What if your product were in the hands of a Kardashian or on Gossip Girl or lining the shelves of Walmarts around the country? What if your business's product becomes as well-known as the iPod or, for that matter, the Band-Aid? Not a bad idea, is it?
One of our goals at Count Me In is to not only inspire female entrepreneurs to grow their businesses, but to make their mark in a big way. And what, exactly, does that mean? Visibility. Getting their products in the right hands—whether it’s with a national retailer, the hottest celebrity or both!
Obviously there are enormous benefits to wider exposure, whether it’s with a chain or through a celebrity. A larger audience can, quite literally, make or break a company. It’s the difference between selling a few hundred items and selling hundreds of thousands items. Or, in simpler terms: It’s the difference between a new Honda Civic and a new Ferrari.
Of course, this is a lot easier said than done. There’s no rulebook; as with most things entrepreneurial, it’s often just a matter of trial and error. But there are some general guidelines. So I asked some of the women from our CMI community to share their top tips on getting major exposure.
Do trade shows. “I always advise even small companies to do trades shows in their industries,” says Bonnie Marcus, founder and CEO of Bonnie Marcus Collection, a stationery and gift designer and manufacturer in Westport, Conn. Ten years ago, Marcus had a booth at a stationery show at the Javits Center in Manhattan—and walked away with orders from Saks Fifth Avenue, Barney’s and Bloomingdales. Her advice? Walk the trade show floor first and make sure the product is really appropriate for the industry. If it is, get a booth, and find out what the buyers are looking for. “Make sure there’s nothing else like what you’re thinking of doing already, and make sure your price point is in line with the other products on the market.” Marcus knows what she’s talking about: This fall, she launched a gift card line in Target.
Partner with the big boys. “They have so much power in terms of press and manufacturing capability,” says Marcus. For example, this year she entered into a licensing agreement with Kodak, where they will manufacture a line of her cards, designed in conjunction with celebrities like Molly Sims. A portion of the proceeds is going to the children’s charity of the celebrity’s choice. “If you partner with larger companies, it enables you to open bigger doors,” she says.
Be tenacious. That’s the advice from Romy Taormina, the co-founder and nausea relief chief of Psi Health Solutions. Her company sells Psi Bands, FDA-cleared acupressure wristbands for the relief of nausea due to morning sickness, motion sickness, chemotherapy and anesthesia. Tenacity is part of how she got her products into national retailers like Rite Aid, CVS, REI, Whole Foods, Meijer, Walgreens.com and Target.com. Psi Bands will be launching at BabiesRUs in December. Taormina, along with a former Target buyer, recently launched a blog called "Both Sides of the Retail Table," which offers strategies for getting your product onto retail shelves.
For starters, you can’t be shy. “Almost all websites these days have corporate phone numbers,” she says. “Call up the company, ask for the name, phone and e-mail address of the person to whom you wish to communicate (i.e. baby products buyer, over-the-counter buyer, feminine hygiene buyer, etc). Sometimes the receptionist will give you the contact info you wish, or at least the buyer’s assistant’s contact info.” If that doesn’t work, call back to see if you get a receptionist who is a little more compliant. If that doesn’t work, call the PR or media department (most major retailers have a media contact listed on their website and/or have press releases included that indicate a press contact), and explain that you had a recent media success and want to discuss it with the buyer. (Granted, this requires drumming up some press…)
Another option: Go to the store you wish to do business with and ask to speak with the store manager. Give them your elevator pitch and ask them for their regional or corporate buyer’s contact info. If all else fails and you cannot get in touch with the buyer via e-mail, send them your pitch via snail mail along with product samples, if you can afford to do so. (Note: Do not expect to receive unsolicited samples back.)
“Once I have the name of the buyer and their e-mail, I e-mail them,” says Taormina. “My e-mails are succinct. I introduce myself, my product, and why I feel they should consider adding my product to their assortment. Within the e-mail, I include a photo of Psi Bands in and out of package and a reputable media feature to catch their attention. As an attachment, I include a customized PowerPoint presentation (stay tuned for an upcoming blog on five must-have items for your retail pitch to buyers).” She also asks for their reply. If she doesn’t get one, she follows up. But remember: “Always be mindful of the buyer’s time. They are extremely busy. You should always be respectful, polite and even add humor where appropriate.”
Give celebrities discounts, within reason. Marcus’s creations have made it into the hands of Angie Harmon, Marcia Cross, Katherine Heigl, Ellen Pompeo and Cindy Crawford, among others. Marcus says she either offers an initial celebrity discount, or offers free thank you notes to go along with their invitations. "Once a few celebs use your products, they tell two people, and then they tell two people," she says. She also has her company information and website on the back of every card so the friends of celebrities know how to find her.
Barter. A Hollywood publicist once approached Marcus and asked if she would do the invitations for a certain star’s birthday party. In exchange, she would send out information on Marcus’s company. Marcus agreed and got tons of business from other celebrities. “You never know what will come of it,” she says.
Always cross your t's and dot your i's. So says Julie Goldman, the founder and CEO of The Original Runner Company, which makes nonslip fabric aisle runners for weddings, bar mitzvahs, fashion shows and other events. Goldman’s 8-year-old company provided the custom aisle runners for the weddings of Bethenny Frankel, Fergie, Kevin Jonas, Ashlee Simpson, Nicole Ritchie and, yes, Kim Kardashian. (So what if the marriage only lasted an hour? The runners looked fabulous!) But before anyone steps foot on the runner, Goldman has a detailed contract in place. And she does not donate her products. “The expectation is that they call up and they think you’ll donate products,” she says. “We don’t donate; we gauge the price on how much exposure we think the event will get for us. If it’ll be on national TV and seen and featured on the cover of People magazine, that’s one thing. In other words, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting in advance.”
Don't cannibalize your company and don't be afraid to walk away. Even though it’s thrilling to have your product in a major chain, it might not make the most sense from a bottom-line perspective. Every company takes different percentages, so you have to know what the restocking fee is, as well as the damage fee. “The deals are always to their advantage,” says Goldman. “So you have to find the best advantage to your company and if it’s the right fit. Your mark-up is so small once the retailer takes their piece. In contrast, when I sell stuff off my web site, I keep everything after production costs.”
Brittany Hodak, the president and co-founder of 'ZinePak, agrees. Her company produces a configuration of entertainment packaging comprised of a small-format magazine, CD or DVD and one or more exclusive merchandise items. “Sometimes small business owners are so anxious to have their products carried by major retailers that they will say ‘Yes!’ to any terms and at any cost,” says Hodak, who has worked closely with Walmart to release four exclusive ‘ZinePak packages in their stores, including two for the popular Kidz Bop brand, one for American Idol winner Scotty McCreery, and one for the 2011 Academy of Country Music Awards. “It’s important to remember that not having your merchandise carried by a national retail chain is more advantageous than having your merchandise on their shelves, but taking a loss to do so,” she explains. “It can sometimes be challenging to stand up to a retailer and say ‘No’ as the little guy, but it’s something that is necessary if you want to be taken seriously by major corporations in the long run. This includes compromising your profit margins, your suppliers or the overall cost [or] integrity of your product.”
Nuture your relationships. What’s it like to do business with the grand poobah (that would be, Walmart)? According to Hodak, it’s great—but you have to do your homework. “Walmart has thousands of buyers and marketing managers across its vast array of categories, so finding the right one to talk about your business or your product can be tough,” she says. “Some categories even have special third-party companies that help manage inventory. That’s the case with music; a third-party distributor maintains the entertainment inventory at Walmart stores. So, it’s important to build a relationship with both companies in order to succeed.”
Finally, surround yourself with other entrepreneurs in the same boat. “It’s really important to educate yourself and surround yourself with people who’ve worked with national retailers before or had products in a chain,” says Goldman, who often bounces ideas off the women she’s met through CMI. “It’s great to have a community to talk to.”
Pictured: Kim Kaupe and Brittany Hodak of 'ZinePak with American Idol winner Scotty McCreery