BY DON DEBELAK
Trade shows geared to retail or business buyers can be a perfect opportunity for inventors—so long as they understand the potential for both the right and wrong kind of exposure.
These shows can allow inventors to expose products to their target customers; find distributors and sales reps; and even potentially find a company to license their product. Shows such as the Global Pet Expo, the International Housewares Show or ABC Kids Expo target retail store buyers and industry distributors, and work well for inventors of consumer products. Shows such as WEFTEC, which highlights water treatment solutions for clean water projects, seek to attract municipal and industrial buyers and are the ticket for inventors with products targeting those buyers.
On the other hand, inventors must be aware of the pitfalls of exhibiting products with patent pending status, which can lead to knock-off attempts by other suppliers. Two inventor stories illustrate these points. The first involves Loren Kulesus, who had great success at the Global Pet Expo; the second chronicles Donna Ramere’s problems with knock-offs that began at the New York City Toy Fair.
A shot in the dark
Kulesus and three partners started a company to introduce the Dr. Catsby, a new ergonomically designed bowl for feeding cats that avoids touching the cat’s whiskers while it’s feeding. After some initial social network marketing, Kulesus decided to take out a booth plus space in the New Products Showcase display at the Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., this past March. He was stunned by the positive response, with retailers and distributors from the U.S. and around the world stepping up to order. After only a few months, he’s talking about becoming a vendor for some of the bigger pet retailers.
Inspiration and design
One of Kulesus’s three cats was a bully that would eat the top third of his cat food, along with the top third of the food in the other two cats’ dishes. He tried isolating the bullying cat, and found the cat still only ate the top third of his food before crying for more food. When Kulesus investigated, he learned that many cats’ whiskers are sensitive to the touch and even discovered a term for this: “whisker fatigue.” He found that cats’ long whiskers detect vibrations and are sensitive to the lightest touches. So it was likely that his bullying cat wasn’t a bully after all; he just didn’t like having his whiskers touching the side of the bowl.
Kulesus’s day job was as a partner in 9999—which does product and package design—so the company did modeling work on designing an ergonomic bowl that would eliminate the need for a cat’s whiskers to touch it. He did 3D modeling to perfect the bowl design, which ended up as a low, shallow configuration that could handle whiskers up to 80mm long. Kulesus designed the bowl in stainless steel for a high-tech look that also added extra protection from bacteria that plastic doesn’t provide.
Kulesus coordinated his 3D modeling with a 3D printer to make some initial prototypes of the Dr. Catsby product. He then started testing the product with fellow cat lovers and found that cats with behaviors that indicated whisker fatigue—such as not eating all of the food in the bowl or spilling food onto the floor—took to the Dr. Catsby. He also found that cats that could tolerate standard cat food bowls preferred the Dr. Catsby when set up with a side-by-side test. Kulesus had been offering information about his product on his Facebook page during the testing process and had generated enough interest and support to decide he was ready to move ahead.
The Dr. Catsby went on sale in early November 2015. Kulesus launched the product online, with a heavy emphasis on Facebook. He also set up the Dr. Catsby website, www.drcatsby.com, put up some photos on Pinterest and set up Shopify—an online site for ordering products—for order fulfillment. Although sales were coming in through the online efforts on Facebook and a few other online sites, Kulesus wanted to sell to brick-and-mortar stores. He decided to attend the next big pet show, the Global Pet Expo.
Attending the trade show
Kulesus went to the show because he “wanted to see how the product was received by people in the industry.” He purchased a 10-by-10 booth and a 2-by-2 display in the New Products Showcase area. Partially because the Showcase was in the hallway that everyone walked through in order to get into the show, Dr. Catsby proved to be a big hit.
“There were always people around the booth,” Kulesus said. “We had retailers big and small, distributors from around the world all talking to us. Our booth was never without several visitors. We were able to line up sales in the U.S. and abroad, with distributors from Japan and other countries ordering products.”
In fact, he soon learned that he wasn’t set up to handle the new sales level and had to quickly adjust. Neither Shopify nor Amazon Vendor Express are set up to handle large overseas shipments, and the fee Shopify charges for unit sales is prohibitive for large orders. Kulesus was able to set up a fulfillment house (a company that specializes in packing and shipping orders for others) to handle shipments to both for individuals who order from the Internet, U.S. and Canadian retailers, and orders for shipment overseas.
Kulesus said he “had no idea at all what to expect at the show, and we were just overwhelmed by the positive experience.”
Company Name: Catsby, Inc.
Web site www.drcatsby.com
Phone number: 917-626-2761
Knock-offs spoil product success
Donna Ramere was excited in 2010 when she attended the Toy Fair in New York and received orders for over four containers of the Pumponator, a product created by her granddaughter Lexi Glenn, to quickly fill water balloons. But only two months after the toy fair, a company with a knock-off of the Pumponator was on the shelf of Walmart in Canada. Ramere’s Pumponator patent pending status didn’t stop the knock-off, and her patent never issued after someone filed protests under the Patent Office’s third-party submission program before the patent issued.
All is not gloom and doom, however. Ramere’s company, Pumponator Fun, Inc., sells over $1 million per year to more than 2,000 accounts. But by Ramere’s count, the original knock-off company and a second that entered the market in 2012 have sold $31 million of Pumponator knock-offs since 2010.
Inspiration and design
Ramere’s granddaughter enjoyed water balloon fights with the neighborhood kids in the back yard. But there weren’t enough hoses to fill the balloons, and they were a little tricky to fill. So when she started using a pump spray bottle to fill her balloon, she filled her balloons much faster than her friends. However, the flow from the spray bottle was too fast, making it difficult to fill the balloon unless she pumped very slowly.
Because Ramere spent a number of years married to an engineer, she knew the difference between laminar flow (very hard and fast) and turbulent flow (much slower). She got a recommendation for a design firm that created the working turbulent flow nozzle on the first try. To design the spray bottle, Ramere started collecting every spray bottle she could in the surrounding area. She took them all apart and evaluated which components worked best. Spray bottles have springs, triggers, the nozzle holder and the tube going down. Ramere decided which configuration she wanted for each component and ordered the bottle she wanted from a sprayer factory in China.
Ramere’s granddaughter stayed with her in summer 2009 and they started selling the Pumponator at summer festivals in South Carolina, near Ramere’s home. They had amazing results at festivals and started getting publicity, including some TV exposure. Ramere then started looking for a rep group in the toy industry by using Internet searches. She talked to the firms about their success at the summer festivals and the publicity she had generated.
The rep group that was willing to carry her product had a large booth at the New York City Toy Fair, the toy industry’s major showcase, and invited Ramere to feature the Pumponator in its booth. She had applied for a patent and felt she was ready for public display to the industry.
Attending the trade show
The Pumponator had great sales at the show, selling four containers of product and setting up the success that has the product selling today in 15-20 middle mass-market stores—including Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters among a total of more than 2,000 accounts. But the show created interest that had some troubling consequences.
Early in the show, a man came to the booth and introduced himself to Ramere. She said he then told her he was going to be her “worst nightmare” because he was going to knock off her product. Two months later, he had the product in Walmart in Canada—and before long in Walmart stores throughout the United States. Two years later, a second knock-off appeared. The two knock-off suppliers dominated low-cost retailers such as Walmart and Family Dollar.
But what about that patent pending status? Ramere didn’t realize it, but a patent pending doesn’t offer an inventor any rights to sue someone selling a product that infringes on his or her design. Only an issued patent does that. Even worse for Ramere, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has a third-party submission program (http://www.uspto.gov/patent/initiatives/third-party-preissuance-submissions) that allows anonymous comments from individuals or companies challenging a patent application. Her application received third-party submission comments, one claiming that the patent didn’t even cover her product’s current nozzle design. Ramere has never been able to get a patent and has given up trying.
Today, she and granddaughter Glenn are working on a new product. Sales march on. But Ramere can’t help being a little bitter about what might have been. When she consults other inventors now, she always tells them to wait until they have a patent before going out.
Pumponator Fun, Inc.
Patent pending: Are you really ready?
Deciding whether to attend a trade show with only patent pending status is not easy. A patent application typically doesn’t even get a patent office response for a year or more. Rarely does a patent get approval without the patent examiner voicing some objections, so it could be two years or more before a patent is issued. Waiting two years or more to introduce your product is a long wait, but the risks of introducing a product at a trade show with patent pending status can be high.
I personally have introduced products at trade shows with patent pending status. To cut your risks, first don’t tell people which features you have patented. That only helps them start thinking about how to get around a potential patent. Second, tell the patent office not to publish your patent application, which you can do when you send in your original application. The third-party submission program normally allows people to submit a response to an application. Not having your application published lowers the risk of a third-party submission.
Neither waiting for a patent to issue nor showing your product with patent pending status are ideal action plans The simpler your product’s technology, the greater the risk of exhibiting with patent pending status. Patent pending status at trade shows is especially dangerous when you have a product, such as the Pumponator, that can be introduced quickly by someone else. After all, knock-off companies might have 12 to 24 months to sell their version before the inventor’s patent is even issued. Inventors can’t sue to collect royalties on the infringer’s sales when their patent is pending.
How to find the right trade show
Find the right trade magazine for your product by looking in the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media at larger libraries, or search on the Internet for your product category or industry and the term “trade magazines.” For example, in a search for kitchenware retailers’ trade shows, you could find Gourmet Insider magazine; if you looked at the International Housewares site (which comes up on the kitchenware retailers’ trade show search), you would find Kitchenware News magazine. You can look at associations, whose sites will typically have a link somewhere to trade magazines for that industry. These trade magazines list and cover the best trade shows in their industry. You can also check www.tsnn.com.
Before attending the show
Before attending the show as an exhibitor, try to get a copy of last year’s exhibitors list, call some of the companies that had just one booth, and ask to speak to their show manager. Ask about the company’s show experience and whether it can offer any tips. Be sure to find out about the quality of the booths (ask for a picture of the company’s booth if possible), whether it needed samples, how much display product it needed and how much literature it used.
Check to see if the company offered show specials or would offer show specials the next time it attends. Also see if it was satisfied with the results from the show and how many sales it made, or reps it signed up. I’ve found that people are more than willing to talk to you if you explain you are a new inventor and are trying to prepare for the show.
You have an idea, but not a product
I recommend that you try to go to the show as an attendee before you spend too much money by going as an exhibitor, or even before committing to production. You’ll have a chance to talk to people at booths, at tables where people eat lunch and drink coffee, and at the show hotels. Always be at the show the first two hours it’s open and the two hours before it closes. The show is typically not busy then, so many reps and others working booths may be happy to talk to you.
Bring a one-page, simple non-disclosure document (unless you have a patent, in which case a non-disclosure document is not needed) and a sales flyer for your product. When you approach someone at the show, ask how the show is going, what the product line is and how long that person has been with the company. You will almost always be asked what you do; say you’re considering introducing a new product and ask if the person would be willing to look at it for you.
Trade shows with new product showcases
Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2016
August 3-6, 2016
January 10-12, 2017
Salt Palace Convention Center
Salt Lake City
August 2-4, 2016
Mandalay Bay Event Center
NACS Show 2016 – National Association of Convenience Stores
October 18-21, 2016
Georgia World Congress Center
ABC Kids Expo
October 18-21, 2016
Las Vegas Convention Center
January 24-27, 2017
March 22-24, 2017
Orange County Convention
Center, Orlando, Fla.
March 18-21, 2017
McCormick Place Expo Center
April 24-26, 2017
Las Vegas Convention Center
Don Debelak is the founder of One Stop Invention Shop (www.onestopinventionshop.net), which offers marketing assistance and patents to inventors. Debelak is also the author of several well-known marketing books, including Entrepreneur Magazine’s Bringing Your Product to Market. [email protected], 612-414-4118