If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. -Lewis Carol
I thought by now I knew it all. After establishing over ten companies (and shutting a lot of them while pocketing the lesson), and after making nose-bleeding gains in the stock market (along with withering losses), and after building real estate developments and trading lands, and after investing in banks (most who were hot air built on quicksand), and after inventing 3 products (getting raked through the hot coals of design, manufacturing, prototypes, molds, and marketing deathtraps), and after mentoring several generations of highly motivated talent, and after judging scores of events, and after writing and being published in 3 languages around the world, and after an endless barrage of self-inflicted masochistic pain born from relentless stubborn curiosity there I was: On the precipice of another invention.
Another winding road ahead of me. Most of the projects and companies I start aren’t necessarily by design or purpose. A simple thought overtakes me and becomes an obsession; I wake up thinking about it and go to bed flipping it in my mind and weighing the options. That’s how Puffie was born.
We all know how painful it is to carry many grocery bags, especially over distances. Unluckily (or luckily) for me I was living a good minute walk from the elevator to my apartment door in Houston, and by the time I’d sprint the last few steps my fingers were blue and the muscles were burning. It’s either that or having to make two trips to the grocery store, and I must confess I’m too lazy to do that. After unsuccessfully scouring the market for a small folding light cart that could easily disappear in my car trunk or apartment, I got a feeling in my bones; the feeling of opportunity. That physical tingle is the feeling that leads me into all my ventures (good or bad). This time though, I would do it differently, I would make sure I listen to the market as well as my gut instinct.
After creating a very rough prototype, I made a small video and put it on Kickstarter. It was a small metal cart that would fold open from the size of a book to the size of a suitcase. The idea was to create space out of nothing; kind of like an umbrella but with wheels. If the market supported the idea, then I would continue. I launched a Kickstarter campaign. After two weeks, I made 30% more than what I asked for ($15,000). That was a great indication because the only way you can really know what people think is when they put their money where their mouth is. Otherwise, talk is cheap and can really drag you down paths you would never normally take.
Life is hard when you’re a one-man show, but the show must go on. I hired an engineering firm from Colorado owned by ex-NASA engineers and made 2 prototypes. After tinkering and fine-tuning the design it was time to start manufacturing. You can fine-tune forever and the product will never be good enough; I learned that there’s a time to say: “ok enough, let’s start” even if I don’t think the product is perfect. I used a freelance website (99 designs) to come up with a name and logo, formed and established an American company “Puffie Solutions LLC”, created an Amazon FBA account, along with an e-commerce platform using Go Daddy, created an ebay account, and learnt American tax codes, rules, and regulations.
I then created an Ali Baba account and after filtering through hundreds of companies and getting tens and tens of quotes, and then negotiating with strong rough Chinese manufacturers who barely spoke English, I ended up with 500 professionally manufactured “Puffies” sent to my apartment in Houston where I was situated at the time. These units were to find out if the real market would bite (and to try and find out if my design and price needed to be adjusted). By then Puffie was a beautiful umbrella-sized aluminum cart with 7 wheels, a retractable handle, and a carrying case. It came in 4 colors and had bright orange wheels. I believe I had created a better mousetrap, but how much better was it, and more importantly: Would it sell?
I didn’t spend anything on a lawyer or patent, because since they are extremely expensive and time-consuming. Before spending that kind of money I must first find out if Puffie is commercially viable. Only after that is it worth pursuing the expensive patent. Besides, many people don’t know that you have a full year after making your product public to file a patent. Just to be safe anyway, I filed what is known as a “non-provisional patent”, a simple application that you can make yourself that costs only $65 to get your foot in the door so to speak. You have a year after that to file a proper utility patent.
Since I needed to cut costs and was limited on time I used three factories: One for the frame, one for the handle, and the third for the bag. I assembled 300 Puffies with the help of my ever-patient wife. At that point, I was looking for a reseller. I emailed almost 100 distributors from Walgreens to Target to Dicks sporting goods. I emailed cart manufacturers, bag manufacturers, umbrella manufacturers, sports manufacturers and nobody even gave me the time of day. I was ready to go door to door if need be, but thought I should try also selling online first; you never know.
My Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts were ready. My Amazon account was ready, and a small 30-second simple demonstrative video clip was also ready. Although exciting, that was probably the scariest part. Eight months and $60,000 dollars in, and although I believed so hard in the product, you never knew how the market would react. What if nobody ordered any? What if people just laughed at it? What if I fail spectacularly again? How could I find distributors? Would I have to go door-to-door to find a reseller? I had a $100 budget for the ad because I like to start small to test. I launched the ad and went to bed.
I woke up with one sale, and I was ecstatic. Somebody actually wanted it! I got two more sales that day. I packed them into boxes and sent them out. All were to New York. That meant that they understood exactly what Puffie was for: To carry groceries from the car to apartment. During that week I made roughly 3 sales a day all over the USA, but half were to NY, and most were either the black or orange Puffies. I decided to not renew the ad and see what happened. Sales dropped to approximately one per day, but to me, that meant a lot. What it said was that people would buy an unknown product from an unknown company, with a zero brand, with an extremely primitive advertisement/video. It meant that there was a market for Puffie.
Somewhere in that first week, I got a call from a firm that said they saw Puffie, liked it, and wanted to do a test-advertisement. They said they aren’t interested in products that can sell less than one million units, and that they could get Puffie into all the big box stores (Walmart, Bed Bath and Beyond, Target, etc.) They said that they worked with “As seen on TV” and wanted some samples to evaluate it and do some market research. They said that they had 2 options: Either to be my exclusive distributor (they buy directly from me or to License Puffie (They manufacture, market, and sell Puffie) and give me a royalty. But for me to get a licensing deal, 10 out of 10 people on their team should approve of the product first.
I learned that when things sound too good to be true they usually are. I didn’t give him much attention, but sent him a couple of samples and scribbled some answers on his evaluation form expecting to never hear from him again. I got a call the next Tuesday saying that 9 out of 10 loved the product and they would now do a survey of 100 people to see what they thought. After a few days, I got a call saying that they never saw a product get reviews this high. It sounded so much like a scam so I decided to meet them face to face and see who these people were exactly. I flew into Kansas the next week and pulled into their offices. It was a small inconspicuous brick building with a small entrance. It had a few products on the shelf at the entrance. I decided to squeeze them and see what came out. It’s very important to always ask the hard questions first and put others off balance to see who they exactly are (otherwise you can lose a lot of time and money), one question can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. After some hard negotiation, I liked what I saw and I decided to trust them and signed an agreement that tied my hands for 4 months. I can’t work with any other company nor sign any other contracts until our DRTV test is done. We will be rolling out a national campaign in the USA before Christmas and see how many people order our product.
I immediately selected one of the best lawyers I could find in Houston and began my utility patent process. Once I saw there was potential to make money that is when I knew I needed to protect my idea. As of today I paused all online selling (the samples had done their job), finalized the script for the TV ad, finished the patent application, finished the trademark patent application, and am starting to send all the Kickstarter contributors their Puffies. I thought I knew it all when I started this journey, but I learned that information and knowledge is an infinite bottomless barrel. No matter how much you know there is so much still to be taught. I should know by Christmas whether Puffie is a smash success or another lesson at the bottom of that barrel.