Leadership + People: Episode 27 - Eric Child - Part 1 of 2
Eric Child, CEO of Spark Innovation, talks about the difficulties of succeeding in the consumer-product world without marketing and manufacturing resources. Child shares four product success stories and how some of those successes started with ABC’s Shark Tank.
- Spark Innovation’s four most successful products, including FiberFix [01:09]
- Eric Child talks about the marketing side of their business, beyond invention [03:41]
- “Retailers are not looking for products, they’re looking for programs.” [09:18]
- “If you bring them a really cool product but you haven’t really thought through how it’s going to make them successful, it doesn’t matter.” [11:31]
- Learning from Derek Sivers’ example of “Service First” [13:07]
- Screenmend: An Overview [16:57]
This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: February 27, 2018
Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, senior executives and entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies, and what device they wish they knew if they could do it all again.
00:22 HOST – JESS LARSEN: Today on the show we’ve got Eric Child.
GUEST – ERIC CHILD: And what I mean by that is you can bring in this awesome, new product that does something that’s incredibly useful and incredibly different than what’s out there. But, just because you have a cool product doesn’t mean a retailer’s going to take it.
00:41 JL: Eric, thanks for making time.
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, no problem. It’s good to be with ya.
00:45 JL: So you’re co-founder, co-owner, CEO of Spark Innovation. You guys make some pretty cool products and you’ve got a pretty impressive track record — both marketing-wise and your ability to get distribution. Just for people who don’t know you guys, can you cover FiberFix and some of your other products? And then maybe we’ll talk a little bit about the stats of how some of that stuff’s performed.
Spark Innovation: Four Successful Products
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, so we manufacture and distribute products that are primarily target at the home improvement/hardware sectors. So, FiberFix is one of our most mature brands. FiberFix is a water-occubated repair tape that can fix broken items. It hardens like steel, so it makes them almost as strong as they were before – if not stronger, in some cases.
Then we’ve also branched the FiberFix brand into other tapes and adhesives and things like that. We have a couple other brands that have done really well. One is called Screenmend – which was a product that was on Shark Tank. It’s a little repair kit for screen doors and windows. We took that over as a licensing deal and have grown that brand substantially.
We have another product that was on Shark Tank called Illumibowl, which grew up from a couple of founders here locally, and that we ended up partnering with and then buying. It’s a product that sits on the side of a toilet and it lights up the toilet when you walk in in the middle of the night, so that you don’t hit your chins on the toilet and you don’t also have to turn on the blinding light. It’s been a big hit.
Then, we have another product called CoverGrip, which is a throw cloth – mainly for painters, mainly for professionals – that allows them to have a non-slip cover so that if they’re painting on stairs or things like that, they can have their ladders right on it and it won’t move. So, it’s kind of a safety product, as well as a really good product for the professional.
Those are sort of the four most mature brands that we have. We have a few others that we’re developing, but those are the four that have had the most success in the marketplace.
Going Beyond Invention, Selling Products in Stores Thanks to Marketing
03:05 JL: Well, and a lot of people can invent a product. You guys are actually good at getting it sold, as well. So, let’s talk about this – you know, a lot of folks will probably have heard of your FiberFix viral video. When you think about what has worked for getting the word out, can you tell us some of the numbers for your viral videos? And then talk about other ways you’ve got the word out, and then we’ll talk about the retail side of it all.
ERIC CHILD: Sure. Yeah, the marketing side of our business – kind of the publicity side of our business – starts primarily with FiberFix and it starts with Shark Tank. We, you know, in the first year of doing business with FiberFix, we landed a spot on ABC’s Shark Tank and suddenly, 10 million people knew what our product was and what it did — which went a long way toward getting that product into distribution fast and growing the company rapidly.
We have since followed that up with a series of videos that we use to market the product online – as kind of our primary marketing method – and to date, I think we have somewhere in the 30 to 40 million views on most of those videos. So, we’ve been able to capture a pretty large viewership. Some of that came through just viral distribution. Some of it has come through you know, paid distribution – where we’ve built paid campaigns to kind of distribute those videos and so forth. And, we’ve used that model with other products, as well.
The other thing that we’ve done is we’ve gotten a lot better at using KickStarter as a way to not just launch a product, but also to get the word out. And so, we’ve had several pretty successful KickStarter campaigns for new products that we’ve launched. So we’re getting better at using the Internet as a means of building brand and building awareness.
We wouldn’t consider ourselves the best in the world at those things, but we’re getting better at them.
05:28 JL: Yeah and today on the show, I think we’re going to talk about – you know, obviously a theme of the show Leadership and People, we’re going to talk about what it’s like to be a leader and also, you leading a team and how to get your people to want to care about the brands, like the way that they obviously do and how you have developed this system that does all this.
Before we get to that, you have a pretty uncommon ability to actually get this, you know, these inventions, these products into major retail brands. Can you give just a little bit of an overview of where you guys are at, where you’re placed, and maybe just some stats about the products you’ve sold or anything like that you’re comfortable with?
Inventors vs. Entrepreneurs
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, I think with consumer-products there’s a little bit of a misconception in the market. I think a lot of people think, “Well, you know, I’m an inventor. I have a good idea, and it’s suddenly going to take off and be this awesome product that everybody’s going to know about.” That’s really just not how it works.
I kind of separate the consumer-products world into inventors versus entrepreneurs, and we kind of think of ourselves as entrepreneurs. There’s things we’ve invented along the way, but we’re not your typical consumer-product inventor. That is typically someone who works in their garage and tinkers with things, and comes up with brilliant ideas. Not the best people to take a product to market because they don’t know anything about how to take their genius idea and distribute it to the masses. And that’s actually where we come in because we actually do know a lot about that.
So, over the years… We’ve been working in retail for about I don’t know – probably about 15 years – and you know, at first, it was a monumental undertaking for us to get a product into retail distribution ’cause we knew nothing about it and it’s a really complex world. But over the years, we’ve learned how to do it.
We were able to get FiberFix into about 30,000 retail locations within about a year-and-a-half to two years, which is really unheard of.
07:46 JL: Yeah, which store brands is that?
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, that included full national distribution at Home Depot and Lowe’s, which are the two most coveted retailers for that kind of product. It also included a massive distribution at ACE and True Value and a lot of other big brands that people recognize.
So, there’s a lot that goes into that but that is something that we’re especially good at is working with large retailers and getting new products onto shelves, which is very difficult to do. It’s not necessarily hard for somebody like Gorilla or 3M to get a new product onto shelves because they already have massive distribution in all of these retail outlets.
But, when you’re introducing a brand-new brand – a brand new product into market – to get that onto retail shelves in national retailers is pretty hard to do. And, I think that in some ways we’ve done that really well.
08:40 JL: So let’s talk about that. Let’s say there’s somebody listening today that they’re thinking, you know, are – maybe they’re not selling exactly for your market, but they’re saying we would like to get increased distribution for our company.
What are some of the things that you feel like maybe you wouldn’t have known had you not done this yourself for all these years? What’s a tip for the rest of us that want to work with those folks who control what goes on shelves across 30,000 locations?
Tips to Increase National Distribution, Programs to Support Your Product
ERIC CHILD: Well, I think the biggest learning for us over the years is that retailers are not looking for products, they’re looking for programs. What I mean by that is you can bring in this awesome, new product that does something that’s incredibly useful and incredibly different than what’s out there but, just because you have a cool product doesn’t mean a retailer’s going to take it because if you haven’t thought through how that program’s going to work in their stores, what it’s going to look like and how it’s going to be marketed, and how it’s going to be distributed, and in what stores it’s going to be distributed, and how many units are going to sit on a shelf, and how those units are going to be displayed, and how a consumer’s going to interact with those things, and all of the pricing and all of the things that go into a program… then, they’re not going to be interested because you haven’t done their job for them. You haven’t helped them understand how this product is going to work in their stores.
So, it could be the greatest product in the world, but if you haven’t thought through a program for it, you’re going to lose their interest. That’s what I find happens with a lot of these entrepreneurs — is they go to market with a product and they just can’t believe that the retailers won’t buy it and it’s not because the retailers don’t see the value in their product. It’s because there’s just not a program to support it that’s been thought through and developed.
10:37 JL: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting this principle you brought up of really thinking it through from their perspective. It sounds so simple, right? But, most of us are either — we’re getting measured by our investors or our boss or whoever. We’re getting measured in terms of our perspective, right? It’s what goes onto the reporting. It’s what goes onto — whether it’s what gets discussed at an employee annual performance review, or at you know, CEO bonus time with the board. That’s what gets reviewed.
ERIC CHILD: That’s a great point and it’s a good way to think about it because if you think about most buyers — even for a huge retailer like Walmart or Target or Costco or Home Depot — they’re just middle managers that are trying to make a good name for themselves in the company, right? So, again, if you bring them a really cool product but you haven’t really thought through how it’s going to make them successful, it doesn’t matter, right? It just doesn’t matter to them.
The product could be the coolest thing in the world, but they’re not going to take a risk on it and put themselves out there and jeopardize their career if they don’t think the success of the program has been thought through.
11:53 JL: You know, it’s so easy to talk about stuff like this and it’s so easy for anyone of us to — you know, it’s like marking your own homework, right? To claim, “Oh, yeah, I understand my customer. I know what’s going on for them.”
But, it seems like the folks that don’t just give themselves a pass of well, I know this industry so I know how it works. The folks that are like deeply — those deeply customer-obsessed organizations like an Amazon or something, Zappos, right — they’re the ones that seem to really be getting ahead in life just from my observation here, you know, as far as growing revenue and things like that.
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, because if you look at Amazon, I mean, it’s a great point. The kind of products that are on Amazon are really irrelevant. Now I mean at this point, everything is on Amazon so you can find anything you want. But that wasn’t always the case, right? So why did they grow so quickly?
Well, it’s because they really were thinking about the consumer experience and how to make everything so convenient and so easy to do for the customer, that anything they could buy on Amazon, they would. That’s why we’re seeing such tremendous growth there now.
Derek Sivers’ Service First Mentality
13:07 JL: Yeah. Do you know this guy, Derek Sivers? He’s got TED talks with millions of views. He built the first online music store, CD Baby. Have you heard of him before?
ERIC CHILD: I don’t think I have.
13:18 JL: Great blogger, other stuff, but he — I love his perspective of if we’re concerned with service first, money is a natural byproduct of that. Whereas, when we come in and say, “I want to make this much money what do I have to do to get it sold?” it’s in more of an uphill battle.
ERIC CHILD: Right.
13:39 JL: And, for me, I’d love your thoughts on this. It feels like that applies with staff, also — of like — I need staff to do this, how am I going to get it? Get them to do it?
ERIC CHILD: Right.
13:49 JL: Where like… I don’t know. It’d be interesting to hear if you’ve ever had a boss like this — somebody who was thinking about life in terms of your goals. Yes, the organization needs things. Yes, the boss gives the assignments. But, when they can talk to you about it, in terms of what they know you’re trying to do with your career or your commission check that time, or what your division you’re running is trying to get done and you get that assignment at least in some sort of context for what’s going on for you, it seems so much easier to buy-in to a request like that, would you say?
Building Up, Helping Career Professionals Get Where They Want to Go
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, I agree. One of my very first — probably my very first manager in a real professional setting when I started my career, I started with Anderson Consulting which is now Accenture down in the Bay area. My first manager was that kind of guy. He really was interested in my success, interested in my development as a professional, and I felt that.
It wasn’t for him. It wasn’t about just making himself look good or the project being completed. It was really about, “Hey, what does Eric Child need to become successful, and what does he need to become a manager and grow and be successful, and get promoted and all those kinds of things?”
It had a big impact on me, and when we look for employees now, naturally we hire people to do specific things and because we have specific needs. But, you know, we tell them right up-front that one of our goals in this organization is to help build professionals that can do the same things we do.
We tend to look for entrepreneurial-type people who want to start their own businesses at some point. And, our stated goal with them right from the start is “Look, we know you want to do this at some point in your career. So, we want to help you get there.” Because if you come and work for us for a few years, you’re going to have a big leg up on the competition. You’re really going to understand how to do this the right way.
We’ve had several of them leave us and go do really cool things, and we’re excited for them, you know, when that happens because that’s really one of our goals is to build. One of our goals is not just to build a successful company, but to also build the ecosystem of consumer-products in Utah. We look to do that in a couple different ways. We look to do that through our company, through the products that we launched into market, but also through the professionals that we hope we’re training along the way.
So, I don’t know that we’re always super good at it, but that’s definitely one of our goals.
16:28 JL: Just to give some people a little context for the success you guys have had, you’ve got these YouTube videos with I think 30+ million views altogether – correct me if I got that wrong. Are there other stats about sales or units or anything that you can share?
Starting from Shark Tank: Screenmend
ERIC CHILD: Well, it depends on the product. We had… So, let me give you a good example. One of the products I told you about was called Screenmend. Screenmend was started by an airline pilot and his two daughters. It was an idea they had for patching holes in screen doors and windows. They were taking this mesh and they were dipping it in wax and they were creating this little product.
They got a gig on Shark Tank and it kind of exploded their business and they weren’t really ready for it. They were still manufacturing out of their garage. They got some big orders right off the bat and couldn’t fulfill those because they didn’t have the manufacturing capacity. When they did finally fulfill some of those orders, the product was stuck together and it was poorly manufactured and poor quality.
We got in touch with them. We sort of randomly got in touch with them. I should say they got in touch with us as kind of helping them manufacture, and they realized pretty quickly that not only could we manufacture it, but we would be much better than them at distributing it and growing the business.
So, we took their very small business that was run out of their garage and took it over in a licensing deal. Within a year, we were doing $2.5 million in sales and that included full distribution at Home Depot and several other big retailers, and within two years, we had it within all of the major retailers that would have mattered for that product.
They are now getting a royalty check that’s in the hundreds of thousands for doing nothing, but showing up once a year at our retreat and kind of shaking hands and saying, “Hello.” It’s been a really good partnership and worked out really well. Those are the kinds of success stories that we’re pretty excited about. We’ve done that three or four times in different types of products and it’s been fun to watch.
18:53 JL: Yeah. By the way, if anybody listening does have some invention they want to talk to you guys about, is the best thing for them to just go to SparkInnovation.net, or what’s the best way?
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, SparkInnovation.net is a great way to find out about us and then we also are founders of Product PowerUp, which is going to be an annual event. We had our first event in October as really a way to bring the consumer-product community together — both in networking and education, and all those kinds of things, deal-making and so forth.
We’ve actually met entrepreneurs at that event that have translated into deals, as well. So that’s another thing that we would hope is that we can get anyone who’s really interested in the consumer-product world, to start attending those events with Product PowerUp and then like you said, they can reach us through SparkInnovation.net, as well.
19:52 JL: That’s great. Well, I think this would be a great place to end for part 1 of the episode. Please tune in next time. We’re going to be asking Eric more about Product PowerUp and get more tips on how the rest of us can learn from Eric’s success. Thanks for making time here, Eric.
ERIC CHILD: Yeah, no problem.