In the 1970s my dad was one of the first people to invent the glow necklace. A teenager at the time, he came up with the idea after playing with glow sticks his brother brought home from a military surplus store. He began selling the necklaces at touristy places in Chicago, and the response was fantastic.
By 1983, my dad went on to start Chemical Light, Inc., a company that sold wholesale glow sticks, glow bracelets, glow necklaces and more. Thirty-two years later, my family’s business has evolved into Windy City Novelties, Inc., which I'm president of today.
With the rise of globalism and changes in technology, Windy City has undergone a lot of transformations. We have 125 employees now—many of whom are based in China—and are associated with several factories in China which manufacture nearly 15,000 of our items. While our core wholesale buyers continue to be places like theme parks, sports venues, retail shops and the like, we've found that the key to success through the years has been innovation.
Here are some lessons I've learned along the way on how to stay fresh and relevant, no matter what age your audience is.
1. Listen to your customer.
My dad started out selling just a handful of items in the early '80s, all revolving around items that glow. As customers became familiar with our products, they began making requests for new ones. When we produced plastic ice cubes with LED lights inside (which you can turn on and off or put in flash mode), one customer reached out and asked if we had anything brighter. So within 30 days we created ice cubes with colored plastic that had an ultraviolet LED inside. It was a simple change that really made the brightness pop! We've always listened to our customers, and that's what's grown our product line—and our bottom line.
2. Be nimble and ready for change.
In the 1980s, people found us by flipping through the Yellow Pages. In the '90s, everything about sales changed with the dawn of the Internet. We had a greater understanding of what our customers wanted, and began to see countless opportunities for expansion. That's when we went from selling primarily glow items to getting into the overall party business, carrying hats, costumes and other products. We saw the opportunity and we took it.
3. Expand on your strengths.
More and more companies want to do business with factories in China, but they don't have the time or resources to sink into opening an office over there. We worked around this gap by hiring a team of people in China to watch over our orders, enforce quality control and make sure everything runs efficiently.
Having that team has worked so well for us that we've begun selling those sourcing and procurement services to other companies. Say, for example, a company wants to create a line of pet wear. Our team can guide them through the manufacturing process, managing and overseeing every step of the way. It's a win-win—we make money off of our expertise and they save money by using our existing team. It's quite a different direction from the novelty business, but it's one that makes sense with the growing global economy.
4. Seek out new markets.
Early on in the business, my dad realized that he had more luck with wholesale than with retail stores, so that's where he put his attention. Around 2010, I decided to broaden our focus and expand into the retail space. I knew the profit margins would be lower than wholesale, but the growth potential would make up for it. In the last five years, we've gotten into more than 6,000 stores across the U.S. It's been huge, and that's where we expect to see our major growth continue.
5. Ask everyone for ideas—especially young people.
I am constantly asking people for ideas to come up with new products. A lot of our employees' kids come in and from about age 6 and up I ask them about their ideas. My wife's younger brother is into the club scene, and glow products have become really popular in clubs, so I talk to him. I ask him about the types of products he sees, and what kinds of things could help bartenders and patrons. One of the ideas we’ve talked about lately is a drink coaster that can alert a bartender when a drink is running low.
Recently, one of the ideas from the club scene was an LED ice cube shaped like a cherry (can’t get away from that glowing ice!). Is it a huge seller? No, but it's definitely innovation, and that's key when you're talking about manufacturing a line of 15,000-plus products. By asking the younger set for insights, we can stay in tune with new trends for all our customers.