Small Business Success Tips: Use Creativity on Smaller Projects

By Bob Reiss

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“This is article written for MANA, the largest Sales Rep association in the Country.”

When I read the current literature online, in books and through TV interviews, I mostly hear that the best way to develop a new product line or company is to create an item that “disrupts an industry.”

This thinking makes a big number of aspiring entrepreneurs want to be like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who had a great deal of luck going for them. The only common trait in their background was they went to Harvard College and left after their first year.

Your creativity would be more rewarding if you focus it on smaller projects. To illustrate the point, here are some true personal stories. Most of the stories are low tech, common sense solutions that create opportunities which benefit all parties. Some honestly circumvent rather than barrel through outdated or unnecessary rules. Creativity targeted toward ventures or products that disrupt an industry are okay, but the odds are you will make more money by directing your creative efforts to smaller projects.

Developing a Line of Magic Kits

When I had a company in the adult game industry, we decided to develop a line of magic to add to our game business. We thought it would be popular with kids and adults and was a wholesome subject for the entire family. There were no dominant suppliers in the magic markets. We sold most of the major department stores in the country and large and small mail order companies like Sears and Wards.

I began by signing up for an evening course on magic taught by one of the great ones, George Schindler. It was fun and educational. At the conclusion I wanted to hire George to help us develop the line and market it. One of his major interests was to get his fantastic book titled Magic With Cards published. All tricks could be done with a regular deck of cards, not a trick deck.

George and his partner Frank Garcia had trouble getting a publisher. We developed 23 different magic kits to offer, plus the book. However, we ran into a problem with department stores. Books could only be sold in the book department. Our games and the magic line would be sold in the stationery department, a main floor department. We couldn’t get around that rule, and we knew card tricks could be a major seller.

We had a major creative session with our New York sales reps and came up with the idea of purchasing regular decks of cards and putting one deck on top of George’s book and putting a blister package around the two. We then called it a magic kit. This nomenclature would allow us to sell them with the whole line into the stationery department. It was the best-selling item in the line, and George was ecstatic over it, giving his all doing in-store magic demos in leading stores in the country. The magic line was a huge success as was George’s book.

Cork Bulletin Boards

When we were national sales reps, we sold an extensive line of cork bulletin boards. We sold it successfully to all our major accounts all over the country. The company then came up with a new product, which was four 12-inch by 12-inch dark squares of cork with self-stick backs. We thought it could be a great volume item as we could see offices and homes buying it to cover a full wall. However, we were stymied by store rulings everywhere that told us it belonged in the houseware department. Our simple solution was to change the package label to read “Design Your Own Bulletin Board.” It worked perfectly and we sold them to stationery departments all over the country with many reorders.

Watches Problem

We started a watch company with unique designs and decided to create a line of musical watches. We had the worldwide rights to make and sell Elvis Pressley watches. We discovered that Seiko, located in Japan, had worldwide patents for musical watches. We wanted to get Seiko to outsource the musical watch for us. I wanted to meet with them in Tokyo, where I needed to change planes from New York to Hong Kong. The problem was Seiko would not answer any of my attempts to set up an appointment.

So on a hunch, I called the U.S. Embassy in Japan, introduced myself, and told them I know they normally are faced with hugely difficult problems and that I had one they could easily solve and increase their morale. I then told them I would appreciate their assistance in getting an appointment with Seiko in their office. They laughed and said they would be happy to help. They then passed on my request in a letter on US. Embassy stationery. Almost immediately I started to get emails from Seiko asking me when I wanted the appointment and an offer to pick me up at the airport. I had discovered a new source of cost-free help from American Embassies in reaching foreign sources of business.

Locating Companies Copying Our Copyrighted Watch Designs

We copyrighted all our original watch designs. It cost little to copyright a design. Most democratic countries in the world recognize American copyrights. There was an Asian company selling lots of one of our watches, but we couldn’t find out who it was. On one of my many visits to Hong Kong, I passed the U.S. Department of Commerce and just popped in and asked if they had any ideas how I could discover the copycat. Most of them came from the Hong Kong area at that time. Shortly thereafter, most moved to China.

The head of the Department of Commerce was in the office, and there were no visitors. I told him my problem, and he was very receptive to helping me. He was a very savvy guy and explained that through their advanced computer system he could probably identify the culprit but had no power to force a solution. However, he felt a strongly worded letter on U.S. Department of Commerce stationery, telling the maker he was violating a U.S. copyright, could get him to stop. The odds were he was not aware of the violation. Many U.S. and other country suppliers buy a watch they want to copy and then send it to a Hong Kong manufacturer to make. Usually it’s a small company, and they do no searches. I asked if I should come back at a later time, but the head of the office said, no just wait here as it won’t take long. He, in fact, found the copier and wrote a letter to them. He received a reply with an apology and promise to stop making my watch. So, I discovered another no-cost place to solve the problem and others. The U.S. Department of Commerce has offices in most of the countries in the world and their mission is to help U.S. businesses doing commerce in their country.

Working With Art Schools

Most of our business involved the development and sales of consumer products through all types of retailers. We therefore felt good to great packaging was an important success element. We were always on the lookout for talented but affordable artists.

Our offices in midtown Manhattan were a short walk away from a top-rated art school. They became one of the sources of our talent search. We approached teachers there, asking them to offer a contest for students in a class to develop art for a new product we were going to produce. We gave the class all pertinent details on the product, how it worked, demographics of our potential customers, types of retailers, etc. Professors like to assign students real-life projects. They had to give us final art for the package. The winner received $200, plus the most important thing for them — we would put the winner’s name on the package, giving them credit for their work. This would be a great resume builder, and no one else was offering it. So we got quality work for a reasonable price and had a reliable enthusiastic source.

Phone, TV and WIFI Problems

We were using Comcast, a large but arrogant company. We had a phone problem, and I called to get one of their capable tech people to come to our house and fix it. The problem was I could not get a human being to answer the phones despite my arguments with a machine. After three months of aggravation and the problem still there, we called another provider for these services. When we were set to go with them, I advised Comcast we no longer wished to be their customer. They responded by sending me a bill for $1,000 for breaking our agreement. There was no agreement, and I told them I would never pay them any money and told them they actually owe me money for all my aggravation and time wasted. They never answered this via email or phone but only by resending their bill. I was going to ignore this and future ones, but on further thought, figured they had an algorithm that would automatically turn me over to a collection agency, which would take a lifetime of aggravation to correct. To counter this I tried calling my U.S. Congressional Representative and told them I needed help in dealing with Comcast. They graciously invited me to their nearby office. I went there bringing copies for them of all my emails to Comcast and the few arrogant answers they provided.

It was my first visit with a local lawmaker. They couldn’t have been nicer, and they told me they get more complaints about Comcast than all other companies combined. My meeting with the staffer ended when she told me to go home and never worry about Comcast again. They were right. Within a week, I received a phone call from a senior vice president at Comcast, profusely apologizing for the problem they created, and our divorce was then complete. So I discovered another way to solve a dispute with a very large company at no cost.

There are many more stories to create solutions to small problems that will grow to big ones or exploit small opportunities. Just focus on creative efforts on these so-called smaller efforts instead of only trying to hit a home run with the bases loaded. Your creative efforts will be well rewarded.

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