Test Before Placing That Tall Order

Editor’s note: First Person is an occasional series of stories from inventors, written by inventors.

That 70s show. Oscar af Strom’s Lift-a-Picture sheets allowed you to grab an image from a magazine and plaster it to apparel. His initial formula worked – but not his business.

That 70s show. Oscar af Strom’s Lift-a-Picture sheets allowed you to grab an image from a magazine and plaster it to apparel. His initial formula worked – but not his business.

By Oscar af Strom

I’ve been working with image-transfer sheets since the 1950s that allow you to transfer pictures from magazines to t-shirts and such.

I obtained U.S. patents in 1968 and 1971, and soon earned recognition at trade shows in Canada, Chicago and at the International Inventors Expo in New York, where my Lift-a-Print transfer sheets won a gold medal.

Despite initial success in 1976, my venture failed. I swore I’d never make any more inventions. But fate would tempt me again. And again I would fail.

In 1982, I retired from the International Civil Aviation Organization and settled down in Mexico, my wife’s native country. I soon returned to images transfer as a hobby.

I tried out various plastisols – a substance that when heated gels and fuses into a thermoplastic – and emulsions. I ended up using Rohm & Haas acrylic emulsion and a plastisol from British company Sericol.

My process worked well for transferring art reproductions in books to canvas. At the urging of a fellow Rotary Club member, I began teaching housewives the technique. My Rotary Club colleagues urged me to sell transfer kits. I was more interested in licensing my process than becoming an entrepreneur. Yet friends and Rotary members wanted to invest in a venture.

So I formed Calcola de Mexico, S.A. de CV and registered a U.S. corporation, Lift-a-Picture Inc. The aim was to market and license my inventions and patents. To test whether there was still interest in transfer sheets, I attended the Hobby Industry Association (HIA) trade show in Anaheim, Calif., in 1985. I found sufficient interest to sell kits to wholesalers and craft shops. I even managed to find a good manufacturer’s representative.

I bought large quantities of Acrylic Emulsion B60A, which I obtained from the Mexican Rohm & Haas company and plastisol from Tintas Sanchez, S.A. de C.V., the distributors for the British company.

I designed kits, wrote instructions, had the B60A emulsion bottled in 1-ounce bottles and the plastisol in small jars. When the kits were ready, I exhibited them at craft shows in San Diego and Cleveland and finally at the 1986 HIA trade show in St. Louis.

I paid for a large ad in the exhibition catalogue. Our booth got a steady stream of visitors. Things were looking up.

However, throughout that year I had noticed the transfers were more difficult to perform than those I had made during the development years. Because I was a transfer specialist, I managed to make the demonstrations look easy.

Yet difficulties in using the kits became more evident. Many participants in a class I was giving at the St. Louis show couldn’t get their transfers to work. I didn’t sell many kits and didn’t get any orders. What went wrong?

The plastisol I bought from Tintas Sanchez was not the Sericol plastisol I had bought from them earlier. They had just changed suppliers.

Instead of receiving the Sericol plastisol made in London, I had received a plastisol manufactured by its new U.S. supplier. I complained. But the company said that it was unnecessary to inform me because, “there was no difference between the two.”

The two plastisols may have been equal from a screen printing point of view, which is the major use of plastisols. But that was not what I was using it for. For use as an ingredient in transfer sheets, plastisols are not equal – those manufactured in Britain worked far better than the U.S. version.

What can other entrepreneurs and inventors learn from my story?

Before placing large orders, request samples and test these well. If I would have done that, I would have found that the plastisol that I bought from Tintas Sanchez didn’t work. I would have placed my order with Sericol’s new distributor, or directly with the British manufacturer.

It was a lesson learned the hard way.