By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
Chris Schutte always wanted to be an inventor. But he didn’t start pursuing his dream until 2007, when two things happened.
The first was a layoff from his corporate job in the home entertainment industry. Then he happened to walk into a Home Depot near his residence in the Atlanta, Georgia area and saw something that jolted him. Hanging on the wall was a product almost identical to an idea he had six or seven years earlier, but never did anything about.
“It was the turning point for me,” he says. “I didn’t want to have that happen again.”
That year, at age 47, he founded Innovative Everyday Products, whose mission statement reads: “to provide the best products and service to our customers at the lowest prices possible.” Schutte’s flagship product is a hotdog bun steamer that fits into a pot and provides a platform to steam the buns while the hotdogs cook below in boiling water. The result, he says, is “stadium-style hotdogs” like the ones served at professional sporting events.
After customers began requesting a larger, more versatile unit, Schutte created “The Steamie,” which can handle anything from tortillas to fish. It earned him the Electronic Retailing Association’s 2010 Moxie Award for “Inventor of the Year.”
“With all of the social media networks out there, no business can afford to have a dissatisfied customer tweeting negatively about its company or product.”
— Chris Schutte, Innovative Everyday Products
Schutte points out that, while any startup is hard work, bringing an invention to market is especially difficult and time consuming because of the steps involved. “First you have an idea, then a prototype, then a patent, and then you try to sell it,” he says. “It may take years before you recoup your original investment.”
At the beginning, he raised over $30,000 in seed money by selling interest in his hotdog steamer concept to friends and family. He also contacted SCORE, a nonprofit that offers volunteer mentors and other free support for fledgling small businesses. Schutte describes SCORE as “a tremendous asset” that helped him with every facet of his business, from writing a business plan to securing a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loan.
What also helped is Schutte’s persistence. “I’m not the type of person who gives up easily,” he says.
While at a trade show, he met a couple of agents from QVC and set his sights on getting his products on the renowned TV shopping channel. It took months of emails, phone calls and networking – but in 2009, he landed his first appearance, which he describes as “one of the most exciting events of my life.” Since then, he’s appeared on the TV channel multiple times and has become a certified QVC guest host.
Initially, Schutte’s business plan called for a joint marketing partnership with a hotdog company. After receiving rejections from all the major manufacturers, he regrouped and began exploring other potential business partners.
Pleased with the quality of legal services he had received from LegalZoom.com, Schutte contacted its public relations agency to share his story. Eventually, that relationship led to Schutte starring with Robert Shapiro in one of LegalZoom’s national TV commercials, resulting in the equivalent of $15 million in free advertising.
Now that his company has reached the five-year mark, the 51-year-old Schutte sees signs that his products are taking hold. After a total investment of $200,000, he has $170,000 in sales and inventory, putting him near the break-even point. He’s received three design patents and two trademarks. And he’s working with a grocery store distributor on a three-month pilot program in 11,000 grocery stores along the West Coast.
Still, it’s been a roller coaster journey for Schutte. When he needs inspiration, he thinks about his favorite inventor: Harry J. Hoenselaar, who couldn’t sell his spiral cut ham machine after years of trying. In 1957, Hoenselaar found a different way to bring quality, spiral-cut ham to the public by opening the first location of The HoneyBaked Ham Company (which has over 400 stores today).
Schutte says he isn’t afraid to try different ways, either. Or to do whatever it takes to make his customers happy.
“I have one goal when it comes to customer service and that is to provide a world-class shopping experience,” he says. “With all of the social media networks out there, no business can afford to have a dissatisfied customer tweeting negatively about its company or product.”
When he travels to industry meetings, Schutte often meets older aspiring inventors who don’t understand the business side of entrepreneurship. “A huge number of people are daydreamers,” he says. “You start asking them questions like ‘what’s it going to cost,’ and their eyes glaze over.”
Meanwhile, Schutte has his own dream. If it comes true, it could erase the disappointment he felt in the hardware store on that fateful day in 2007.
“The biggest thrill,” he says, “will be when I walk into a grocery store and see one of my products hanging there.”