How We Make Stuff Now: Turn Ideas Into Products That Build Successful Businesses
April 22, 2019
Jules Peiri, Cofounder and CEO of The Grommet, has written a "step-by-step DIY guide that shows today’s entrepreneurs how to create and launch new products, package and market them to consumers, and build a thriving business."
This week's book giveaway is a "step-by-step DIY guide that shows today’s entrepreneurs how to create and launch new products, package and market them to consumers, and build a thriving business." That sounds like a lot to take on for one book, but consider the track record of the book's author, Jules Pieri—cofounder and CEO of The Grommet, a site that has launched more than 3,000 consumer products since 2008—and I think you'll be convinced it's within her grasp.
The great team at Fortier Public Relations is working on the book, so I reached out to them to see what they might have to share with our readers about the book, and they were kind enough to share A Conversation with Jules Pieri, Cofounder/CEO of The Grommet, and author of How We Make Stuff Now.
Why has turning an idea into a product suddenly become democratic and accessible to all instead of something limited only to big-time entrepreneurs with financial backing?
Simply put, the resources and tools to create products became cheap and available. What’s happening in product innovation parallels what happened in software over the last few decades. When you put the tools of creation into people’s hands, they make stuff. This democratization has occurred in every aspect of company building, from 3-D printing prototypes, to doing online user research, to obtaining enterprise level shipping services—even at the earliest, lowest volumes of a startup.
Before all of this happened, an independent startup would have had a hard time getting a product to market, because the necessary skills and resources were the exclusive province of big companies. Today, a founder can focus more heavily on their product and leverage/buy expertise in most other areas of the company.
What frustrated you in your corporate career at big product companies that you tried to solve by co-founding The Grommet?
I was alarmed at the chokehold big retailers had over the flow of new products. I saw it most dramatically at Playskool when our best product ideas would routinely die on the vine. I asked my boss (who has since become famous—Meg Whitman), “What gives?” She replied, “Independent toy stores used to be where we took our best new products to prove them out. They took risks but they are few and far between these days. Now, if Kmart, Target, Toys R Us, or Walmart don’t want it, it can’t get made.”
Because of the powerful community we’ve built at The Grommet, we can now go around the retail buyer roadblock and go straight to potential customers with any given product. Ironically, the market feedback we get then can be used very powerfully to influence those same buyers who work at large retailers. They still matter, but they have become very risk-adverse and really appreciate getting actual market proof and data before they commit to buying from a small enterprise.
What sparked the idea for your book, How We Make Stuff Now?
In the process of launching 3,000 consumer products we saw so many entrepreneurs solving the same problems over and over in isolation. Here is the reality: Makers need to master 16 different competencies. When we meet them, they can usually muscle their way through half, or about eight skill sets. We just don’t know which half, so we are prepared for problems with every Maker on the other eight. My quest in writing this book was to try and eliminate, or at least reduce the remaining gaps in knowledge, i.e., take the eight problem areas down to few or none. Okay, maybe “none” would be miraculous, but we can definitely remove some of the gaps.
What qualities distinguish members of the growing Maker Movement from traditional inventors and why might someone want to become a Maker?
Traditional inventors acquired more of a “science project” aura. Think of your image of one, as portrayed by Hollywood. They are blowing things up in their basement. Today’s Makers tend to have normal jobs that most likely have nothing to do with consumer products. But when they see an opportunity for a product they pursue it with an intention to build a business, not just do serial inventions.
How many Makers that sell on The Grommet are women and what makes The Grommet, the Maker Movement, and this book particularly valuable to women?
About 18% of the Grommet’s Makers are female entrepreneurs. Unlike corporate America, Makers represent all demographics because they create their own enterprises. Since women control 70-80% of our consumer GDP, they have an advantage for seeing market opportunities.
We highlight all our female founders (and other underrepresented entrepreneurs) here: https://www.thegrommet.com/underrepresented-entrepreneurs including:
- CBD for Life: One of the first entrants in this explosive category of Cannabidiol-infused body care and pain relief
- KoffieStraw: Reusable silicone straws that also preserve teeth whitening
- No Place Like Home: State scented candles
- Raw Rutes: Kale razor and herb-stripping tool
Despite the surge in female entrepreneurism over the past decade, why do you think the gender gap in funding remains so vast?
It’s venture capital that is really hampered in “grokking” female founders. I think the core reason is that each partner makes so few investments--in any given year it might be only one or two. To make things even harder, any individual investor at a VC firm has to imagine pushing a deal through an entire partnership. The chances of doing that with a female CEO are much lower so it makes some rational sense to back a man instead. Like anything else in business, male VC investors are primarily dealing with subconscious psychological drivers—their own and those of their partners. Female investors have those drivers too, but they are less likely to result in discriminating against women and more likely to open their minds to opportunities from female founders.
I’ve been long watching the success of women securing funding on crowdfunding platforms where gender seems to be a non-issue. In fact women have a 32% higher likelihood of completing a successful campaign. Similarly, women garner 25% of angel investments. It’s not 50%, but the outcome strikes me as reasonable, given that angels probably see more pitches from men.
Does everyone with a great idea for a new product have the potential to become a successful entrepreneur?
Yes and no. Yes, because if a truly great idea is filling a large market need, that person has a decent head start. But no, because the tenacity and resourcefulness required to get a business off the ground is at Olympic levels. Not everyone wants to blow up their life to pursue a startup.
Which of the stories of makers you profiled will most inspire readers and why?
Bonnie Tyler of The Negg. She defies stereotypes because at age 76 she was already a company founder, running her web design business. On a particularly busy day she rushed home to get ready for a party. She had promised to make deviled eggs. Peeling the egg shells took too long and Bonnie ended up just bringing a bag of potato chips. She set out to figure out how commercial egg peelers process thousands of eggs efficiently. Bonnie then designed a household device that did the same thing for a single egg. When it came time to prototype her “Negg” she signed up for a 3-D printing course at her local library. The instructor came in the room and he was all of 11 years old.
Which maker had the hardest lesson to learn?
Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh of Sugru comes to mind. She invented a brilliant air-dry putty that is remarkable for fixing and customizing the things you already own. But in her artist and investor—as opposed to a customer—mindset, her initial product came in huge bricks. Remember, it dries when exposed to air. And no one needs two pounds of Sugru at one time. We worked with her for almost two years before Sugru was ready for prime time.
What challenge of entrepreneurship do you see your Grommet Makers face that you most relate to personally as a fellow entrepreneur?
Fundraising. Every startup will have some challenge that overshadows all others. That was ours.
For a Maker business, funding sources are highly varied, from new modern platforms to fund inventory, to traditional equipment leasing and collateralized loans, to crowd funding, to traditional SBA loans.
Why do you caution Makers against rushing to sell on Amazon?
Do you have all day? It’s a very long list. But fundamentally, it is Business 101. When you sell on Amazon you make it very hard to get distribution with retailers. No one should have just one customer—they then control everything because they set your pricing and margins and ultimately your entire P&L. Even worse, if you have a new product then no one is searching for it and you will not see much traction on Amazon, but you cut off interest from other distribution for the privilege of being buried on their site.
Additionally, listing on Amazon is like putting a neon arrow to your product for copycatters, counterfeiters, and even for Amazon to knock you off. You expose too much sales and product data on that platform and businesses are ruined there every day. 25% of what is for sale on Amazon comes from a no-name Chinese company ripping off real inventions.
How have you applied your background as an industrial designer to your leadership of The Grommet?
A designer is eternally curious and has to be a good listener. I am fascinated by each person on my team and figuring out what makes them tick. I also can conceive of a complex entity like a company in a similar way to thinking about a product.
One of the savviest ways for an emerging Maker to distinguish their business is through effective design, whether it be of their logo, their package, or their product. The reality is that it will be very costly to source these physical and visual artifacts, but it is relatively inexpensive to have them designed properly. And in the end, cutting corners on this initial thinking is expensive, because it is way too costly to produce 10,000 units of a weak design compared to a strong one.
How can someone decide if their idea for a product has potential?
Simply put, they need to:
- Validate that there is large existing demand for the product
- Prototype the heck out of it to get feedback on their specific ideas for execution
- Figure out the economics—you should be able to produce it for of the retail price or you won’t be profitable
What’s the first step someone can take to turn an idea into a reality?
Talk to practitioners in the field, to potential customers, other entrepreneurs. Share your thinking. A big rookie error is to think your idea is so valuable that “everyone” will want to steal it. People generally don’t rearrange their lives to work on someone else’s idea and the cost of avoiding advice is far higher than the risk of IP theft.
What’s the biggest misconception about innovation?
That it is a magical, mystical journey. While there are indeed breakthrough moments, they really are a product of a rigorous process—like testing prototypes or market research, not magic mushrooms. The key attitude is to embrace Edison’s attitude: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
What are examples of makers who came up with successful product ideas that solved problems in their own everyday activities?
There are dozens of Grommets that were created because the products solved a problem for the Maker themselves, including Benjilock (ease of access to things in your locker), Handle Rite (getting hooks out of a fish without losing grip), Gleener (pilling on knit clothing), Lovebox (missing a girlfriend and wanting a way to send love notes), Mighty Well (carrying medications), The Negg (easily remove egg shells from hard boiled eggs), Nexus Green (wanting an all-natural lubricant for tools), Rekonect (rearranging sketches and notes as an artist), and Screen Mom (cleaning screens on electronic devices), and Surecan (a no-spill gas can that is easier to use).
If you have an idea and a product, how can you make sure it gets to customers?
Honestly, there are no easy answers for this one. It sounds self-serving but we founded The Grommet to solve this problem. Customer acquisition is a sophisticated and expensive game. I hate to be a downer, but “if you build it, they do not come.” You have to either have boatloads of money, a lucky break, or a good strategy for online and bricks and mortar distribution.
What is the Citizen Commerce® movement that you founded and lead and how can this book help people contribute to this mission?
Simply put, every business and organization that gives people direct input into our economy is part of this movement. The crowdfunding platforms, Kiva, Survey Monkey, and Amazon reviews (for market research), Instagram and the way it exposes interesting innovations, and local retailers who take chances on small businesses are all participants. The simplest way to contribute is to allocate 10% of your disposable income to the kind of companies that clearly represent your own values and how you want to see businesses operate. Generally speaking, smaller and newer businesses are more mission and value driven—because they were born in an era where that was a key entrepreneurial driver.
What would you most like readers to learn and take away from How We Make Stuff Now?
It sounds trite, but I hope that people will see themselves in the dozens of case studies about real life Makers. And if they have an ambition to start a product company—or have a family member or friend who does—they will feel like the book is their map and guide. That is the entire lens I used when creating it. I tried to give people our very best insights gleaned from working with 3,000 Makers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JULES PIERI is cofounder and CEO of The Grommet, which has launched more than 3,000 consumer products since its inception in 2008. A leader of entrepreneurs in the Maker Movement, she is committed to building a Citizen Commerce™-powered platform to help people support products from independent companies that align with their interests and values. The company’s Citizen Commerce movement is reshaping how products are discovered, shared, and bought. In 2017, Ace Hardware acquired a majority stake in The Grommet.
Jules spent her childhood days reading every single biography her Detroit elementary school offered, filling her head with gigantic ideas about how each and every person can impact the world. She started her professional life as an industrial designer. She soon realized how the majority of our economy is shaped by consumer product companies, so she followed the action over to consumer brands as an executive at Keds, Hasbro, Stride Rite, and Playskool. Discovering that big box stores often did not want to take risks with new and innovative products inspired Jules to start The Grommet, to give these products the best chance to succeed. Jules is told she is the first industrial designer to get a Harvard MBA, where she is an Entrepreneur in Residence Emeritus. Pieri is an investing partner with XFactor Ventures and is also a member of G20 Ventures.
Pieri was named one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs in 2013 and Goldman Sachs’ 100 Most Interesting Entrepreneurs in 2014. She has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, and many other media outlets. A frequent speaker on consumer trends and technologies, design, and entrepreneurship, she has presented at HBS, SCAD, MIT, and at conferences including SXSW, PwC Women’s Conference, Internet Retailer, and the Conference on World Affairs.
Jules has lived in Paris and Ireland. She now makes her home in Massachusetts, hikes everywhere she travels, and enjoys having her three adult sons off the family payroll.
This giveaway is brought to you by McGraw-Hill Education. We have 20 copies available.