I remember it like it was just yesterday. I was living in Oakdale, California, reading the Modesto Bee. My wife was washing the dishes as we both began getting ready for work. The article that I was reading was in the business section – Al Gore was commenting on labels on prescription containers. The labels weren’t large enough to hold all the information that needed to be inscribed on them; over 100,000 people were dying each year simply because of noncompliance. There just wasn’t enough information.
When I read the article, something just clicked. I had a product that was selling in Disney stores that I had licensed to a manufacturer. The product was called the “rotating canteen”, and was basically a double wall container. When you spun the outer wall, you could see through windows, or cutouts, to the inner wall. It fun for kids and it was creative, and we had themes and games like Minnie Mouse changing clothes, or “how many Winnie the Pooh bears can you count” on the cup. It was doing quite well.
But the thing that caught my eye was that the rotating canteen was essentially adding more space to a container. I knew that a label that spun or rotated would do the same. I could solve that problem. I mentioned the idea to my wife, but she had a difficult time visualizing it. Most people have a hard time seeing and understanding an idea when they’ve only heard it. I needed to make a prototype.
This was pretty early in my career, the early 90’s. I had two offices at the time – a home office, and an office at Kinko’s. Yes, Kinko’s. The Kinko’s offered me everything I needed! I could build things out of paper pretty easily, especially prototypes, I could mail out my ideas two doors down, and I could even have lunch there in the little strip mall. If I wanted to do a little looking around, WalMart was just across the street. Everybody kind of knew me, and I had my own drawer – “Steve’s drawer”.
That day I walked across to the WalMart and grabbed a container off the counter. I brought it in, tore off the label, and started to make this new rotating label. The prototype worked, it looked good, and it did exactly what I knew it was going to do. I had my product right in my hands.
I took that label home and showed it to my wife, who was Vice President of Marketing at Gallo Winery at the time. So she had an understanding of new products. She looked at it, but she couldn’t really comment. She told me that she didn’t know enough about the industry, and that was actually really insightful. You need to get an opinion from an individual who is an expert in the field you’re working in.
But she did notice one thing. I was a little naïve at the time, of course, but I declared that I was going to send my product in to the company of the container. “You know who that is, right?” she asked. “It’s McNeal. McNeal is huge!” She doubted that someone who had an office at Kinko’s could attract the attention of a major corporation.
How did I do it?