Pull of invention feels tug of reality
It was supposed to be a lesson about entrepreneurship, a glorified lemonade stand at best. Vanessa Goodell, 11 at the time, wanted to invent...
Seattle Times retail reporter
It was supposed to be a lesson about entrepreneurship, a glorified lemonade stand at best.
Vanessa Goodell, 11 at the time, wanted to invent something to ease the pulls and tugs associated with dogwalking. Her mom had injured a shoulder, compliments of Nemo, the family's Portuguese water dog.
Several years and a steep learning curve later, Goodell's invention, Jerk-Ease, is selling in pet stores throughout Washington and Oregon.
"It became obvious there was a need for the product," said Gregory Goodell, who helped his daughter invent and bring the device to market.
Chalk it up to a mix of naiveté, passion and moxy.
Entrepreneurs have a hard time going from light-bulb moment to finished product, much less getting consumers to open their wallets.
Those who make it this far have one thing to say: Had we only known. ...
For Enumclaw-based SkyBelts, making belts fashioned from airplane seat-belt parts was a challenge. Marketing them to consumers was even harder.
After SkyBelts pitched its Internet shingle, "I was there waiting for the orders to come," Jennifer Longley recalled. "I thought 'OK, the whole world can see us now on the Internet.' "
Longley, a former flight attendant whose father was a pilot, said she learned to market the product on the fly, so to speak. The company began to seek product placements and found early success:
SkyBelts was featured in several teen magazines and in the 2005 Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards gift pack, given to celebrities.
Once it began targeting aviation-museum gift shops and other retail outlets, though, the company hit a small air pocket.
"You had to get a UPC bar code," Longley said.
The UPC (Universal Product Code) bar code allows retailers to track sales of a product within their inventory systems. Stores require a manufacturer to provide a unique code for not only every color, but for every size of a product.
In SkyBelts' case, it carries 21 colors; it needed a bar code for each color in each size. The buckle and all additional fashion clips require separate bar codes.
Longley said she had to look on the Internet to learn how to get a bar code. She paid $750 for 100 bar codes and $300 for the machine and printing labels. Once SkyBelts add more products, it will cost an additional $750.
Jennifer Lawlor, who produces "INPEX: The Invention Show," where inventors show off their products, said the commercial success rate for inventions is so low that people have to be realistic.
"The chances of them being successful, unfortunately, are pretty small," Lawlor said.
Many attend trade shows such as INPEX to locate retail buyers.
Those with a sliver of an idea but no product turn to services such as Pittsburgh-based InventHelp, known for its TV commercials with the cartoon caveman chiseling a stone wheel.
For a fee, InventHelp will submit ideas to companies that review inventions on a confidential basis. They also prepare materials, refer clients to patent attorneys and help negotiate a license or sale, if the process goes that far.
It's important to find out success rates before committing to a company to develop and market an invention, Lawlor said.
"If people are promising you're going to make millions, that should send up a red flag," she said.
Vanessa Goodell, now 16, keeps every iteration of Jerk-Ease in a red shoe box. The elastic shock absorber fastens between the collar and leash, reducing strain every time an animal pulls or tugs.
The biggest challenge was aesthetics. She and her father had to design a tubelike sleeve to cover up the parts of the device that connect the elastic to the metal clasps.
After making the product, the Goodells sought endorsements from veterinarians, professional dogwalkers and chiropractors.
Their brochure, which Vanessa has distributed at dog parks and dog events all summer, carries the line "veterinarian approved" across the top.
Gregory Goodell said the device is carried in more than 40 stores in Washington and Oregon.
"The large independent pet-store chains have repeatedly reordered the product," he said.
Lawlor described inventors as persistent, hardworking people who believe in their products. Success or not, they try.
Lawlor said she has seen gadgets of every sort from around the world. While her company doesn't evaluate products — it merely gives others tools to try to bring them to market — some are hard to forget.
Take the Taiwanese inventor who sewed a pocket inside a pair of underwear so that people could conveniently store their cigarettes.
"I think it was called 'Holy Smokes,' " she said. "I guess it was important to have a smoke."
Lawlor said the most popular inventions by far relate to the toilet, whether they be deodorizers or ventilators. At this year's show, someone had drops you put in the toilet right before you, ahem, go.
"My dad got a sample," Lawlor said. "He says they work."
Monica Soto Ouchi: 206-515-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org