By Robert Rodriguez
The Fresno Bee
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) What does it take to create a product and bring it to market? Several passionate inventors from the Fresno area share the ups and downs of their entrepreneurial journeys.
The Fresno Bee
Ever had a wild idea and thought that someday it might make a useful product?
If you are like most people, the idea soon fades and you go on with your life. But not if you are someone like Paula Reinhardt of Fresno, who cruises the aisles of Fresno Ag Hardware, Bed Bath & Beyond and Home Depot with ideas popping out of her head.
“I probably come up with 20 ideas a day, that’s why hardware stores are some of my favorite places to go,” she said. “I just look around and figure out what I need to make my ideas happen.”
Reinhardt, who spent years in sales, is among the local inventors who’ve been lucky enough to have their ideas become real products. She created the Clean and Clear 360, a plastic tool used to clean out the canister of a bag-less vacuum. It’s sold at Fresno Ag Hardware.
Although not a household name yet, Reinhardt hopes to make it big, just like those who came before her.
She also has other ideas in the works, including something for pet owners.
“It’s every inventors dream to finally get your product on the market,” she said. “But this is not an easy ride. And if your are not a patient person or can’t handle disappointment, you better spend your time doing something else.”
Trying to “make it” in the Valley
Experts say the Valley is an ideal place to launch a new product or business.
Mark Jackson, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Blue Dolphin Design and Engineering, said its in our blood to be tinkerers, inventors and creators. He said the Valley’s deep farming roots have created a culture of self-reliance, persistence and risk-taking, all attributes shared by local inventors.
“I’ve done business from the Bay Area to LA and I 100 percent firmly believe that we have the technical capabilities, resources and the people in the Valley to do what they do in the bigger cities,” Jackson said. “We also have some of that farmer mindset that when we run across a problem we will find a solution, no matter what. ”
Jackson’s latest venture is the Pi Shop, an incubator that provides inventors and start-ups the technical tools and business expertise to launch their companies. Located in the Peerless Building, 1755 Broadway St., in Fresno., Jackson works with everyone from high school students to veteran businesses.
You pay a membership fee depending on how many services you use. Jackson has an array of equipment from high-end 3D printers to office space.
Jackson sees a sort of farm system developing for entrepreneurs in Fresno. It starts at the high school level with the Patino School of Entrepreneurship, extends to Fresno State’s Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and goes beyond to different incubator programs, including the Pi Shop and the Water, Energy and Technology Center on the Fresno State Campus.
“We are developing a pipeline and that is good to see,” Jackson said. “And what I’ve learned over 20 years of dealing with inventors and entrepreneurs is that some people are really good at developing the thing, but there’s sometimes very little help with the rest of the business and that’s just as important.”
Disappointment is part of the journey
For rookie inventors, like Reinhardt, the help of a mentor, coach or incubator, can be invaluable. She’s learned a lot about the patent process, licensing and marketing.
But there’s little preparation for the disappointment that nearly every inventor faces. Reinhardt vividly recalls the day someone she had been counting on to help her, killed the deal after seven months of discussions.
“I literally cried so hard I could not open my eyes,” she said. “But the next day, I got up and told my husband that I was never giving up on this. And after that never looked back.”
Inventor Diane Fischer of Madera knows all too well that the life of an inventor can be a rocky one. She created the Bottle Stand, a triangle-shaped device that holds bottles or containers upside down. The device solves the problem of trying to get the last drop of ketchup or shampoo out of the bottle.
She was disappointed that couldn’t make her product in the U.S. The cost of manufacturing overseas is vastly cheaper. She also wished she had launched the product sooner. Some condiment makers have begun making their bottles so you can store them upside down in the refrigerator.
Still, the Bottle Stand has many uses including storage for glues, craft paint, and anything in a pump bottle. She sells the stand online at www.thebottlestand.com and you can also find it at Eye Candy Fashion Boutique, 1506 Howard Road. in Madera.
She is also working on a stand with a bigger opening for larger bottles and producing them in primary colors for teachers.
“I am learning a lot about this business and while it can feel overwhelming at times I don’t think I would want it any other way,” she said. “I mean how many people get the opportunity to do something like this.”
One of the most successful Fresno inventors in recent years is Kelly Fitzpatrick, creator of Bumpits.
Fitzpatrick, whose last name is now Bennett, was a beauty salon owner from Kingsburg turned mortgage banker who was looking for a way to give womens’ hair some lift in the back. Using a plastic knife, some Velcro and Popsicle sticks, Bennett created her first prototype.
“I’ve always thought that inventing is like crafting, and I think that’s why women are so good at it,” she said.
Sales of Bumpits took off, helping to fuel a national craze of women wanting big hair. The small plastic device gave a woman’s hair a stylistic bump. At the height of its popularity, Bumpits was being sold at every major department store from Walmart to Target. It became the Claire’s store all-time, best-selling hair accessory, she said.
And to help fight off potential competitors and increase her marketing, Fitzpatrick partnered with a much larger company that also sold the Snuggie blanket.
“It was a wild ride and it became successful so quickly,” she said “But the truth is, there was a point where we were ready to end the whole thing.”
Shortly after premiering on the market in 2008, Bennett and her advertising-buying company parted ways. She faulted them for not buying ads on popular networks like MTV, Country Music Television, or entertainment shows.
“I think they thought the product was silly,” she said.
Faced with no advertising and little income coming in, Bennett made the difficult decision to put her fledgling company on hold. She called her son to tell him the bad news and while he was consoling her he noticed hundreds of orders landing in the company’s email. He told her it was probably spam and he would have to call her back.
At the time, neither realized that one of their ads had just appeared on the MTV network.
“He called me back and told me that we had 60,000 new orders,” she said. “After that I called a new media company and the Bumpit became a home run.”
During its lifetime, more than 10 million Bumpits were sold with sales reaching $100 million. But by 2010, sales began to flatten as the big hair phenomenon started to deflate.
Bennett wouldn’t say exactly how much she made off Bumpits, but she acknowledged it was enough to buy a large home on the Central Coast and to not have to work another day in her life. But like most inventors, Bennett isn’t good at staying idle.