When first-time inventors Jane Och and Sharon Prince came up with a way of storing guacamole that would prevent it from ever turning brown, they never imagined that it would take nearly four years to get to market. But they didn’t give up and neither did their licensee, the household cleaning tools and supplies manufacturer Casabella. Today, both parties are thrilled they stuck it out. Not only is their product Guac-Lock on the market, it’s a major success.
Even when experts are involved, like in a licensing deal, the product development process is sometimes painful. That’s just a fact. There are almost always unforeseen challenges to overcome. Typically, they involve manufacturing. That’s why launching any product, let alone an innovative one like Guac-Lock, is a serious accomplishment. The gap between intention and execution can loom frustratingly large. To see your original concept through, you may need to become more involved than you ever imagined having to be.
When Casabella founder and executive chairman Bruce Kaminstein first saw Guac-Lock at the International Home + Housewares Show in 2014, where it was nominated for an innovation award, he was intrigued. “I thought it was such an interesting, niche product,” he said.
At first, his team wasn’t as interested. But he couldn’t stop thinking about how beloved guacamole is. And Och and Prince had clearly put a lot of time into the project already, which he appreciated. Ultimately, Kaminstein decided to offer the women a licensing deal shortly after the show based largely on gut instinct.
“A few weeks later, we called him back. We thought, why not? They know how to do everything we don’t,” Och explained. “And they really wanted us to be involved in the process, which solidified the deal for us,” she added.
But manufacturing issues quickly arose and persisted. A works-like looks-like version of the initial prototype, which had been designed by a professional Och and Prince hired, didn’t function like it needed to. For Guac-Lock to work, they would need to identify a different thermoplastic — one that had some of the same properties as silicon, but was less permeable. “Guacamole tells no lies,” Och joked. “We didn’t have to send it to a lab to test. Either the guacamole turned brown or it didn’t.”
With the help of a materials engineer, a solution was found, but the next prototype still failed to work perfectly. After thousands of units had been ordered, Och had an epiphany in the middle of the night. The multi-part product would work significantly better, she realized, if the cylinder was inverted. She had to speak up, she decided. Too much time had passed and effort extended since 2012, when Och came up the original concept for Guac-Lock (including the name) in the kitchen with her daughter and her teenage friends.
“We had one chance to go to market. It wasn’t worth it to me,” she said. So the women volunteered to pay for the change themselves. In the end, 11,000 units ended up being retrofitted in a mad dash to ship the product to retailers on time.
Since then, Guac-Lock has racked up favorable reviews online, been featured on The Today Show and Buzzfeed, and now retails in Bed Bath & Beyond, The Container Store, Crate & Barrel, Whole Foods, and other grocery stores.
Kaminstein readily admits: It was a big learning experience. He had never licensed an idea before. Ultimately, they persevered. “Jane and Sharon’s passion also helped,” he said. “They didn’t want to let it go and I saw that.”
Today, despite the production delays, he’s staunchly in favor of open innovation. “I think it’s great to get ideas from consumers,” he said. “These people use our products every day! If they have ideas to make them better, I want to know.” In fact, the company is in the process of finalizing two more deals. It’s as if the “floodgates have been opened,” he said.
You will need to help your licensee work out some of the details from time to time. Don’t let that intimidate you. That’s why you need to become the expert of your idea. No one will advocate for it with as much conviction. Trust me. I’ve been bringing products to market for more than 30 years.
When I met Och at Casabella’s booth this March and watched her demo Guac-Lock, her energy level was off the charts. She looked like she’d been on HSN all her life. And I really loved to see that. Bringing her concept to life didn’t go that smoothly. But was anyone else going to lose sleep over it? No. In the end, she’s the one who came up with the winning solution.
I asked Och what advice she had for everyday people who have great ideas for new products, like she did.
1. Keep going. “Don’t give up. Just. Don’t. Give. Up. Don’t give up until you really have to. That is the one thing I can say over and over again,” Och said.
2. Understand what you don’t know and seek out others for advice. “Don’t be so rigid and have such a definite plan that you fail to allow yourself to think outside of the box.”
3. When someone offers to introduce you, follow through. Every time! The more people you can talk to the better, Och said. “What I got from each person I called was rarely what I called to talk about, which is what was so incredible.” Och was open-minded, in other words. She didn’t pretend to know more than she did. She didn’t let her ego get in the way. She chose to learn as much as she could. And that’s crucial!
Keep your eyes and ears open. What does that look like in practice? On a cross-country flight Och took once, she ended up sitting next to a former collegiate athlete who had a lot of experience with sports licensing. (Which she only discovered because she introduced herself.) Picking his brain for the ensuing five hours greatly deepened her understanding of the licensing business model.
4. If you go the licensing route, participate to the extent that you can. “Only great things can come from you staying involved,” Och said. “You know your product! Even if you’re a novice.” Make sure to nurture a relationship with multiple employees at the company, not just one. After all, product development takes time. You need to account for turnover. Get multiple other people on the other side to believe in your vision.
“In the end, there is no doubt in my mind that the best product came to market because we worked together,” Och said.
Kaminstein agreed. “It’s a two-way street. There are a lot of questions on both sides. Both parties need to feel comfortable with one another.” I can’t say it enough. For a licensing agreement to succeed, trust is crucial.
5. Take time to pause and reflect. If one person loves your idea, there’s a good chance others might. Don’t be in such a rush that you fail to explore your options, Och said.
6. Find a partner whose strengths complement yours. “My partner Sharon and I are total opposites. Together, we make a complete person,” Och joked. “The fact that I could bounce ideas off her whenever I needed to worked out really well.”
If you don’t have all the answers, that’s okay. They didn’t. Och had never studied engineering. But she thought long and hard about the issue at hand and they figured it out. You can too.
Some people are doubtful. They think, “What do I have to offer them? I don’t know what I’m doing. My licensee has all these resources!” But at the end of the day, no one is going to care more about your invention than you do. How badly do you want to see your idea on store shelves?
If your idea isn’t that simple, don’t expect your licensee to do every bit of research and development needed. That’s not the way it works.
They stayed with it. And now they’re reaping the rewards.
“This is truly a dream come true,” Och said, sounding like she meant it. “If nothing else, I’ve impressed my children, which I’ve been trying to do for 25 years!”