This is a personal account of Julie Austin’s path to career success. Read on to learn about how bootstrapping, common sense, and determination lead to creative entrepreneurship and long-term success.
If you asked me fifteen years ago if I would be a manufacturer, I’m sure the thought would never have entered my mind. I was busy acting in TV commercials and hosting infomercials. You know, the ones that start out “Has this ever happened to you?” And then they solve whatever problem it is with a new gadget that someone invented.
As I said those words on camera, it never occurred to me that one day I would invent one of those products and solve a problem for someone else. The problem was dehydration and the solution would be Swiggies, wrist water bottles.
But usually when someone invents a product, they are also solving their own problems. That’s what happened to me as I was out running in the Texas heat one summer and passed out from dehydration. Since I ran with my keys and music, I didn’t have a free hand to carry a water bottle, and didn’t like the fanny packs at the time that had to be rinsed out with baking soda before each use.
So, just using common sense, I thought of the simplest, most easily accessible place to carry water: on the wrist. But such a product didn’t exist. There’s a reason they say “Necessity is the mother of invention.” So I knew I would have to create this product myself. But I was an actor. I didn’t have a clue about inventing.
Well, here’s what I found out: there really isn’t a career path for inventors. Sure, engineers and scientists maybe have an edge on other people in that regard. But many inventors don’t come from an engineering or science background anyway. In fact, inventors come from all types of backgrounds. There are inventors who are kids, (George Nissen – Trampoline®), secretaries (Bette Graham– White-Out®), and bicycle shop owners (The Wright Brothers – airplane).
When I first started out, the show “Shark Tank” wasn’t on the air. There weren’t any books on the topic that I could relate to. And I didn’t know any inventors I could get advice from.
So, I simply had to use common sense to figure it all out. As you’ve probably guessed by now, the phrase “common sense” is going to come up a lot. Because basically that’s all I had to work with.
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I had another huge hurtle to get over: I had no money. But I was so naïve that I didn’t realize how big of a problem that was. I didn’t write a business plan or even a marketing plan. I didn’t have an MBA, nor had I ever even written up a budget before. I was literally taking it one step at a time.
Step one was to make a prototype. I kept trying to explain the concept, but it wasn’t until I made a rough prototype out of clay, with a dishwasher cap and watch strap, that it started to take shape. If you want to be a product entrepreneur, make something people can see, even if it’s made out of popsicle sticks.
Step two was to get a mold made. I took that silly looking clay model in to a plastics molding company and they made a couple of molds for me. This alone almost completely maxed out my credit cards. But I got very lucky and the bottles worked perfectly the first time. They held just enough water for an hour long run, but only weighed about a half pound each when filled. I found another company to make the bands, and the caps were just an off the shelf brand that fit the bottles.
Again, I had to use common sense and realized that I would need packaging. I found some plastic blister packs and made a header card with my logo, professional pictures of me wearing the bottles, and a bar code. Woo-hoo! I was ready to start selling to Walmart. I was counting the millions and picking out a private island.
What I didn’t say was that the bottles were clunky, the bands were too big, and the blister pack had to be held together with glue.
But I was so naïve that I didn’t even think about it. I grabbed a box of those crappy bottles (which were called HydroSports then), and put them in the trunk of my car. I drove to the corporate office of a big west coast sporting goods company and asked to speak to the big cheese. Somehow, I got in to see him, and even weirder, they bought them for all of the stores in their chain. And I did this for as many stores as I could until I got rid of the inventory I had in stock.
But, no one knew what a wrist water bottle was. So after they finally sold out, that was it. I learned the biggest lesson about selling new inventions, and why infomercials exist in the first place. You need to explain what the product is and create a buzz for it before attempting to go retail.
So, that’s what I did. I became my own publicist and started getting the product in any and every magazine, newspaper, TV show, and radio show possible. I started selling online only and got into more lucrative markets, such as the promotional products industry. Pretty soon the word was out, and after planting dozens of seeds all over the world, people started finding me.
Now I have distributors in over 20 countries and have sold over 500,000 with absolutely no advertising.
So if you have an idea for a new product, don’t let a lack of money, knowledge, or contacts stop you. I didn’t have any of those. All I had was an idea and lots of passion. Oh yeah, and common sense.
Image courtesy of Julie Austin.