Accidental Inventor Finds a guest speaker

Some of you may already be familiar with the Styl Styk, the innovative hair styling accessory created by Chrissy Sparrow. I've been in correspondence with Chrissy for a while now and have come to regard her as a fantastically nice person with a genuine entrepreneurial story that includes inventing, tinkering, discovering, prototyping, marketing, and promoting. Interwoven into this story is a humble demeanor mixed with a tenacity to continue along the entrepreneurial path, even when that path becomes rocky and less glamorous than expected.

Yesterday, my students and I learned from her varied experiences via a Skype-based interview. This virtual interviewing is becoming a more regular part of my pedagogy. To me, there's real value in bring entrepreneurial experts into my classroom, even though they may be many timezones away. [for more on this, click here]
Chrissy shared with us that her experience as a nascent entrepreneur began in her bathroom in October 2003. On that particular day, she was trying her best to recreate the zigzag hairstyle that her hairdresser had imparted (yes, pun intended) on her a few weeks earlier. She was using a rattail comb, but found it difficult to achieve the same consistent zigzag part. Being a persistent "idea person" and acting with a tinkering mindset, Chrissy fashioned a rudimentary tool by using only some tape, a school pencil, and repurposing a "hot roller pin" (check out the picture and you'll see the steps involved in her prototyping process). She tried her newly-created tool on her hair and immediately discovered that she was on to something.
Next, she showed it to her husband, her hairdresser, her friends, her family...really, anyone who would listen. Whether she knew it or not at the time, Chrissy had already begun her trek on the entrepreneurial path. This path was somewhat familiar to her since her parents had success running a retail business during her childhood, but she had never embarked on her own entrepreneurial journey. In fact, her college degree was in communication and public relations, not business. She had worked retail and was familiar with the personal selling aspects of business, but quickly learned that taking a product from concept to consumer is much more involved and nuanced than she ever expected.
While her initial tinkering and exploration started in October 2003, she found herself consumed with the concept and began steps to bring it to life. By Christmas Day of 2003, she was helped along by a gift she received in her stocking. You see, her husband surprised her with a functional plastic prototype that utilized her original design. Chrissy used this prototype to win over producers of a home shopping show and helped her gather investor support. She went on to prove her mettle as an entrepreneur by selling a few thousand of the Styl Styks in just a few minutes on QVC in 2006. Since that time, QVC invited her back to sell more of the items and she's been featured on the Big Idea, with Donny Deutsch. As she continues to seek new channels for distribution, she reports that most of her sales have come via the Styl Styk website and through a traditional retail department store chain.
Along the way, she's learned many valuable lessons. Here are some of those that she shared with us yesterday:
  • the Styl Styk is a demonstration product; as such, it needs to be "experienced" by the consumer. The cost to advertise increases significantly the more the product must be demonstrated to convey the product's inherent value to the consumer.
  • the cost to launch a new consumer product is in the six figures. This cost increases substantially if the product creates a new niche (e.g., zig-zagging comb) within a product category (e.g., hair styling tools). The cost to educate the consumer must be factored into the total cost to produce the product. Chrissy has done a great job developing marketing messages and Point of Sale tools to help demystify the product's unique value proposition. [the product info video is included at the end of this post]
  • even if you want to produce the product in the United States, at some point it would be foolish to spend nearly six times more on American-made molds versus those offered overseas.
  • finding "purpose" along the entrepreneurial path can provide a welcome respite to the difficulties encountered along the way. Chrissy found her purpose by partnering with the Breast Cancer Network of Strength. For each Styl Styk that is sold, Chrissy donates $1 to support those who find themselves in the grip of breast cancer.
  • a friend of a friend of a friend can help you develop and refine your product; so, too, can an industry expert. Here's how Chrissy describes this important point:
"I have a product that would not be anywhere nearly as marketable as it is today, if I had not taken the advice of an expert in the industry into consideration in the development process.
I was ready to go to tooling with a design that worked well and that I had spent 2.5 years developing from start to finish. When the expert told me that "You may not have invented the wheel, but you have improved it an awful lot!" I was so excited because her opinion validated my invention! Then, in her next breath she said,"But this looks like a weapon or a tool that belongs in my husband's tool box! Your design needs to be more fun and feminine."
As I left her office, I realized that I had to make a I take her advice and throw 2.5 years away and start all over from square one? Or, do I ignore the expert in the industry and go forward with the current design that was ready to start the tooling process?
Thank goodness that I listened! After some huge design changes, I went back to her with my new design. Her word was "Brilliant" and because she was a woman of few words, I knew that I was now in a much better position to succeed."
Do you sense her humility in the midst of receiving this information? Rather than discounting it and moving on with unrealistic confidence, Chrissy took the advice and worked with it. I admire her and wish her well as she continues along her entrepreneurial path.

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