By Rich Figel
Program Alert: The new January episode of Career Changers TV premieres Sat., Jan. 5 at 8:30 PM on OC16. Visit www.CareerChangers.TV for more info on who's featured in this month's show!
It was the week before Christmas, and I was walking around Ward Warehouse prior to filming a new segment about the Hawaii Fashion Incubator, which is located on the second floor there, when I heard Mark Bell call me over to his kiosk. We've had Mark on the show a couple of times to talk about some of his inventions and product discoveries he found on the Mainland (like the motorized scooter cooler).
At first, I wasn't sure what his latest invention was... they were small silicone widgets that came in a variety of colors and sizes, next to more recognizable button-sized things that I was told kids like to plug into those Crocs. They're called Jibbitz, and the woman who came up with that idea made millions when Crocs bought her out.
Mark's product is similar. His silicone connectors fit on the tips of shoelaces and drawstrings, so that the wearer can customize their footwear or hoodies, sweatpants, whatever. Then the wearer can attach one of those Jibbitz or other accessories like fake gems to make a personal fashion statement. It's such a simple idea, you wonder why no one has done it before. In fact, a major shoe manufacturer whose name I can't reveal just yet, jumped on it when Mark introduced himself at a trade show. After they reviewed it and asked for a couple of modifications, they placed an order for a MILLION of these little connectors... a month, that is -- for 12 months! They cost pennies apiece, but 12 million units adds up to a pretty big amount.
What's interesting to me is Mark didn't set out to make something for shoestrings. A friend of his son, who is in college, asked Mark to come up with a better earplug that could be easily used when things got noisy around the dorm or in public areas. (Sure, you could carry around a pair of earplugs, but I guess college kids can't think that far ahead.) So Mark thought incorporating earplugs into the ends of drawstrings might work since lots of kids wear hoodies. But someone had already come up with earphones that are built into hoodies. That's when Mark looked down at his feet and realized there was an even better use for his silicone tip connectors... sneaker laces. In entrepreneur speak, it's called The Pivot -- when you realize the original idea needs to be adjusted or there should be a change in focus and direction.
I had no idea the Crocs Jibbitz thing was so big until Mark told me about it. But every person I mentioned his invention to seemed to know about those Jibbitz. Yet none of them ever thought about applying the same concept to other types of footwear with laces, which far outnumber Crocs in sales. Heck, imagine the possibility of connecting sneaker laces to sports team logos and personalized buttons of every shape, color and style. Don't be surprised if the shoe manufacturer who placed the million per month order decides to buy out Mark for tens of millions of dollars, like the Croc Jibbitz lady.
Mark still is toying around with the name. One of the reasons he set up the kiosk at Ward Warehouse during the Christmas shopping season was to test market that product and other things he's selling in Hawaii (more on that to follow). This is what separates real inventors and entrepreneurs from the wannabes. They put in long hours testing products, talking to actual consumers, tweaking the product and refining the marketing approach. Names are important in the marketplace to create branding and word of mouth. When I last spoke to him, Mark was leaning towards "Tipz" for his patent-pending connectors. I think that works.
Every inventor dreams of that home run idea. I asked Mark if this is The Big One. He smiled and nodded. So what's your million dollar idea?