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If you’re bored at the office or at home, here’s a fun trick you can try that might lead to your first fun business idea : put luxury into the ordinary. Simple enough. Look around you and go crazy. Imagine what a 500$ staple might look like. What would a 1000$ harcover book have ? Here’s a few ideas to get you started:
Swarovski Baby Seat
Louis-Vuitton & Fendi Chainsaws
Ever had one of those moments when you wish you had a piece of paper and a pen handy ? Ever wish you could bring your book along without having to put worry about your highlighter and your bookmark you carry with you fall out of place ? Everyday Innovation founder Alan Regala has solved both problems. His first product, PicoPad is an ultra-slim notepad that fits right into your wallet. The second, BookSling, is a bookworms dream tool. Get ready for an amazing interview !
Alan, tell me a bit about yourself.
My background is in mechanical engineering- BSME from Cal Poly, SLO and MSME from Stanford. I worked a few years in the medical device industry, and the two 2 years prior to starting a company, I was doing design and engineering work at IDEO, a world renowned design consulting firm.
What’s your company about ?
My company is about creating simple, innovative practical products that solve everyday problems. Hence the name, Everyday Innovations.
How did the idea for your company come about ?
After reading Robert Kiyosaki’s book, Rich Dad Poor Dad, I decided that I really wanted to start a company, and it seemed to make sense to do while I was young. I figured I could always go back to IDEO or some other place if things didn’t work out.
I’ve always enjoyed the challenges of problem solving. Most of my solutions are quite simple, although there is a lot of thought that goes behind each detail in design.
I’ve read Robert Kiyosaki’s book, Rich Dad Poor Dad too but it didn’t have the same effect on me. I just couldn’t muster the courage like you did. What do you think is the main reason why people with good ideas are unwilling take the step towards entrepreneurship ?
I think the main reason is fear of failure. Nobody wants to fail, but the people with the motivation to make their ideas real educate themselves to maximize their chances of success and reduce risks involved with failure. When was the last time you tried something new that was difficult and got it right on the first try? If you do fail, you learn from it and use that experience for the next venture. Or, you get a regular job and enjoy having spare time !
Great advice. Incidentally, do you have any suggestions regarding good reading materials ?
For people who have product-based ideas, I recommend “Stand Alone, Inventor!” by Robert Merrick. He does a great job giving an overview of selling products in the retail market (office products) and also ad specialty market. It was originally written about 17 years ago, but most of the content is still applicable.
The world is full of entrepreneurial ideas but what is the true value of an idea ?
I think that the value of an idea is a combination of the idea itself and, perhaps more importantly, the effort that is put behind it. There is no magic idea that spawns into this dollar generating machine on its own. Behind the curtain of a successful entrepreneur is always someone with a mission. Sometimes the original idea isn’t even the one that brings the success; by listening to feedback from customers, colleagues, mentors, buyers- anyone who plays a role in the business- ideas can morph into something new and different. Flexibility is pretty important.
Did you start off alone ?
I did, and I am currently the only full time employee. I outsource a lot of work (fulfillment, sales reps, some graphic design, accounting, etc) to keep overhead low, but I can imagine hiring in the next year if things move as I anticipate.
You worked at IDEO before starting your company. How has that influenced your entrepreneurial ambitions ?
I was a member of various teams that created some pretty amazing solutions to various problems, designing some cool products. I thought to myself, “Why shouldn’t I be designing great products for myself?”
So how did you go about looking for financing ?
I was fortunate enough to have purchased a home with my wife at a good time, and so we took out a home equity line of credit to get started. As we start to get into more chain stores and the inventory required dramatically increases, we may have to look into other means of financing.
Did you adopt any marketing strategy to increase your product’s visibility ?
Most of the marketing I’ve done at the consumer level has been through PR- getting into magazines, blogs, etc. Word of mouth too. You can get a lot of exposure through PR. On the wholesale/retail level, I do tradeshows. They are an investment, but it’s the most efficient way to meet many different prospective buyers, make other useful contacts and get feedback.
Have you ever doubted yourself while planning for Everyday Innovations ? If so, how did you cope with the fear ?
I never doubted myself until after I placed my first order from my factory in China. I had so much energy and optimism of the accounts I’d land after my first tradeshow, that I thought I would prepare accordingly (i.e. buy a lot of inventory) to have enough product in stock. Of course, now I know that it takes much longer than you expect to land big accounts, and inventory should only be ordered as needed (i.e. Purchase Order in hand).
I had a few sleepless nights where I couldn’t stop thinking, “What the hell have I done?!” That was my first moment of real panic. This is where the recommendation of taking baby steps would’ve been nice to have learned a few months earlier.
I think the best way to cope with fear is to get educated. Learn as much as possible to make informed decisions and minimize risk. I used this as a valuable learning experience and things ended up working out.
Interesting. How did you go about finding the right factory in China ?
I found the first factory I worked with through a connection at my job. I’ve since found other factories, both through a sourcing company as well as looking online at the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (http://www.hktdc.com/).
And what was the process like ? Did you just hand over the specifications for PicoPad and let them fly with it ?
There’s a lot of back and forth to get things right. You start with specifications (drawings, art files, etc) and prototypes if possible. Depending on what the product is (simple paper product vs. injection-molded parts), they might make samples or just provide a quote. Unless you have samples that “exactly” represent what your finished product looks and functions like, there will inevitably be issues (i.e. they actually used popsicle sticks in your new toy airplane product since that’s what you used in your prototype), and that’s part of the back and forth (communicating your requirements and expectations for quality).
China is known for its masterful copies. How did you protect yourself from copyright infringements if at all ?
When dealing overseas, intellectual property protection is tough and expensive. Try to deal with a factory or sourcing agency that is ethical.
Good to know. What consequences to your personnal life has the move towards entrepreneurship brought about ?
I basically work all the time, at least I would if I didn’t have my wife and 1 year old girl to pull me away into a real life. Starting a company really is a marathon, and it’s not easy balancing work and personal life. On the one hand, it’s hard to get away from work because I’m so driven and excited to get my products out there, but it’s just not worth it if I can’t spend quality time with family and friends.
What are your goals for the short-term future ? long-term ?
I’m developing new “content” PicoPads, which contain useful information instead of just sticky notes. The first one is called PicoPad Emergency Notes- first aid guide, medical I.D., sticky notes and mini pen. I think this product has a lot of potential, and it’s something that people need and should have; every mom should buy to keep in the kids’ backpacks and put in the grandparent’s wallets. Our goal is to get these into at least one big drug chain by Q4 of this year, and then more chains (drug, grocery, etc) in 2009. Long term, I’d like to either sell the company, or hire a staff and continue to bring many new products to market within the developed distribution channel.
Sounds like you’ll be busy for quite a while. Last question Alan: What advice would you give to a young person with entrepreneurial ambitions ?
Take small steps, but do take steps. The goal is to learn as much as you can in your efforts while minimizing risk. Don’t quite your day job until you’ve reached a milestone that can rationalize your decision. Don’t be afraid to call or email people who can help you (possible mentors, buyers, magazine editors, anyone!). Be passionate about your endeavor. Persistence, persistence, persistence.
Thanks so much for the interview and good luck !