Marketing (and Other) Lessons Learned from Starting a Small Business
In 2013 I made the decision to partner with a talented mechanical engineer, my father, to manufacture an adaptive kayak paddle, called Versa. The paddle is supported by a mount that attaches to kayaks, giving people with limited upper body strength -- primarily people with disabilities -- the ability to kayak. After seeing some of his earlier prototypes, I knew the product had tremendous potential, so the two of us partnered to bring it to market. I formed Angle Oar LLC, and it took roughly three and a half years to take the paddle from “great idea” to “first sale.” I learned many lessons along the way.
Every small business owner brings certain strengths and deficits to the table. My strengths were: strong marketing background; some mechanical/design know-how (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree); a range of business skills due to education and work experience (i.e., basic accounting, technology, online marketing, design, networking), and ambition.
My knowledge gaps were: no experience in a manufacturing environment; no retail or product distribution experience; and entry-level knowledge of the kayak industry.
I could write a 30-page article describing the pitfalls, nuanced learnings and advice I would give others; instead, I’ve summarized the key take-aways below.
First priority: have a business plan. Though you will be thinking about your strategy nearly 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future, you should start by creating a business plan, even if it’s only a rudimentary one. You can find templates online, but I recommend taking advantage of local SCORE workshops and resources. My own plan had a multi-pronged strategy ranging from licensing to all-out manufacturing. As you progress through the plan, you’ll rule out certain strategies and add new ones.
Hire a Good Patent Attorney. I had learned from my father’s own past mistakes. He has dozens of patents and innovations to his name, but he learned the hard way about what happens when your creation is not patent-protected: others take advantage. This is one area where I didn’t want to cut costs, so I went with the most reputable patent attorney available. This also represented the largest line item in my budget for the first several years. During the patent application process – which, surprisingly, didn’t take very long for approval -- there was also a major change to US Patent Law which made securing a utility patent even more important.
Partner with a Solid Engineer. Though my father is a talented engineer in his own right, he was not versed in the software tools and modern technologies needed to develop a working model for manufacturing. Plus, my dad is “old school”. His style is to find the most functional solution, whereas the engineer I’ve retained strives for elegant solutions that are also cost-efficient from a materials and production standpoint. My engineer also had connections to manufacturers that could handle the entire project from start to finish, which turned out to be the real game changer.
Test, Test and Test Some More. It was costly to prototype each new design improvement, but fortunately 3D printing has helped bring those costs down. The key feature of our paddling system – the rotating, angled center mechanism – worked well from the get-go, so we only made iterative improvements to that during testing. The support mount, however, went through no less than 10 complete re-designs. Each had to be (re) prototyped and tested. It was a time-consuming and, at times, disheartening process, but it was necessary in order to wind up with a high quality final product that would withstand the rigors of the consumer market.
Shop for Manufacturers. I had no idea where to start on this one, so naturally, I Googled it. The problem was, when you type in “kayak paddle manufacturers,” you get the names of all your competitors, not the factories that actually produce the paddles. I had many, many false starts, including using expensive, labor-intensive manufacturing processes for the first few prototypes. I should’ve listened to my engineer who told me early on to redesign the paddle using resins and injection molds, but when I heard the estimated cost for tooling, I was intimidated. Two years later, I learned my lesson: manufacturing them with machining and welding and expensive materials cost more in the long run, so I ultimately bit the bullet and invested in the redesign time and injection molds.
Use Helpful Business Tools. When you’re starting out, you don’t need enterprise-level tools, but there are a few you simply cannot live without. My website platform of choice is Wix. I happen to have a design background, but even someone who doesn’t can use their easy-to-use templates. Each month the company adds new functionality, including forms, Google Analytics integration, scheduling, automated emailing and more. The best tool ever, IMHO, is Canva, a SaaS design software that lets you create professional graphics for web, social media, print and much, much more. Finally, QuickBooks helped me track business finances from day one. And with its ability to automatically download bank and credit card transactions, it eliminates a lot of the administrative work.
Network. Just Do It. Before I even had a working prototype I started attending industry trade shows. I asked lots of questions and met some of the most important players in the industry, not just other manufacturers, but complementary partners and media outlets. Their insights have been invaluable and helped me become well-versed in the world of kayaking. I met one of my most trusted advisors at a Dick's Sporting Goods, approaching him to ask questions simply because he was a customer looking at the kayaks there!
Build a Community Via Social Media. I started “priming the pump” of awareness the day after I filed my utility patent application. I remember the struggle trying to get those first 20 Likes on Facebook, but I kept at it. I Liked other pages, commented frequently, and most importantly, ran ongoing campaigns and contests to get Likes to the page. Over the course of three years, my Facebook fan base has grown to more than 12,000, which is among the top in the paddling industry. These folks have been some of my greatest allies, helping spread the word but also being cheerleaders. There are a few individuals who, from the very beginning, encouraged me to keep going despite the obstacles along the way.
I maintain a presence YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram, too, but the key source of success is Facebook. I also began a blog which, when populated with good key words, can draw more people to your site who might not otherwise find you.
Don’t Announce Your Product Too Soon. First off, you’ll want to be sure you’ve submitted a patent application (if applicable) before talking publicly about your product. The burden of waiting three years for a final product to be available caused me to deploy some pre-sales strategies (i.e., a discount for all advanced sales of units). The strategy worked great, but then some of the customers became impatient due to many production delays and asked to have their sales refunded (which I did, of course.) If it’s the very first time you’re manufacturing a new product, either have it in-hand or be pretty darn sure of your production timeline before making promises!
Sales and Distribution Matter. Because of my false start trying a pre-sales strategy with consumers (see above), I was reluctant to aggressively pursue retail distributors until I had the product in-hand. It’s no coincidence that sales and retail distribution are a little out of my comfort zone, which has contributed to some dragging of feet on my part. I got into a state of inertia waiting for production to conclude, and during that time I lost some momentum. To compensate, I now set aside some time each week to target new distributors and I’ve also hired some part-time independent sales reps to help.
Finances: A Balancing Act. One of conundrums of starting a business is that you often have to keep your day job in order to pay the bills and support the new business. I’ve had a long stretch where I was able to focus only on Versa and our other product, the Gamut Paddle Holder, but that was during the production waiting period and there wasn’t as much I could do. In the interim, I committed to another job to supplement my income. I was able to negotiate a 30-hour work week, which allowed me to dedicate two days a week to focusing on the new business while still being able to pay my mortgage. The mid-term goal, of course, is to have the business provide a family-sustaining income.
Timing Is Important. Some things can’t wait: getting your business registered, creating separate bank accounts, setting up QuickBooks. But for others, I learned the expensive way that they could’ve waited. This was true for setting up a merchant account – I ended up paying $30 a month when I wasn’t even registering sales yet. Liability insurance is another. Make sure you have it, but wait until you have product in-hand.
If you’re an entrepreneur or new business owner and would like to trade notes, please feel free to reach out to me!