wasted no time fanning it into a flame. He built a prototype and, relying on a strong hunch that his product was better than anything else on the market, began crafting plans to mass produce, market and distribute it.
However, he knew he needed capital, so he turned to his father, New York attorney Samuel Sporn for a loan. The elder Sporn saw the merit in his son’s idea and liked the look of the prototype, which the younger Sporn managed to piece together using ingenuity, experimentation and a secondhand sewing machine he picked up in Chinatown. Samuel Sporn also could see how the harness effectively controlled dogs in a more comfortable way than traditional harnesses.
“This was a totally radical concept; it changed the whole idea of dog harnesses,” Sporn says. “It was also very beneficial because it lets anyone easily control a dog.”
Impressed, Samuel Sporn resolved to invest in the harness and loaned his son $60,000 in start-up funds. Fortified with the means to finance his dream, Sporn put the money toward the harness’s design fee and his first purchase order. He says it was slow going at first, particularly when it came to finding manufacturing companies willing to take a chance on an unknown inventor, but his father’s investment made the difference.
“In the beginning you’re the new kid in school, and if you don’t have a sales reputation, factory owners are reluctant to work with you. You need a line of credit or something to give them a guarantee,” Sporn says. “After you’re in with the retailers, they realize you’re a player.”
Despite his inexperience and lack of ties to any major retailers, Sporn eventually convinced a California-based company to produce 1,000 units of the harness, but it came at a steep price and a test of his patience. The factory fees were wildly overpriced, costing him nearly double the price he would have paid to an Asian company. The exaggerated manufacturing fees didn’t equal a quick turnaround on output, either. Sporn says the wait time to receive product samples was long and taxing.
Trade Show Tips
But as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait, and Sporn was no exception. He worked diligently for about three years, focusing only on producing and moving as many harnesses as he could. His goals were simply to repay his father and to pull enough profit to reinvest in and expand his operation. That meant hawking his wares at trade shows, which he said were critical to his early success. After researching which ones would be the best fit, he packed up his products and set off with plans to showcase his harness to as many potential buyers as possible.
The move proved to be the right one.
“I went to the trade show and took a dog with me, did demonstrations, and I let people test it out themselves,” Sporn says. “We had a line of customers waiting to make a purchase order, and from there the word spread like wildfire. In my first show I sold $30,000 worth of harnesses.”
Sporn says the secret to trade shows is the brutal honesty and all-or-nothing feedback businesspeople and entrepreneurs can receive regarding the effectiveness and desirability of their products. “If the public warms to what you’re selling, they can be very kind and accepting, but brace yourself for swift rejection if your product fails to impress,” he says.
Yet, when all the compliments and criticisms have been thrown your way, Sporn says a product’s worth ultimately comes down to units sold. “The truth is that when people take out their wallets and pay, then you know you have something great,” he says. “But the only way you’re going to know that is if you put the product out there and take a risk.”
After his trade-show triumph, Sporn was willing to take more risks and dream even bigger. He’d had his first taste of financial success and earned enough to repay his father and reinvest in his product. But he needed a plan for expansion and long-term growth, which meant focusing on the nuts and bolts of building a business. It was then that he and long-time business partner and The Sporn Company Vice President Richard Goodrum began to plot the company’s future course. Sporn was primed and ready to move manufacturing overseas.
His expansion began during the 1990s, a time before Web surfing became a national pastime, making identifying foreign companies to work with a bit more difficult than it is today. However, he and Goodrum managed to make it work. “We were able to locate factories using manufacturer sourcing websites like Global Sources and Alibaba,” Goodrum says.
After years of paying bloated manufacturing costs to their domestic provider, Goodrum says he and Sporn were eager to increase profits by finding ways to slash production costs. To that end, they sent a harness to more than 40 different factories and requested each make one unit to their exact specifications. When they had the finished products in hand, they scrutinized each one, measuring and comparing the quality of the harnesses while factoring in cost and the factories’ professionalism.
Once Goodrum and Sporn narrowed their options to three suppliers, they traveled overseas to see the manufacturing operations first hand. After evaluating those experiences, they decided to work with companies in Indonesia and China.
With mass production secured, it was time to introduce the harness on a wider scale. For Sporn, that meant inking contracts with national retailers. While working a trade show in 1999, luck was on his side when he spotted Phil Francis, the now-former CEO of PetSmart. Sporn didn’t have a meeting with the man, but he had an idea to get his attention. Francis was giving a speech and when he finished, Sporn took a chance and, using a dog leash, managed to literally wrangle face time with the executive. Sporn wasted no time seizing the moment to give Francis a harness demonstration using a dog he’d smuggled into the show.
“I knew it was aggressive, but to get your products out there you have to get creative and do whatever it takes,” he says. “In the end it was nothing but fun.”
Going with his gut worked in Sporn’s favor. Rather than being put off by the abrupt introduction and forced meeting, Francis was impressed. A year later, the Sporn Non-Pull Dog Harness debuted on PetSmart shelves. Afterward, Sporn capitalized on that first marketing coup, gaining notice from, and eventual distribution deals, with Walmart and Petco.
Of course, Sporn’s product was his golden ticket; the right product is essential to any entrepreneur’s success. However, there are several other factors to consider beyond the invention. Packaging, for one. When it came to how his products would be displayed, Sporn wasn’t leaving the design decisions to outsiders. Instead, he formed his own in-house team, figuring those most familiar with the ins and outs of the product’s development process would be experts regarding how it should be packaged and presented to the buying public.
“It’s accepted in the retail business that the average customer gives you about a half a second of their attention in the store, so your packaging has to make an impact, and it has to do it fast,” he says.
To ensure he and his team are making the right calls, Sporn often turns to online surveys, a useful tool to gauge the public’s reaction to his products’ packaging. He says he’s continuously amazed at how even subtle changes in package design can make a big impact and widely skew someone’s impression. In Sporn’s business, those reactions are integral to his success, and he says he is happy to put the public’s critiques to work for him if it keeps him on top.
“On the Internet you’ll really get the truth from people, really blunt and honest responses. They’ll even tell you your product is crap if that’s how they see it,” he says. “Right now I’m number one in the world in pull-control harnesses, but I know I could be yesterday’s news in a second. Success can be fleeting.”
Luckily for Sporn, he’s never short on ideas. The consummate daydreamer says his visions and dreams for new inventions are on a near-constant loop in his head, and once he envisions them, they simply have to come out. However, he also knows that great products are not enough to ensure continued success, especially in the notoriously fickle retail industry. To stay relevant and to keep his products moving off the shelves, Sporn stresses the importance of developing and maintaining strong business partnerships.
“You have to understand that each relationship is different. Knowing people’s needs is as important as having the right product,” he says. It’s also important for his partners to know he’ll take care of them. “You have to nurture those you have relationships with as if they were a part of your own family,” he says.
Above all, Sporn’s protected his reputation by ensuring his integrity is never in question. He makes sure his product shipments are always on time, and he takes care to deal honestly with those who help keep his business humming. “Never lie, cheat or steal in business,” Sporn advises.
That trust and integrity extends to Sporn’s customers, as well. His company offers lifetime guarantees on all its products, a move which boosts Sporn’s brand and inspires consumer loyalty.
But despite all the toil and effort, pretty packaging and cost-effective manufacturing deals, business ventures are and always will remain a risk. Samuel Sporn bet on his son, dreaming his boy would make good on his goals. “When it comes to your kids, you keep your fingers crossed and you only hope for the best for them,” he says.
Judging by Joseph Sporn’s career so far, it seems Samuel Sporn’s dreams, like his son’s, have all come true.