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Inventors and Trade Shows – A Perfect Match?
They can come with great rewards but also great risks
Trade shows are geared to retail or business buyers and are an ideal opportunity for inventors to exposure their products to their target customer. Inventors can pick up new customers, find distributors and sales reps and even potentially find a company to license their product at a trade show. Shows like the Global Pet Expo, The International Housewares Show, or ABC Kids Expo are targeted at retail store buyers and industry distributors and work well for inventors of consumer products. Shows like WEFTECH, which highlights water treatment solutions for clean water projects, are targeted at municipal and industrial buyers and are the ticket for inventors with products targeting those buyers. Despite all the advantages of trade shows, inventors still must be well-aware of the pitfalls of exhibiting products with patent pending status. Two inventor stories illustrate these points, the first is highlights Loren Kulesus who had great success at the Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Florida, and the second discusses Donna Remere’s problems with knock-offs from the Toy Fair in New York.
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 avoided touching the cats whiskers while they were feeding. After some initial social network marketing, Kulesus decided to take a chance and take out a booth, plus a space in the New Products submission display at the Global Pet Expo in March 2016 to see just what kind of response Dr. Catsby could generate. Kulesus was stunned by the positive response, with retailers and distributors from both the US and countries around the world stepping up to order. Now, after only a few months Kulesus is talking about becoming a vendor to some of the bigger pet retailers and the future looks very rosy.
Inspiration and Design
Kulesus has three cats, one was a bully that would eat the top third of his cat food, and then the top third of the food in the other two cats dishes. Kulesus tried isolating the bullying cat, and found the cat still only ate the top third of his food and then cried for more food. The cat’s behavior started Kulesus looking into what could be causing this problem. While there wasn’t much information Kulesus did start finding information about how sensitive many cats’ whiskers were to the touch and even discovered a term for the phenomena, whisker fatigue. Kulesus learned that cats’ long whiskers detect vibrations and are sensitive to the lightest of touches, and that it is was very likely that his bullying cat wasn’t a bully after all, but instead just didn’t like having his whiskers touching the side of the bowl.
Kulesus day job was as a partner in 9999.NYC which is a firm that does product and package design and so the firm was excited to have a product of their own to work on. They did modeling work on designing an ergonomic bowl that would eliminate the need for cat whiskers from touching the bowl. Kulesus did 3-D modeling to get the exact bowl design down, which ended up being a being a low shallow configuration that could handle whiskers up to 80 mm long. Kulesus designed the bowl in stainless steel for both a high tech look but also to add extra protection from bacteria that plastic doesn’t provide.
Kulesus coordinated his 3-D modeling with a 3-D printer to make some initial prototypes of the Dr. Catsby product. He then started testing the product with fellow cat lovers. He found that cats who exhibited behavior that indicated whisker fatigue, such as not eating all 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 was for sale in early November 2015. Kulesus launched the product online, with a heavy emphasis on Facebook. He also set up the Dr. Catsby web site, www.drcatsby.com, put up some photos on Pinterest and set up Shopify, an online site for ordering products, for order fulfillment. Sales were coming in through the online efforts on Facebook and a few other online sites but Kulesus wanted to sell to brick and mortar stores and decided to attend the next big pet show which was the 2016 Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Florida.
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 10×10 foot booth and also purchased a 2 x 2 foot display in the New Products Showcase area. 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 at the show. Kulesus states “there were always people around the booth. 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 US and abroad with distributor from Japan and other countries ordering products.” Kulesus felt that the New Product Showcase played a big part in people coming to the booth and generating interest.
Kulesus soon learned at the show that he wasn’t set up to handle the new sales level and he had to quickly adjust. Shopify, or Amazon Vendor Express are not set up to handle large overseas shipments and the fee Shopify charges for unit sales are prohibitive for large orders. Kulesus was able to set up a fulfillment house (which is a company that specializes in packing and shipping orders for others) to handle shipments to both for individuals who order from the Internet, US and Canadian retailers, and orders for shipment overseas.
As far as the overall experience goes Kulesus commented that “he had no idea at all what to expect at the show and we were just overwhelmed by the positive experience.”
Creating Knockoffs for Your Own Product
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 that to quickly fill water balloons. But only two months after the toy Fair a company with a knockoff of the Pumponator was on the shelf of Walmart in Canada. Ramere’s Pumponator patent pending status didn’t stop the knockoff, 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 doom and gloom however, Ramere’s company Pumponator Fun, Inc sells over $1 million per year to over 2000 accounts. But by Ramere’s count the original knockoff company, and a second who entered the market in 2012, have sold $31 million of Pumponator knockoffs since 2010. Sales Ramere would certainly like to have had.
Inspiration and Design
Ramere granddaughter Lexi Glenn enjoyed having water balloon fights with the neighborhood kids in the back yard. The only problem was there just weren’t enough hoses to fill the balloons, and they were a little tricky to fill. Glenn started using a pump spray bottle to fill her balloon, and she was all of sudden a much faster balloon filler than her friends. But there was one problem, the flow from the spray bottle was too fast and it was difficult to fill the balloon unless you pumped very slowly. Ramere had spent a number of years married to an engineer and she knew the difference between laminar flow (very hard and fast) and turbulent flow (much slower). She received a recommendation for a design firm who 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 apart all the bottles and evaluating which components worked best. Spray bottles have springs, triggers, the nozzle holder and the tube going down. Ramere decided what configuration she wanted for each components and then ordered the bottle she wanted from a sprayer factory in China.
Ramere granddaughter stayed with her in the summer of 2009 and they started selling the Pumponator at summer festivals in South Carolina, around Ramere’s home. They had amazing results at the festivals and started receiving publicity, including some TV exposure. Ramere started then by looking for a rep group in the toy industry, using Internet searches. She talked to the firms about their success at the summer festivals and the publicity she had generated. She was to find a rep group that was willing to carry her product. That rep group had a large booth at the Toy Fair, the toy industries major fair, and they invited Ramere to place the Pumponator in their booth at the Toy Fair. Ramere had applied for a patent and she felt she was ready for public display to the industry.
Attending the Trade Show
The Pumponator had a great sales at the show, selling four containers of product, and setting up the success that has the Pumponator sold today in 15 -20 middle mass market stores such as Nordstrom’s and Urban Outfitters among a total of over 2000 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 and then according to Ramere he told her that “he was going to be her worst nightmare because he was going to knock her product off.” Two months later he had the product in Walmart in Canada and before long in Walmart stores across the US. Two years later a second knockoff appeared and the two knockoff suppliers dominated the low cost retailers like Walmart and Family Dollar.
What about that patent pending status? Ramere didn’t realize it but patent pending status doesn’t offer an inventor any rights to sue someone selling a product that infringes on her design. Only an issued patent does that. Even worse for Ramere was the fact that the Patent Office has a third party submission program http://www.uspto.gov/patent/initiatives/third-party-preissuance-submissionswhich allowsanonymous comments from individuals or companies challenging a patent application. Ramere’s application received third party submission comments, one which claimed 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 Ramere and granddaughter Glenn are working on a new product. Sales still march on. But Ramere can’t help being a little bitter about what might have been. Today when she consults other inventors she always tells wait till you have a patent before going out.