The Song of the PowerSquid: The Inside Story of the Life of an Invention Part 5

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Hello, my name is Christopher Hawker. I am a professional inventor, specializing in innovative consumer products. My company is called Trident Design, LLC. I have developed many products in numerous industries and have over 20 products on the market. My most famous invention is the PowerSquid, a cephalopod-inspired power strip with outlets situated at the end of short cords, thereby eliminating the problem of losing outlets to bulky transformer plugs. John Biggs, editor-in-chief of this blog, has asked me to write the story of the birth of the PowerSquid and its development and journey to market. This is the Song of the PowerSquid.

Part 5: On the Market and the Birth of Flexity, LLC

Now in stores, the PowerSquid easily lived up to my expectations. The next few months were heady, as Wal-Mart, Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond agreed to carry the product. Then it was a huge hit on television-shopping network QVC, where the PowerSquid became a regularly-featured item. Sales boomed and royalties flowed. Everyday there was a dose of good news. I was ecstatic.

Then we hit a bump in the road. UL contacted Power Sentry and said they had to retract approval for the PowerSquid! Someone had reviewed the file and decided that, in fact, it should have been tested as an extension cord because, well, it ended in cords. According to UL, we had to remove the switch and only have three outlets! I was outraged! Power Sentry was also furious and threatened UL with legal action, as the decision would cost them millions. Faced with a lawsuit, UL looked more closely at the situation and ultimately ruled in our favor. Disaster was averted, again.

In the clear and with sales of the original PowerSquid model booming, I began encouraging Power Sentry to develop a surge protector version of the product, but they said they weren’t ready to take the risk. A friend of mine, who had become a minor investor, suggested we start our own company to sell premium PowerSquid surge protectors that he would fund and Power Sentry would manufacture and warranty. Power Sentry agreed to our deal, saying they would give us a one-year lead in the market on PowerSquid surge protectors. We could have exclusive markets which they weren’t interested in, but we could not sell to their customers. We started a spin-off company called Flexity, LLC, to market our models, which were designed with a full range of features. They were premium units. They had six outlets instead of five. The flagship was called the Calamari Edition, which featured glowing plugs. It was super cool.

Flexity was humming. We developed brochures, packaging, a cool e-commerce site (PowerSquid.com), a tradeshow booth, and issued press releases. There was palpable excitement. We received our first samples and they looked great, but then we submitted to our friends at UL and, surprise, that’s where the trouble began again.
UL said they had written the specifications for the “new and unusual” PowerSquid as a five-armed beast, and there was no way to make it with six. I was incredulous. The electrons didn’t care! I thought the sole purpose of UL was to confirm a product was safe as designed, not to dictate design. Was it revenge for the earlier threat of legal action? Stuck at UL, Power Sentry said there was another lab we could use, MET Lab, which was also OSHA certified. We pushed on with MET. However, while waiting for MET, Power Sentry reconsidered giving us our one year of exclusive lead on surge protector PowerSquid sales, and decided to develop their own models of surge protectors, copying our design almost exactly, only with five cords. With only five cords, their product was sailing through UL. I was disappointed, but powerless because I had not gotten this piece of our agreement in writing.

Meanwhile, the 2006 CES in Las Vegas was approaching and we planned our launch. We were told by Power Sentry to expect to have MET Listed product by February, shortly after the CES Show. We applied for the CES Innovations Awards, the biggest award in the industry, as did Power Sentry. Results were announced the November prior to the show – and we won! In fact, we won three awards: Honorable Mention Audio Product, Honorable Mention Computer Accessory, and Best Innovation in Home Office Product. It was a HUGE victory for a little startup founded on a few thousand dollars! No one would have expected it. We were elated.

We showed up at the CES full of optimism due to our big win. Our reception was overwhelming. Press and buyers came by our booth in droves. We handed out PowerSquid like Halloween candy. It was exciting and exhausting. There was a People’s Choice Award, and we campaigned heavily. We had a blast, but there was one troubling issue. We had to tell the majority of the interested stores that we couldn’t sell to them due to our deal with Power Sentry. We hadn’t realized at how limiting that truly was going to be. We sent countless potential customers to their booth. Nevertheless, we still had tons of interest. Finally, on the last day of the show, it was announced the Flexity PowerSquid won the People’s Choice Award! Our little tiny startup claimed the biggest prize at the industry’s largest trade show! We thought our future and fortune were set.

The Ejector Plug Adapter also launched at the show, having finally received UL approval, in the Power Sentry booth. Unfortunately, it received little attention. People didn’t get it. However, it was picked up by both Walgreen’s and Target, where it then performed very poorly. After a short run, both stores discontinued the product and so did Power Sentry. Despite our earlier hopes for the product, we chalked it up as a failure. We are still trying to find the right partnership to make the Ejector Plug a success.
After the show, we began following up with the media and the buyers, but we still didn’t have product. Power Sentry said there were delays at MET with the testing and we wouldn’t have product until April, which also turned out to be wrong. Articles, and lots of them, started appearing in mainstream and niche publications. Sound and Vision, Playboy, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and many, many others ran stories. People loved the PowerSquid. It was extremely exciting! We drew enormous traffic to our website, but had nothing to sell. We collected email addresses and told everyone that we’d get back to them soon. In the meantime, Power Sentry started selling their surge protector while we waited on the sidelines.

Finally we couldn’t wait any longer and placed an order without UL approval. It turned out that our customers didn’t care. Only the big box retailer would not sell without UL certification, and they were off limits to us anyways. We were finally in business by October 2006, but it was way too late. Early interest had died down, we were being called vaporware, and the media buzz had quieted. Plus, Power Sentry was already on the market with a cheaper model. We made some sales and the website was doing fairly well, but our huge expectations were falling short. Flexity struggled, but we kept our heads above water thanks to the royalties on Power Sentry’s sales. More stores kept adding the Power Sentry models and bloggers loved the PowerSquid. It was still a heady time, but tempered by our frustrations with Flexity.

Christopher Hawker, an inventor specializing in innovative consumer products, is founder of Trident Design, LLC in Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of “Inventor’s Mind: 10 Steps to Making Money From your Inventions”, a free e-book available at Invent-Shop.com. He will be hosting his first InventShop Inventor’s Workshop in October 2009 for serious inventors who want to learn his inventing system.

This is part 5 of a 6 part series. Read them all here.

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