With the help of Edison Nation, Michael Diep’s
Emery Cat clawed its way to success
By Mike Drummond
A man who took their money and promised to help them cross the border never showed – again. It was the late 70s. Vietnam had fallen to the Communists. The government was shipping tens of thousands to “re-education camps.” The Diep family, which had tried a dozen times to flee the country, was desperate.
Michael’s father, who had succeeded earlier in smuggling out his two older sons, hatched a bold plan. He’d move the family from Saigon – née Ho Chi Minh City – to a coastal town. There, he’d work as a fisherman by day – and build an escape boat by night. He would sell passage on the boat to like-minded and discreet neighbors to help fund the vessel’s construction.
In 1981, six years after the fall of Saigon, the Dieps and other intrepid souls set course in the handmade craft for freedom. They would be among hundreds of thousands of “boat people” to flee Vietnam in one of the largest diasporas since World War II.
Michael was about 12 – too young to help the crew, yet old enough to appreciate how perilous the journey was.
On day nine on the open sea, the main engine conked out.
“The part that scared me the most was the uncertainty of not being able to know which direction the wind would take us, how much water and food was left before we ran out and whether we would survive if a storm hit,” he recalls.
“I remember seeing my father climb to the tip of the boat and start praying,” he adds. “That set the tone for the rest of us to join in and hope for a miracle.”
After five more days of bobbing on the ocean, a machinist onboard got the engine working. Three days later, the boat made it to a refugee camp in Indonesia.
That same year, the Dieps settled in Seattle, where Michael’s father set up a thriving house-cleaning business and later became a successful real estate investor.
Fast-forward some 30 years.
Michael Diep, 41, is at Edison Nation in downtown Charlotte, N.C. A sister company of Inventors Digest, Edison Nation owns and produces the PBS series Everyday Edisons. Picked in 2007 for its second season, Diep is in town to receive his first royalty check for the Emery Cat, a nail-filing platform for felines. The check is a result of a wildly successful infomercial run earlier this year, as well as placements in Walmart, Walgreens, Target, PetSmart and other retail chains.
That type of success for an independent inventor is more often the exception than the rule, of course. Yet dreaming up a hit product and living off mailbox money continues to motivate millions of entrepreneur-minded people across the world.
The seduction of riches also fuels a vibrant industry devoted to exploiting the passion, naivety and, yes, greed of inventors.
When Diep was in his 20s, he conceived an invention that would display rotating ads on the back of trucks. Like something out of the movie Blade Runner, he envisioned an endless stream of ads running on the blank canvasses that are semitrailers. Acting on that idea, he dialed one of those invention promotion companies advertised on television.
He admits that his “level of excitement was so high that it took over my senses.” He believed the sales rep’s line that his product was a sure winner and would make him rich. The company just needed more money from him to take the product to the next level.
“It was like getting high on drugs,” he says. “We like to hear from others that our ideas are the greatest, that our inventions are the best since sliced bread, even though there were so many red flags.”
Diep paid upwards of $7,000 – money he had borrowed from his father and an aunt. But no major companies came knocking. No investors lined up to launch his product. All the big promises from the invention promotion firm proved empty. Diep finally dropped the company and any hopes of pursuing his truck-ad invention.
Hard work has been Diep’s lifelong companion. As a child, he fetched water and other supplies while his father worked seven days a week in Vietnam. Diep worked equally hard once stateside, helping his dad with the upstart house-cleaning business.
Although he enjoyed marketing classes while in college and worked his way up the ranks at a few companies, Diep shared his father’s sense of risk-taking. So when a good friend of his asked to help him source clothing makers in Vietnam, Diep accepted the challenge.
Savor the irony. Here was Diep, now an American citizen, taking a position in a capitalist, entrepreneurial startup that required him to return to the communist country he nearly lost his life escaping.
The clothing business, in Diep’s words, “flourished,” in the early part of this decade. Despite the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and the ensuing recession, orders were up from an increasing number of clients. Diep was making as many as eight trips a year to his homeland.
It was 2002.
“We had everything going for us,” Diep says. “We were on track to have even a bigger year than the previous two years.”
But that fall a pandemic known as severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS swept through much of Asia. It ended up infecting more than 8,000 people and killed nearly 800. Governments imposed quarantines and travel restrictions.
With Diep unable to oversee manufacturing, his company’s quality control eroded.
“All the effort of trying to run the business from the U.S. failed,” he says. “We closed doors to prevent further losses.”
In February 2007, Diep arrived at 4 a.m. to the Season 2 Everyday Edisons casting call in San Diego. The collapse of his business was still more or less fresh. So too was the previous financial burn from the invention promotion firm episode.
Yet the positive feedback he had read online about the show and the low cost of entry – free – compelled him to try his luck at another invention and with Everyday Edisons.
Hundreds of hopeful inventors queued out of a media building at San Diego State University. Diep waited 13 hours to present his product to judges.
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His crude prototype was nothing more than some 2x4s wrapped in sandpaper. One of his brothers owned a cat. Diep, a keen observer and an inveterate tinkerer since an early age, thought of tackling the problem of keeping a cat’s claws filed down without the need of painful nail clippers or expensive trips to clinics.
His solution was an emery board approach.
The judges expressed interest in the concept and told Diep someone would be back in touch.
Americans spend nearly $48 billion on their pets, according to the American Pet Products Association. At least $14 billion of that is on grooming, boarding and other supplies.
“Michael’s product addresses a huge market,” says Todd Stancombe, president of Edison Nation and executive producer of Everyday Edisons. “Our team thought if we could dial in the design and get the manufacturing costs right, we could help Michael hit a home run with consumers.”
Diep, however, waited two and a half months before the show informed him he would be among a dozen inventors to appear on the program and have his invention turned into a product.
“To be honest,” says Diep, “that two and a half months were the worst in my whole life.” Tougher, he says, than the multiple failed attempts at fleeing Vietnam. Harder than the weeks adrift at sea.
For the next year and a half, the Everyday Edisons and Edison Nation product design teams crafted Diep’s idea. Rather than a pole, the team initially developed a honeycombed scratching pad covered in coarse sand and infused with catnip. The raised, curved platform sat in a plastic bed with simple, rounded edges. The descriptively named Emery Cat came with a toy to entice cats.
Diep took breaks from his residential real estate business in Southern California to meet periodically with the Everyday Edisons and Edison Nation teams.
“They have the right staff with so much in-house expertise,” he says. “I was fortunate to work with them on a personal level. They allowed me the opportunity to be involved and have a voice in the final product and packaging, as well.”
Launching a new product is never easy. Retail shelf space is a premium commodity, and all too often reserved for those products with a proven, profitable track record. At first, Everyday Edisons and Edison Nation wooed Walmart, the retail giant and hopeful product destination for any independent inventor, for an Emery Cat test in the market.
While the reach of a Walmart seems in theory to be the best-laid plan for a product’s success, it’s not always the ideal avenue. The Everyday Edisons/Edison Nation team realized a long-term direct sales strategy into general merchandise and national pet stores may not be the best fit for the high potential, yet relatively unknown Emery Cat.
Direct response television (DRTV) is a lucrative sales channel that delivers memory-pounding infomercials. It’s the medium that can make millions for things such as Snuggies, a blanket with arms.
Everyday Edisons and Edison Nation secured a licensing deal with a top DRTV partner and the Emery Cat went from a single-shelf item to an As Seen On TV product.
Everyday Edisons and Edison Nation teams also responded to problems with the first generation. Initially, the Emery Cat had a box liner made of thin plastic – not heavy enough to keep it in place when a cat scratched at the pad. And that was assuming a cat would stand on the rough honeycomb surface.
“My cats won’t use it,” one Edison Nation official groused during a meeting.
The teams went with a solid base and made the scratching surface less coarse.
With the new, improved product, the DRTV partner produced the now ubiquitous “Here, kitty kitty” spot.
The Emery Cat infomercial launched in November 2009. It was an immediate success. More than a million units quickly moved. Although some customers later complained about snafus with online orders, including errant double-billings, sales success led to distribution in Walmart, Walgreens, PetSmart, Target and a host of big-box retailers that otherwise would have paid the Emery Cat little attention.
“We strongly believed in the Emery Cat’s potential for mainstream success,” says Eddie Burklin, chief financial officer at Edison Nation. “Our strategic DRTV partnership allowed us to market a product that not only would serve a needed function for cat owners, but also become a pop culture icon.”
Launching a new product will invariably cost far more than you’ve anticipated, and can take far longer than you thought.
For Diep, the wait has been worth it.
“Success doesn’t come easy,” he says. “So if a company tells you they are guaranteeing that your product will make millions of dollars and you will be rich in a year, it is probably not true.”
He’s especially thankful for the time he spent with the product development teams at Everyday Edisons and Edison Nation.
“It was the chance of a lifetime to experience every step, from seeing my idea become a product, and then land on retail store shelves,” he says. “You can’t pay enough money for this type of hands-on experience, nor can you get this kind of training in school, not even at an MBA program in college.”
For the Edisons crew, seeing the Emery Cat finally claw its way to success validated the nearly two years of toil.
“The reality is we had to experience setbacks to find this level of success,” says Stancombe. “Michael’s passion and enthusiasm motivated us to push through any obstacle, rallying our entire team to support his journey.”
And then there was that first royalty check. Diep cradled it in stunned amazement. For the inventor who once sunk thousands of borrowed dollars into a shady invention promotion company, the moment was sublime.
Non-disclosure rules prevent us from revealing the exact amount of Diep’s royalty check, but suffice to say it is well into the five figures.
“I almost fell out of my chair after looking at the number,” he says. “I never believed that from one single invention, I could easily retire and never have to work another day in my life.”
Editor’s note: This article is the August 2010 cover story, celebrating National Inventors Month.