The innovator's dilemma
Yvan Cournoyer leaned over a futuristic looking aluminum contraption, grabbed a horizontal bar, bent forward and did a quick set of declined push-ups.
"I've always hated pushups," said the former Canadiens' hockey great. "But with this machine it's great. There's less pressure, which means you can do more reps. And you don't rub your nose on the floor."
The machine Cournoyer was referring to was the Pro-Gym 12, and his raves should come as no surprise, since he designed it himself. A long career left Cournoyer with a variety of aches and pains from old injuries.
But he could never find the right exercise equipment to get back in shape. So as a hobby he began experimenting with a variety of designs and materials until he came up with the right combination. Soon after, Cournoyer, --who continues to do promotional work as an ambassador for the Canadiens,-- realized he had a nice sideline business on his hands.
The Pro-Gym 12 looks like an adjustable chin-up bar that's mounted on two arches that are attached to a wall. It enables the exerciser to use his bodyweight to create resistance. Although the device looks simple, it can be used to perform a surprisingly large range of exercises at various degrees of difficulty. These include squats, sit-ups, rowing and dips.
"As you get older and heavier your needs change," Cournoyer said. "You don't necessarily want to do the same workouts you did when you were younger."
Cournoyer has already shipped 1,200 units --which were manufactured in China, --to Sports Experts, where they sell for $299.00 each.
"We talked to several Canadian manufacturers, but the agent we used (Canrise Ltd.) got us an excellent deal overseas," Cournoyer said. "If we had made them here, we would have had to sell them for twice the price."
The exercise machine market is jammed by a constant flow of new products coming on-stream. But Cournoyer's extensive business experience, --obtained from years of running a large tavern in Lachine, a now-defunct fast food chain and his promotional work,-- played a big role in helping him carve out a niche for his invention. But he also admits that his fame provided a big boost to the Pro-Gym 12's visibility.
"Of course it helps," Cournoyer said. "I made an appearance at a store last week and I signed more than 400 autographs. We also sold several machines."
But not every innovator is as lucky as Cournoyer. New ideas are a dime a dozen. Retailers, manufacturers and distributors face a never-ending barrage of "can't miss," opportunities from garage-based inventors.
Getting people to take notice is hard said Tom Rowlandson, president of Timesaver Books. Rowlandson publishes a series of "how to," titles, that explain Internet and other technology in just 30 pages or less.
"People don't have time to read 1,000 page bricks," said Rowlandson. "Technology is supposed to save time, not waste it. Readers want to learn fast."
So far he's produced 10 titles. These include: "eBay in 30 Pages or Less," "Google in 30 Pages or Less," and "Paypal in 30 Pages or Less," all of which were written by a Chicago based freelancer. The books sell for $10.00 Canadian or U.S. $7.95 and are available on Amazon.com, Timesaver Books' Web-site and in ten Indigo stores. According to Rowlandson getting attention was not easy.
"Buyers first told me they'd never seen books that short and that nobody would pay $10.00 for a 30-page book," Rowlandson said. "But we started selling them our Web-site and proved them wrong."
"It's a bit ridiculous because the first question every distributor asks is "who else are you dealing with?" Rowlandson said. "You have to start small and build your credibility gradually."
Linda Pépin-Ingram, president of Kenda, which markets accessories for the mobility challenged, agreed. Pépin-Ingram invented Cane Covers, which are patterns of cloth fabric, that slip over a walking cane to make them look more attractive.
"Canes often don't look very nice and there's a bit of a stigma to using them," Pépin-Ingram said. "But by slipping on Cane Cover, you make it more attractive and you get a good conversation piece."
Pépin-Ingram was so convinced about her Cane Covers' potential that she had the idea patented and set up her own Web-site to market the idea. (http://www.kendaactive.com/eng_index.asp). But convincing retailers was another story.
"You have to visit buyers individually, which is hard for me because I have a bit of trouble getting around," Pépin-Ingram said. "But once they see Cane Covers in person, they realize what a great idea they are."
The bottom line said Cournoyer, is that because of the long odds against developing and marketing an invention, inventors are better off not staking everything on a home run effort.
"It's better to treat each invention as a hobby and to have fun with it," said Cournover, who is already working on another venture: an imported furniture store that his wife Evelyn Webber will be opening soon. "If your idea takes off, great. If it doesn't you don't lose too much."
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