Code Name: Inventors

Go from golden idea to agent of invention

“What’s important to understand is ‘no’ doesn’t necessarily mean your product or idea is not good,” says Woolery, referring to those stores who turned down MagnoGrip initially. Try to extract feedback and figure out how you can improve your product, he advises.

“Sometimes if your product is very new and innovative, you can spend a lot of time educating the market on the benefits of a new approach or solution,” says Penny Pickett, associate administrator for Entrepreneurial Development with the Small Business Administration. “Entrepreneurs are advised to talk to potential customers to find out from them if they would buy the new product. Potential customers will provide great feedback on the idea, if it is significant enough for them to make a change, if they would pay for the new product, and at what price point. Customer validation is significant in developing the product and in strengthening the company.”

This seemed to be the case with Cato, whose backless bra impressed potential female customers but left male executives and managers confounded. “A lot of [them] just didn’t understand how the bra could stay up,” recalls Cato, who later found that live demos helped to solve the disconnect.

Once a product is designed and patented, inventors are brought to an important crossroads: to manufacture and distribute their creation themselves, or to license their product or sell their patent. It’s here that Woolery and Cato went down separate paths in bringing their respective products to market.

Dr. No
Cato sent her Breakthrough Backless Bra design to Victoria’s Secret once the patent was approved. While the women’s lingerie and beauty retailer initially expressed interest in distributing the bra, a conflict with another line the company sold stalled talks. Cato then looked to license her product to Victoria’s Secret or a comparable retail entity. Licensing would mean Cato retains the legal rights to her invention but allows another company to manufacture and distribute the product.

“I contacted other companies, but they would not receive unsolicited product designs,” says Cato. “I learned you have to deal with a buyer for a particular company to try to get your designs in a store.”

Because of the minimum resources needed by the inventor, licensing a product may be the most time- and cost-efficient route to get a product to market since inventors will not have to invest resources getting the product manufactured and distributed, says Flowers.

But as Cato found out, licensing your invention can give the licensee room to make changes to your invention depending on negotiations and ultimately contract stipulations. After appearing in Season 2 of ABC Television’s American Inventor, which looked to discover the next great invention, the runner up and $50,000 prize winner’s bra caught the attention of intimate apparel company Maidenform Brands Inc., which offered to manufacture and distribute it. Cato began working out a deal with the company, whose second quarter profits reached nearly $14 million. Since the offer came about through her appearance on ABC, which is owned by The Walt Disney Co., Cato and Maidenform, agreed to a pre-existing contractual licensing deal with that also included ABC Television, Tic-Toc Productions and FremantleMedia—the show’s production companies—as royalty recipients. And she says she was unable to bring her lawyers in during the negotiation procedures.

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