Interview: The Men Behind Clip-n-Seal
--First off, can you tell us a little about Clip-n-seal? I've read that you were in web design previously. How did you get into the bag sealing racket?
DL Byron: During the worst of the dotcom crash, I decided it was time to try something else, to take an idea I had, turn it into a product, and take it to market. When I started, I had no idea how to proceed. Much of the work was figuring out what to do. I knew how to produce web projects, I had been doing that for 10 years, so I took that approach. I gathered a team of professionals, started kicking ideas around, and made it happen.
We did not know what to expect and rolled with it as the business developed. What has fascinated me was how the simplest products or designs take the most time. You look at the product and website and it’s all very simple, but that’s 2 years worth of really hard work and we’ve got much more to do.
Scott Benish: It was the summer of 2002 and I was doing freelance web design stuff (I had recently shut down an interactive design company I founded in 1997). A friend of mine forwarded me a job posting that Byron had sent to a Seattle mailing list. So we started out working together by doing a little web project.
A couple months later Byron asked if I would be interested in working on a logo for a product he was developing. I was mostly doing interactive design with a bit of identity work here and there, and the chance to be involved with a physical product that was being brought to market was immediately appealing. I knew it was an opportunity to do more than just create a logo, and my first emails about Clip-n-Seal were all about my take on branding.
I suppose the entrepreneur in me was drawn to the idea as well – when my old company shut down I had no plans to get involved with any new companies any time soon, but the chance to be involved in creating a new product was very enticing.
From a business point of view, one thing that appealed to me was how well products can scale compared to a service oriented gig. If I'm selling design services I can only bill so much, because there are only so many hours in the day. You can hire people, but then you end up managing people instead of designing things. With a physical product, there are still massive challenges inherent to the scaling process, but you get possibilities that don't exist when you are selling services. The more you sell, the cheaper things are to manufacture, you have licensing opportunities, etc.
--So you decided to get the Clip-N-Seal made, and distributed yourselves. That's something that most industrial designers have considered at one time or another. Can you talk about what it was like, going all the way from a spark in the head to boxes full of clips?
DLB: Two steps forward and one step back – a lot. After we lost 6 months on a distributor deal that fell apart, we decided to do it ourselves and work it on parallel paths. Meaning, we would get the product out ourselves, market it the way we knew how, and continue to shop it to distributors and retailers. In addition, we learned to stay focused. When you run your own business, everyone tells you how to run it. It is even worse with an invention. Everyone tells you what to do with the invention, how to do it, and how to run it the business. It is easy to get distracted and waste time. It’s not that you don’t appreciate the enthusiasm of your friends and colleagues, you do, but don’t get distracted by what everyone else thinks.
SB: The creation of the brand was relatively straightforward – probably not unlike the branding of any other company, product or service. The thing that a lot of people don't realize is how much time and effort it takes to craft a brand – it's a long, intense, iterative process. You might end up with a really simple logo or design aesthetic – to the point where it seems like it would be really simple to create – but you have to go through a long process to arrive at that point.
--One of the things we don't get too much experience with in school is approaching manufacturers. What was it like to find someone to make your product?
DLB: That was the hardest part. The manufacturing world is not service oriented and I realized why much of our manufacturing base has gone offshore to countries that are hungry for the business. It is very tedious to shop a product to manufacturers, wait for quotes, not hear back, keep looking, worry about NDAs, etc. The problem we had was with quantities. We didn’t want to have a basement full of Clip-n-Seals, but needed to get quantity discounts. We finally found a manufacturer that specializes in small runs.
We decided to keep our manufacturing stateside. Shipping costs cancelled out the savings in labor. Additionally, as a new product, we eliminated the patent pending concerns when you manufacture in Asia.
--What does the Clip-N-Seal brand represent? And, what's it like maintaining a brand with only one, high function, minimum glamour product?
SB: The Clip-n-Seal brand represents our innovation, our thoughtfulness, and our simple design approach.
Your average bag clip is a cheap, throwaway device. Little serious thought is put in to any aspect of it. Or, at the very least, that is our impression of them – so if they are trying to craft a brand, they are failing miserably.
So, do people really need an engaging, dynamic brand to do something as simple as sealing their bags? In an increasingly design conscious culture, we believe the answer is a resounding yes.
We follow the path of many great inventions – take a common everyday task and make it better, easier, more enjoyable and more efficient:
• It is a more aesthetic product, designed for simplicity.
• It is exponentially more effective at the given task, actually sealing bags and keeping things fresh.
• It is practically indestructible and will most likely last for decades (if not centuries).
But beyond just a superior product, our company strives to create a customer experience that is second to none:
• We listen to our customers and engage them in an honest, straightforward way.
• We strive to do things in an environmentally conscious way.
• We make customer satisfaction a priority.
So, one of the things we've tried to do with Clip-n-Seal is position it as a higher end alternative to the other bag clips that don't really work. One of the ways we do that is by paying attention to the little things. It's the same sort of thing that the big design-focused companies are doing. For us it's obviously way simpler, because we only have the one product, but the methods are the same: attention to detail, smart design and respect for customers.
Everything is designed and thought about in the larger context of the brand. That might sound really rigid and "corporate" for a company that prides itself on being approachable and personal, but in practice it just means thinking things through. So, for example, if we want to post to the blog about something happening at the company, we ask ourselves: will people find it interesting, will they not care, will they not understand what we're talking about and be confused?
The minimum glamour aspect of the product is a huge challenge. We try to position ourselves at the top end of the bag closure market, but the product is so simple - so we need to constantly work to communicate how the product and the people behind the product are all different and all better than the alternatives. It's a product that could easily languish if it didn't have a strong brand; I guess in that way, it's a benefit – we can't afford to slack off.
The other challenge is that once people see it and use it, they get it and they love. But it's hard to photograph and hard to demonstrate with images. So a big part of it has just been getting the product in to people's hands and fostering the word of mouth.
DLB: To Scott, “word up.”
--What are your future plans for the brand?
SB: That's actually a tough question – since I'm really the only person who works on the branding and design, I don't really have to document any sort of strategy or vision. I know where we've been, I know what we're about and I know where we want to go, so usually Byron and I just talk through things as they come up and figure out what the best course of action is. This can work when you have 1 or 2 people doing most everything, but in a larger organization it would probably be a disaster. It's certainly not ideal, but things have been so crazy that I've largely been focusing on what needs to be done today (or yesterday) and trusting that we'll deal with the future when it arrives.
Of course, we have plans and broad ideas for the medium term: continue to support our strong internet/blog presence, branch out into more traditional media (do some PR) – but we don't have a strategic roadmap that looks out over the course of years or decades. At least, there's nothing formal or in writing. We do think about that stuff, but for the most part we are forced to focus on the here and now.
Long term, we'd like to do a lot of things – introduce Clip-n-Seal variations (different designs, new materials), add products that support/enhance it and even get in to some other consumer products.
DLB: I agree with Scott. We need to figure out how to get covered in the traditional media. I think if we can get a hip-hop star product endorsement, that’d do it.
--What do you think about the current inventor's market in the United States -- how hard is it to get a brand new product into the mix?
DLB: That is why most inventions fail. The patent system and whether or not to get one for a new product is controversial, but what we learned is that you have to play the game. Investors and distributors are not going to talk to you unless you have a patent pending or a patent. If you search through the USPTO patent database, you will find thousands of ideas that did not make it.
Getting a new product into the mix is very hard to do, which is why we decided to do it ourselves. Our website and blogging reflects what we know how to do. The fact that we do not know traditional media is reflected as well.
SB: It seems tremendously hard to me. When we started I naively assumed that if we had a great product that people loved it would find success relatively easily. It's not enough to have a great idea - you need to brand it, market it and sell it. And you need the time, money and people to do those things. Like most things in life, it's as much about whom you know as what you have.
--What are your future plans for Clip-N-Seal -- expansion, focus on retail, or as a supplier to industry?
SB: Short term, it'd be great to get a distribution deal. One thing we've learned is it's really hard to crack the retail market. I mean, all our customers love the product but retailers want to deal with companies they know – they want to see your warehouses, your TV commercials, your slick POP displays. Retail shelf space is a precious commodity and a big company is unlikely to take a risk on a small product without a strong track record. We've been talking with potential distributors, but we learned long ago not to get excited until the contract is signed.
We'd also like to go after our industrial market a bit more. We've had good success there, just by people finding us via Google, but I think there is a lot of untapped potential there. It's something we didn't expect, are recognizing as an opportunity and need to focus on more. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as seeing the opportunity, you need the time and resources to carry out some action. We're still in a sort of start-up phase, so we need to pick and choose where we focus our energies.
DLB: Many people don’t understand how much it costs to get into retail or that retailers, especially in kitchen gadgets, are inundated with product ideas. For example, big retailers expect stocking fees, where you pay for shelf space. That’s a considerable investment. One of our strategies is to get the product out there, get it noticed by a buyer, and get into retail. I can say that just calling up a retailer or sending them a sample is not effective. Earlier in the interview, I noted how everyone has a great idea for what you can do with your product. “Hey, just call up Target,” is one of the things you’ll hear. It’s not that easy.
A friend found a bag o’matic device in a grocery store the other day and sent it to me. It was a worthless, do-it-yourself, seal-a-meal thing, which I think falls into the kitschy gadget, gag-gift category. I use that as example of what we are not trying to do. We do not want to be a fad item that someone buys and never uses. We also can’t get distracted by why that product is in retail and we’re not.
We believe in our product, that the rod and clamp works better, and hope that’s reflected in our brand and what we sell. Now that may mean it takes us twice as long to get to market as the other gadgets, but I feel better about it. We made something good that people like. If a few thousand people by it, then ok. We’re not going to stop at that, but it does make it worth it.
I’d like to have three markets: online, retail, and industrial. And that’s what I’m working on.
--Finally, if you could go back to your two years ago self, just starting the business, what bits of advice would you give to that person just starting out?
DLB: One of the problems early on was trying too hard. By that, I mean, pushing hard and not getting anything back. That results in stress, sleepless nights, and frustration. We learned to put everything in place, get it all ready, and have a good product, a brand, a story, and publicity. It’s all there for consumers or buyers when they hear about Clip-n-Seal or find our website. One of my life lessons is that when you work hard good things will come to you. The challenge is to balance that work effort. Our biggest success so far has come from unexpected industrial uses. We didn’t even try to place our product in that market. The market came to us and we adapted to that. You’ll seriously beat you head against the wall with retail. That’s not to say it isn’t possible, but a better route maybe to make your own market.
We’re coming up on our second year in business and I get asked that question all the time. I think that’s a book that could be written, there’s no “how to bring a product to market” book or blog I’ve seen. There is a new book from ClifBar that I’ll read during the holidays. That’s a really great story.
SB: I don't think we've made any obvious blunders, so nothing specific. Just that it's waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more work than you think it is. I don't know why that's hard to figure out – it's true about just about everything. Things seem so easy until you actually try them.
It definitely takes intense determination and patience, but if you have that entrepreneurial spirit, a good idea and lots of people to help, I think it's worth it. It's great to get emails from customers that love the product, or read about it on someone's blog. There is something very gratifying about creating something.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team