Determination, dilligence and a mid-life layoff were all he needed to make his invention the biggest-selling snow shovel in the U.S. and Canada.
Howie Rosenshine was a fifty-year old software engineer when his employer of 22 years, Sun Microsystems, was bought out by Oracle. It wasn’t long before the layoffs began. That’s when Rosenshine was forced to face what he called a “change of scenery.”
The layoff, he said, “gave me time to think,” and to spend more time in his basement, where he was working on an invention.
It wasn’t the layoff that drove Rosenshine to the basement. He had been working on his device, a back-saving auxiliary handle for a snow shovel, on and off for ten years, since the early 90s. He even received a patent on it. Marketing it, however, was a another matter. As he shopped it around to snow-shovel manufacturers, a common response was, “We have our own approach to solving the problem.” The manufacturers also didn’t want to put any work into developing a product that wasn’t theirs — a philosophy Rosenshine referred to as NIH — Not Invented Here. And when they were interested, they asked to see product sales and marketability. Rosenshine didn’t have that. He kept on shopping his prototype to one company after another.
Just around that time, something called the World Wide Web was developing.
“Looking back, it was like Rip Van Winkle — waking up and everything’s different because of it. All these things that were impossible before were now doable.”
Online, Rosenshine discovered that it he could quickly find the parts he needed, locate and contact manufacturers, and promote his product, which he had named the Shovelution. He built the next version from more appropriate parts that he found on Alibaba. He was able to work directly with parts suppliers in other countries. This led to a more marketable prototype.
It was after the layoff that Rosenshine’s weekend project took on a new dimension.
“It’s now or never,” he thought.
He built a web site and started selling the Shovelution through it. He had never intended to sell it on his own. “It was a painful process, but there was no other way,” he recalls. Eventually he sold two thousand of them. But, he said, “I could see my limits. I don’t think it’s that easy to open up a factory. You could waste a lot of money.” So he decided to explore licensing.
The companies he approached asked about his sales volume. “I said I had sold about two thousand, and they laughed. ‘No,’ they said, ‘That’s not volume.’” He knew he would need more than just a web site and a few thousand sales. He would need publicity.
Local Boy Makes Good
Rosenshine started calling press outlets, beginning with newspapers in Syracuse and Buffalo, New York, where he grew up.
“I was trying so hard to get some publicity. You’d think if you called Syracuse they’d be interested. I called the Buffalo News — ‘local boy makes good.’ Nope. Not interested.’” They weren’t interested, Rosenshine learned, because the Shovelution wasn’t a product yet.
As he started to write yet another email, this time to Popular Mechanics, Rosenshine thought he’d take a word of advice he had heard recently:
So instead of emailing, he used his phone.
“I asked to speak to [senior editor] Roy Behrendsohn, and he said, ‘Hi. What’you got?’
I sent a picture and the website of the Shovelution, and he said, ‘I like the look of that.’”
In the following January’s edition of Popular Mechanics, Behrendsohn featured the Shovelution in a piece titled “Best New Tool: The Snow Shovel Add-On That’ll Save Your Back.”
“We’ve seen countless home-cooked variations of this snow shovel solution over the years,” he wrote, “but never such a successful product version of it, until now.”
That led to more publicity, including a story in technical.ly, a Philadelphia tech news site.
A product-development guy in the snow industry read the article and called Rosenshine. SnowJoe, an outdoor-tools developer, was interested in the product. Would he like to meet with them to discuss licensing?
It took only two meetings before SnowJoe said, “We’d like to do it.”
“They sent me a offer the following day, said Rosenshine. “It was respectful.” But the product-development guy (who stood to gain a finder’s fee on each royalty) wanted to play hardball; he suggested that Rosenshine make them wait.
Rosenshine had already researched licensing deals. He knew what he could expect in royalties: between 1 and 9 percent. He didn’t see the wisdom in making them wait. “I wrote back immediately: ‘Thanks for the offer. I’ll get back to you shortly.’” He hired a contract attorney and then set up the meeting.
The Licensing Dance
During the ensuing negotiations Rosenshine and his attorney successfully bartered for what Rosenshine wanted: the right to continue selling, from his website, his first-iteration Shovelution (just the handle attachment), as well as to sell to any brick-and-mortar store he wanted. He got a minimum-volume, dollar-amount guarantee to ensure the licensor would not just sit on the product. And SnowJoe got an exclusive right to sell the latest Shovelution, the unique handle-and-shovel combination they re-dubbed “SnowJoe Shovelution.” It is now on sale on Amazon, on QVC, and at Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe’s.
As of this writing the “Snow Joe Shovelution” is the number-one-selling snow shovel in the United States and Canada on Amazon — and not just in the category of “snow shovels” but in the larger category of “Patio, Lawn & Garden.”
Rosenshine is enjoying the change of scenery.
Advice from the Front
Rosenshine’s success was nothing but instant; it took over 20 years to realize it. Although he describes his progress as “slow and steady,” there was “a good decade that it was on the back burner.” Nevertheless, he persisted.
Looking back, Rosenshine offers some advice:
– When a potential licensor sees a product, they’ll likely want to see more sales on your part. A licensor you approach tends to hold all the cards, so they will make demands. “I found it difficult to market it to them if it wasn’t functionally and aesthetically appealing.” This meant replacing some parts, having the Shovelution powder-coated, and presenting a polished, working version.
– No one cares about something until it’s a product. That includes companies and the press. “They don’t care about ideas: ‘Show me the product.’”
Obtain Patent Protection
– Get protected with at least a provisional patent application. This way you can legitimately claim your invention as “patent-pending.” “It’s necessary, says Rosenshine, “Because most places don’t like to talk to you if you don’t have it. They’ll actually advise you to do a provisional. And don’t whip someting off. It’s not worth it. Rosenshine hired a patent practitioner for each of his patent applications.
– Size up potential licensors and “Talk to them all. Look them up; look at their footprint in the industry.”
– Avoid the giant companies. SnowJoe was the right fit — a family-run company that was not too big, not too small. Rather than a bureaucracy, Rosenshine found that “meetings were with people who could make decisions.” Consider this: If a company is too small, they might not be able to sell your product. And if they are able to manufacture it, can they achieve market placement?
– In meetings with potential licensors, says Rosenshine, “Get a feel for who you’re dealing with. They’re all different. Try to learn how they work and what’s important to them. [Company executives[ are people. Listen carefully and understand who you’re talking about. This gives you a stronger hand at the negotiating table.”
– Except for design firms, “No one signs a nondisclosure agreement. It’s a legal hassle. They think, ‘I could be already working on something like that.” A company won’t sign away its creative rights before it knows what the product is.
– “A contract is a fluid thing; it goes back and forth,” he said. “Crossing out stuff is what a contract lawyer does; that’s the norm.” And by all means, don’t wait to present what you want right from the beginning. Be first to propose a contract of your liking. Then let the potential licensor respond.
– Success is not guaranteed, and the odds are stacked against entrepreneurs. “There is line between perseverance and foolhardiness,” Rosenshine jokes, but he chose perseverance, working on developing his innovation for twenty years before it met its current success.