Have you ever heard a cool product idea from a friend, a coworker, an aunt, and thought — Why isn’t that on the market already?
Undoubtedly, we’ve all had those experiences. And yet, by and large, it’s typically major corporations like Amazon, or retail giants like Target, that get their products more quickly and easily in front of consumers — even when their ideas aren’t necessarily best.
Fortunately, there is an opportunity for your neighbor’s friend’s product to get in front of the masses — and its called The Grommet, an online discovery platform and marketplace. Started by Jules Pieri and Joanne Domeniconi, The Grommet’s purpose is to help entrepreneurs and small businesses get their innovative, exciting ideas in front of millions of people.
For the past ten years, The Grommet has evaluated 300 submissions a week, and chosen the top three percent — including incredibly successful products like FitBit, OtterBox, and SodaStream.
However, The Grommet isn’t the only thing remarkable about Jules Pieri — she’s also been named one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs, and in April, she published a #1 Best Seller at Amazon for Business Entrepreneurship called How We Make Stuff Now: Turn Ideas into Products That Build Successful Businesses, which shows entrepreneurs how to successfully create and launch new products.
If you’re a small company or an entrepreneur looking to launch an interesting product and successfully compete in the marketplace, you’re in luck — here, we sat down with Jules Pieri to talk about challenges she’s seen product inventors face, which distribution channels are most successful for entrepreneurs, and why you shouldn’t sell on Amazon.
1. Someone comes to you with a brand new product idea. What’s the very first thing you’d tell them to do?
I would tell them to read the chapters 3 to 5 of my book, which explains where the best ideas come from, and how to assess the potential market size of an opportunity. That, above all, is the critical first step in deciding whether to throw over your life or career to pursue a startup. I do have a bias for large opportunities.
Unless you are just looking for a side hustle, I believe you should go big or go home.
My advice is borne not of some generic startup hoo-ha, but rather the observation (formed by launching 3,000 products for emerging companies) that it is just as much work to build a small business as a large one.
I also know that having a large target market gives you more chances to build a full product line, which is essential to success at retail. Retailers can’t get behind single product companies — the on-boarding (legal, operational, financial) is not worth the trouble when they imagine a product sitting alone on a shelf without enough physical presence or market awareness to justify the effort. That’s the harsh reality of retail.
The good news is that market opportunities are often quite quantifiable. Public data sources are your friend. Good places to start are:
- Google Trends. See how many people are searching for a solution to a specific problem
- Amazon. You can see what existing product solutions are on the market, how they are performing, and what are the market gaps. In addition, there is a whole eco-system built around quantifying sales performance on Amazon. The nefarious players use it to figure out what products to copy or counterfeit. Start with Jungle Scout.
- Your local Small Business Administration Office. There are rich sources of public data around many populations and markets. Their excellent network of counselors can help you mine that gold—which your tax dollars fund.
- Industry data. You will likely have to pay for this information.
- Trade shows. Attending one is the most efficient way to figure out all the players in an industry, as well as scope the wholesale buyers, existing products, and potential partners, trade associations, and vendors.
2. What would you say is one of the biggest initial challenges for makers/entrepreneurs as they try to enter the market with a new product? How would you recommend overcoming these challenges?
By far and away the toughest challenge is getting the word out about a product. Digital and traditional marketing are expensive and sophisticated endeavors. At first, it can seem easy because 25% of our Makers run a successful crowdfunding campaign.
But, when the attention and excitement of that intense effort end, it’s usually crickets. Which is terrifying — that’s when the real work begins. That’s why I started The Grommet and we assembled such a massive community. Someone has to help these companies build an actual business beyond the crowdfunding “science project” phase.
Our community of three million curious and supportive people can make a market for an emerging, innovative product. I think of us as “Kickstarter without the risk”, for people who want to support small business and gain early access to unique products.
The second hardest thing is protecting your intellectual property. That got so much harder since 2015, which is when Amazon removed the requirement for having a domestic representative manage marketplace listings. Now, 25% of what is sold in the US and the EU comes straight from a Chinese factory. The vast majority of these products are cheap copycats and counterfeits.
The genie is fully out of the bottle and can’t be stopped. Even Amazon executives can’t tell the difference between these fakers and the original product listing. So a shocking portion of Amazon’s customers are duped when they buy a shoddy product, thinking they got the original.
The best way for a Maker to avoid this is to control your distribution and make sure you don’t sell or let anyone else sell your product on Amazon.
This keeps your data and sales trajectory out of sight of the nefarious players. If you have deep pockets and decide you can fund the continual legal battles and whack-a-mole game of fighting fakers on Amazon, only sell your product through a middle-man agent who represents other sellers. Never sell directly to Amazon or build your own storefront.
I list a couple agents in my book, but talk to their customers to make sure you understand what they can and can’t do for you. Amazon won’t be responsive to a startup or small business, but they will answer the phone for these sales channel aggregators who know how to navigate the Byzantine world of Amazon.
The best way for a customer to avoid getting ripped off is to buy from a legitimate retailer, a local store, or from the Maker’s own site.
3. Which distribution channel(s) do you think are typically most effective for makers/entrepreneurs?
I would pursue two channels:
- Your own website. This is table-stakes for a small business. At the very least, the site needs to be full of information about your product. HubSpot has invaluable guidance on how to create rich content and win at the SEO game. Whether your site takes orders directly is optional, but be sure to include prominent links to your best retail partners if you don’t sell the product directly (and even if you do). To maximize your chances of retail distribution, always keep your price the same or slightly higher than the sites and stores that sell your product.
- Specialty retail. Small shops are really the best at taking chances on new products. This is their lifeblood. They have well-trained staff and they will take the time to learn about your product. Don’t be impatient to get to the big guys. Specialty retail is where you will actually get the sales data and market proof to convince the large national chains to pick you up. You can go directly after these sales, or hire a rep organization.
4. What quality do you think makes an entrepreneur most likely to succeed?
I recently produced a March Madness of Entrepreneurship video, built on my own bracket of 32 entrepreneurial qualities. In the end, tenacity won over every other trait. You need to be good at so many things — including salesmanship, resourcefulness, and having a vision.
But being tenacious is the essential quality that gives you the juice to actually act on everything else.
5. What sets The Grommet apart from sites like Etsy or Uncommon Goods? Do you really try every product?
We really do test every product. We look at 300 products a week and launch six. We test 20-30 a week.
What we share with Etsy is our direct connection to the Makers of products. I adore that about Etsy, and I’m a customer there myself. Where we are different is we launch manufactured products from innovative small businesses. Etsy is all about craft.
Plus, since Etsy has two million suppliers (versus our 3,000) they are more of a free-for-all marketplace. This means a certain level of “buyer beware” awareness is needed, and the product quality is hugely variable from seller to seller. Etsy is not standing behind any individual products — that is not their brand promise. (But they will back you up if you are disappointed, so it is a trustworthy site when it comes to refunds and exchanges.)
I have mad respect for Uncommon Goods. Like Grommet, it works closely with its sellers. Their products tend to be more décor and style-driven. We launched Fitbit, SimpliSafe, Sodastream, and Mrs. Meyers. Those are not products that would make sense on Uncommon Goods.
6. What qualities do you typically look for when deciding whether a product will be successful on your platform? What impresses you the most in regards to a pitch?
We focus first and foremost on the product itself. We have seen everything in each of our existing categories — ranging from outdoor gear to pet products, toys, and kitchen gadgets. So we are looking for true distinction and innovation in considering whether a product could be a Grommet.
Secondly, we are looking to introduce our avid supporters to new discoveries, so we are looking for relatively undiscovered products.
In terms of pitches, the more a Maker’s company and product values align with those of our community, the deeper a look we will take. These values could encompass a product that supports a sustainable lifestyle, a product made in the USA, a company founded by a vet or a POC, or an innovative social enterprise business model.
7. In your book you mention numerous case studies of successful startups … can you tell us one in particular that surprised you by beating odds stacked against them?
We launched Back to the Roots, a home mushroom growing kit created by two fresh graduates out of Berkeley. They had no business succeeding with this idea of using discarded coffee grounds as a base for the kits. But because of their idealistic vision and tremendous tenacity, they did survive, and do continue to thrive.
Ultimately, there’s no doubt it can be exceptionally difficult to launch a new product into the marketplace, even when you know there’s demand for it.
If you’re feeling unsure of where to begin, try focusing on cultivating relationships with small, local stores that might be willing to put your product on their shelves, or create a compelling website and increase your social media presence so word-of-mouth can do the hard work for you.
And, like Pieri said — tenacity is key.
This interview was conducted by Caroline Forsey and Allie Decker.