The former Good Morning America co-host discovers making a kids’ product ain’t child’s play
By Mike Drummond
Joan Lunden is known to take risks.
During her nearly two decades as co-host of ABC’s Good Morning America, Lunden bungee-jumped off a bridge, rappelled down a glacier, took the controls of an F-16 jet and galloped show horses.
But the award-winning television journalist, author and parenting advocate recently embarked on what’s arguably her most risky gambit yet – she’s now an inventor-entrepreneur.
She and husband Jeff Konigsberg have developed KinderKord, a fashion-forward tether that keeps toddlers secured to parents or guardians without the stigma of a harness or leash.
In truth, the KinderKord is a leash, but with some aesthetic and functional differences from similar products that have been around for years. The KinderKord attaches at the wrist of both child and parent. The devices look more like watches than security bands. Metal safety clasps on the cord can unhook and the tether can retract into the wrist housings.
Lunden, 58, and hubby were shopping with their two sets of twins – now 5 and 4 and conceived through a surrogate mother – when the eureka moment hit.
“We had all of the twins with us,” Lunden says. “For some reason, we thought that was a good idea at the time. I would take one into the dressing room, while Jeff was corralling the other three in the store, trying to stop them from knocking stuff over. We thought, ‘there’s gotta be a better way.'”
One wonders how many inventions were born from that single phrase. Yet as Lunden and Konigsberg would discover, developing and commercializing a product is far more challenging than conceiving an idea. Government regulators and major retail buyers weren’t particularly impressed that the famous Joan Lunden wanted to develop a new child-safety product. For her, the experience was at turns humbling and illuminating. For the rest of us, her journey reinforces the need to conduct unemotional market research and recruit a team of credible legal, marketing, industrial design and other professionals.
On to Something
The KinderKord, available at Target.com, Amazon.com, Babies R Us, www.kinderkord.com as well as other small specialty stores, arrives during a growth spurt in the child-safety product category.
Manufacturer sales of child-safety products, which includes car seats, strollers and beds, hit a high of $2.8 billion in 2007, the last year for which figures are available, according to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association.
The association used to calculate retail sales, but changed its formula for 2007. Nonetheless, a spokeswoman for the association noted that sales of child-safety products have been increasing every year since 1995.
The KinderKord, unveiled last year, also helps ease anxiety of taking children to crowded public places. For each of the last five years, for every 1,000 children who are lost or abducted, 56 went missing from malls, theme parks and other such locales, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Not all missing or abducted children are reported to the center, so the figures likely reflect an undercount, officials say.
And parenting blogs are filled with horror stories of toddlers darting off and getting killed by passing cars.
“Sometimes I would get really rude comments, like ‘only pets should be on leashes,'” wrote Carri Ann on Familycorner.com. “My response was always, ‘I’d rather take extra safety precautions in keeping my child safe, because it only takes a split second for a disaster to happen.'”
Attractive yet approachable, intelligent without being overly intellectual, Lunden led a charmed journalism career. Starting as a TV newswoman in Sacramento, Calif., she moved to New York in 1975 and quickly emerged as a standout at WABC-TV Eyewitness News. The Good Morning America gig soon followed. Lunden often earned “favorite morning anchor” rankings from Entertainment Weekly respondents during her years at the show. That likeability factor translated into profitable stints in public speaking and as a pitchwoman, including for Hasbro.
Lunden says she declined a sponsor’s request to serve as a spokeswoman only one time – when the company asked her to shill for a child leash.
“I didn’t do it because it was like putting a kid on a dog leash,” she says. “The product didn’t achieve its goal in a way I felt was something I approved of.”
That experience informed her and Konigsberg’s thinking as they developed the KinderKord.
“You need to have children by your side, yet still allow them a little room to explore,” she says. “When you have four kids, you can’t always be holding their hands. We knew there were leashes and halters out there already, but they were objectionable for us.”
The KinderKord owes its form to the Swatch watch and much of its function to retractable ID badges.
Lunden and her husband bought a Swatch the day they were clothes shopping with their two sets of twins. Konigsberg noticed a store employee using a retractable ID badge and bought one at a supply store. Later, the couple threaded the badge around the Swatch.
Lunden admired the prototype. “I think we’re on to something.”
The couple started with informal research, asking friends, family and acquaintances about experiences with losing their kids in public places.
“Every single person,” says Lunden, “had a story to tell about when they lost their child and what it was like during those few agonizing moments.” Many also related to having mixed feelings about using a leash or harness.
Encouraged, Lunden and Konigsberg began enlisting help. First up – a patent attorney.
“It’s possible to do a search” to find similar products or patents, Lunden says. “We didn’t feel comfortable doing it that way and decided to go the route of getting professional expertise.”
They hired Ted Barthel, an intellectual property attorney with Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C. in Milwaukee. Records show Barthel filed a patent application for a “Tether Device, System, And Method” on Sept. 26, 2006. Konigsberg is the inventor of record. As of this writing, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had not granted the patent.
Konigsberg has owned and operated two summer camps in Maine for years. While he possesses a keen understanding of the great outdoors, naming new products isn’t his strong suit.
He initially dubbed their child tether device the “umbilical cord.”
“The visual,” says Lunden, “was not a good one. Jeff’s sister came up with the name KinderKord. We liked that right away.”
Konigsberg contacted product design and development firm ID Group in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Jeremy Wilkens, ID Group’s design manager, says the fact Joan Lunden was involved had nothing to do with why he decided to take on the KinderKord project.
“They had an interesting way of positioning the product,” Wilkens says. “It was changing the way of looking at a leash. They kept reinforcing that they wanted this to be discreet with a low manufacturing cost. An impulse buy.”
Although not a technically demanding device, it nonetheless posed a set of challenges.
“We had to make it a unisex product,” Wilkens says. “And we were dealing with a wide age range, from toddlers to adults. You have a lot going on there.”
Wilkens says initial versions contained features they later had to jettison to keep the KinderKord slender and lightweight. He won’t say what those features were, because they could end up in the next generation of KinderKords.
As per industry practice, Wilkens had various components made in different manufacturing plants overseas. This prevents a single manufacturer from knocking off a product during production. Of course, there’s nothing to stop manufacturers from reverse engineering a finished product once it’s on the market.
In the end, Wilkens appreciated that Konigsberg and Lunden did their homework.
“They had certain claims they wanted in the product because those were obviously protected,” he says. “A lot of times people come to us and say ‘I have a great idea,’ and don’t realize it’s already on the market.
“They also were willing to seek outside help,” Wilkens adds. “They didn’t have this I’m-going-to-do-it-on-my-own mentality. The market can be gone by the time you get it out of your garage.”
Claim to Fame
Lunden knew about pitching products to consumers and was familiar with QVC from a story she did about the home shopping network.
But she had never presented at a sales meeting. Her first one was with Babies R Us. Although the retailer “loved” the product, company officials had plenty of feedback. They wanted better packaging to prevent theft, among other things.
The second generation of KinderKord will ship in clear, tamper-proof, blister packaging like the type typically used for electronics, pens and other consumer goods. In the case of the KinderKord, it allows for twice as much product to be displayed on store racks. The thinner packaging also means more units per crate, reducing import costs.
Lunden’s to-do list grew. She and Konigsberg had to get a bar code for the product. There was a Web site to construct, which included e-mail, order fulfillment and customer service components. Letterhead. Envelopes. Business cards. Color and materials selection. Liability insurance. Import requirements. Warehousing. Distribution. Consumer Product Safety Commission regulations.
“I wouldn’t say make it up as you go along,” Lunden says, “but you learn as you go along.”
That’s not exactly what Cheryl Perkins, founder and president of product-development firm Innovationedge, recommends.
Confronting the dizzying array of steps it takes to get a new product to market can trigger “innovation fatigue,” a phenomenon Perkins and co-authors address in their upcoming book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).
Rather than time tables, new product developers should set up milestones to gauge progress.
Adhering to a milestone calendar, rather than a temporal one, says Perkins, “prevents you from being continually disappointed when you hit delays getting your product to market.”
Moreover, Perkins recommends hiring a coach or mentor to help map out the milestones. A coach can arrange meetings with regulators early in the product-development process, easing any regulatory hurdles and diminishing the number of unwanted surprises.
KinderKord has evolved since Lunden first spoke with Inventors Digest about her product. It’s taken on a smaller, more watch-like shape and comes in more colors, which should appeal to more customers.
She’s also tweaked some features. KinderKord now has a “3-2-1” feature, allowing parents to tether their kids 1, 2 or 3 feet from them.
“There’s a real learning curve bringing a product to market,” says Lunden. “It was way more work than Jeff and I anticipated.”
For the celebrity supermom, the experience was humbling.
“I thought that knowing how other companies had used me to sell their products would be significant for getting me in the door,” she says. “But as I went through the process … of making and designing the product, I came to realize if it didn’t meet the need and the quality and safety standards then it wouldn’t fly. The (famous) name only goes so far.”
Lunden realizes what many veteran inventor-entrepreneurs know – product development is a team sport. She echoes the advice we hear all the time: surround yourself with experts and seek the advice of professionals.
Despite all the hurdles, Lunden would do it again. In fact, as she talks about introducing more child-safety products, she begins to sound like a seasoned product-development pro.
“We’re a country that depends on entrepreneurship and innovation,” she says. “But you have to have fortitude to stick to it.”