By Eva Winger

At the outset of Spark, this year’s series following three women inventor-entrepreneurs, we introduced Diana York, creator of the Slow Cooker Mate, a three-chambered stainless steel slow cooker.

She experienced set-backs during the first phase of prototype development, including finding a reliable manufacturer – a process that spanned two years. *

Before York could regain momentum toward phase two – packaging and design and launch of her Web site – she had to revisit prototyping. She still had not decided whether to manufacture ceramic inserts or sell a whole new slow cooker system.

“My initial idea was to sell stand-alone inserts,” says York, “I quickly realized that slow cookers, even in the same brand and size, are all different shapes.”slowcookmate

Creating enough molds and inventory to accommodate every slow cooker on the market would be impossible. She also realized that asking a customer to remember which brand and model slow cooker they had before purchasing an insert would be too much trouble.

“I can’t even recall those details with my own products,” she says, “so how can I expect that from my customers?”

York decided to develop a slow cooker that would include her inserts.

York and her sourcing agent managed to find a manufacturer that could make the Slow Cooker Mate system with her desired size and features. Except for a few hiccups along the way – a factory shut-down for a Chinese holiday, having to adjust the color of the ceramic insert, and issues with the handles – York finally had her finished product.

She was now ready to move onto other steps for Slow Cooker Mate’s launch: a photo session and Web and design packaging.

While a graphic designer worked on the packaging layout, York drafted her own collateral materials, such as operational instructions.

“My manufacturer saved me time by allowing me to use general manuals as a guide,” she says. “Otherwise it would have been a nightmare to create the manual from scratch.” **

York also wanted to offer customers a cookbook to accompany her Slow Cooker Mate. The graphic designer compiled the book in files believed to be “printer friendly.”

The factory was unable to open and execute those files.

“Go figure,” says York. “Nothing can be simple and easy.”

Another month delay later, the factory completed printing and was ready to go into production. York planned for inventory to arrive at her warehouse by the first week in December 2008.

Yet sensing something would go awry, she consulted her network of women inventors.

“The overall consensus was to expect poor quality with my first run production, and accept it as part of the experience,” she says.

York approached her sourcing agent’s quality control staff and requested they supervise production. The inspector found sloppy workmanship and errors in the placement of the Slow Cooker Mate’s face-plate for the logo.

“What a relief to have found those mistakes early at the factory,” says York. “If we did not catch them, I would have paid for a shipment of substandard slow cookers and I would have had no recourse.” ***

York gave up hope of an early December delivery. Eager to receive some inventory to send to media outlets, she requested the factory send a small shipment via air, which arrived in Dallas on Dec. 30.

The carrier sent York a notice requesting payment for shipping fees before it would release the air shipment, but did not send wire-transfer information. By the time she received the information, it was too late to wire the money and the carrier charged her a storage fee.

The New Year’s holiday triggered another delay.

“It was hard being patient at that point,” York says. “Having spent years working on my product, I was eager to … get selling.”

York’s family owns a warehouse. She looked forward to saving money with storage and handling fees, as well as having direct control over inventory.

But the freight carrier delivered the shipment to her corporate address instead of the warehouse. The big truck could not access the office’s drive-way. York would have to off-load the shipment to a smaller truck, then drive to the warehouse.

To top it off, there was a freezing downpour that day. “Even mother nature had it out for me,” York says.

The driver explained that the shipping company lost the paperwork, could not find the delivery address, and so defaulted to York’s office address on the customer invoice.

“I felt lucky to even receive my shipment,” she says.

York is ready to put the tumultuous experiences of the last couple years behind her, and looks forward to the Slow Cooker Mate’s future.

“My goal is to prepare other inventors with what to expect,” she says, “and hopefully spare them some troubles.” ****

We asked Nell Merlino, CEO and founder of the nonprofit Count Me In organization that helps women entrepreneurs, to weigh in on York’s experiences:

*In business, as in any other part of life, two heads are better than one. Entrepreneurs and inventors have the tenacity to strike out on their own, but that can sometimes prevent them from getting help. Hiring a professional to help you can definitely save you the time and money you’d spend on trial and error. But good help doesn’t have to cost a lot. Reach out to your peers. There are communities like Count Me In’s Make Mine a Million $ Business RACE, that are full of people who have already taken their ideas to market and are eager to share what they’ve learned.

**Ask yourself, “What am I best at?” Focus your passion on what you know you do well, and find help for the rest. The Make Mine a Million $ Business RACE helps women entrepreneurs answer that question for themselves through our online Business Assessment, and then connect to information and other businesses who can help them fill in the gaps.

***The most precarious stage of a business’s development is the period of expansion when a solo entrepreneur must give up some control, whether that means hiring new employees or outsourcing parts of a project. Entrepreneurs transitioning between doing everything themselves and sharing responsibility need to take some time to do their research and establish their expectations. York was very wise to ask her network about what to expect.

****Now that York has survived the ordeal of production, sales and marketing are her next mountains to climb. She should look to get exposure on local and national media. She also needs to connect with women who have sold their products through major chains.