Invent a Product—Not Just Its Mold
When Wayne Sikorcin, owner of Craftsman Tool & Mold Co. (Aurora, IL)—a moldmaker turned mold base builder—got frustrated tying water balloons at a family picnic several years ago, he decided to turn that frustration into innovation by using his moldmaking background, experience and connections to develop, design, prototype and mold a device that would tie a knot on a water balloon. After a long journey, Wayne and his wife Laura can lay claim to the invention of the Tie-Not, which is now available in specialty stores across the nation. The couple collaborated with a number of colleagues—and made new connections—to take this product from concept to completion.
The Sikorcins worked closely with trusted colleague Scott Smith to help them realize their dream of inventing a product. Smith, Managing Partner of SalesPro, Inc.—a full-service sales consulting firm—had been helping them with sales at Craftsman.
All three agree that anyone can invent something as long as they are willing to step out of their comfort zone. “A big part of this story is that moldmakers create many amazing things every day,” Smith states. “But I think sometimes they forget that what they do every day for other people is something they could do for themselves if they had an idea. They have most of the technology and just need to add a few other skill sets and then they could bring a product to market.”
Wayne expands on Smith’s sentiments. “Everyone in this industry problem solves all the time,” he says. “If you think about problems outside of our trade you will find one. Solve it and market it. That’s what I did.”
The Product Development Lifecycle
The Birth of an Invention: Wayne remembers the day he started thinking about his invention. “Back in 2007, we were at my grandmother’s house, and we had to bring the water balloons,” he says. “My wife Laura asked me to take the kids out to tie them in the front yard. I tied 10 or 15 of them because the kids couldn’t do it. Then I was done. So, perhaps out of pure laziness, I decided to try and invent an easier way to tie them.” He then started to conceptualize what the product might look like by playing around with ideas on paper.
Designing a Prototype: “I started to think of a big sewing needle, which is really just tying knots with a tool,” Wayne explains, “but I couldn’t come up with how I could do that with three hands. So I just drew a sketch of what would be needed. My daughter Abby, who was nine at the time, said, ‘Dad, that looks like a TinkerToy.’ So I got a TinkerToy and with a knife carved a little receiving orifice in it and we blew up a water balloon and tied it, and it was like, ‘Voila!’ It worked!”
The next step, according to Laura, was figuring out the method. “We knew it worked, but couldn’t figure out an easy method to tie that didn’t require fumbling with your hands,” she comments. “We then went to our friend Ken Petersen’s house to play around with it. He has a plastics business (Petersen Brothers Plastics, Chicago; petersenplastics.com) that specializes in acrylic displays and sheet products. He spun the tool and that was ‘it.’ Ken and Wayne used PDF drawings to present it to an attorney. They then incorporated that into the design with Wayne’s rough sketch and hand-carved prototype.
Wayne then called a friend, and one of the owners, at Pelco Tool & Mold (Glendale Heights, IL; pelcotool.com)—Roger Wittersheim—and started the 3-D modeling process and creating a “real” prototype.
Obtaining a Patent: Wayne began the arduous process of researching patent attorneys, asking colleagues and friends for recommendations until he was led to attorney Jon Christensen of Husch Blackwell Sanders LLP Welsh and Katz. “A business attorney led me to Jon,” Wayne notes. “I met with him and showed him my TinkerToy prototype, and he said, ‘Wow, you could sell a lot of these!’ I didn’t want to produce a mold until I had a secure patent simply because anybody could make that mold in three weeks if they needed to.”
The patent process took approximately 18 months. “The patent office rejected the first patent because officials believed it was too similar to a tool that was being used to tie stents in surgery,” Wayne notes. “Jon and I thought that it was unfair to compare tying water balloons to tying stents, so we applied again, and got approved. We have three apparatus patents and one method patent.”
Finding a Moldmaker/Molder: Within a week of the patent approval Wayne and Laura went forward with the mold design. “We used one of the best moldmakers out there, Pelco Tool—and because of its close proximity to Craftsman,” Wayne notes. “We worked with Roger, along with Dick Truhlar and Rob Suva.
“I once again showed my original wooden prototype and we sketched some ideas on paper,” Wayne continues. “Pelco went ahead and produced an aluminum prototype because aluminum is very easy to cut and work with. Many prototypes are first cut in aluminum for speed of cutting.”
After they redefined the tool a bit in regards to the basic geometry of specific surfaces, they worked to get the taper on the tool and also the correct chamfer on the orifice tri so the tool did not tear the balloons.
Wayne used Tri-Par Die and Mold Corp. (Geneva, IL; tri-par.com) for the molding of the tool since they also are a customer of Craftsman for mold bases, and he had worked with them in the past. “We looked at four types of plastic and colors,” Wayne says. “We did trial runs with water balloons to see what worked. We chose the recycled ABS glass because it worked really well with the balloons and had the added bonus of being recycled material—a large selling point in today’s market.”
Wayne was not happy with the taper and thought the balloon should come off easier and he wanted to add the patent number on the tool. He brought it back to Pelco to have these minor changes done and then went back to Tri-Par for more samples. “This is where the close proximity of our shop to Pelco and Tri-Par was helpful,” Laura comments.
A Package Deal: Wayne used outside sources for the design and packaging work—Assemblers, Inc. (Chicago; assemblers.com). “John Drexler does the packaging, warehousing and shipping for us,” Wayne comments. “We started out with a design we liked, but were not crazy about. We had a tough time getting the message of the tool’s purpose on the packaging. However, we had the Toy Fair 2010 in NYC looming so we needed to finalize a packaging design quickly.
“We finally agreed on a design for the packaging and started making the blister packaging plates at Craftsman,” Wayne
continues. “The blister is the clear plastic bubble that holds the materials onto the cardboard graphic panel you see when you buy something.”
Wayne was able to call upon his own professional experience to develop the blister plates that the assembler would use to package the product. “It is a round table with six stations that is used to heat seal the product,” Wayne explains. “Craftsman made six aluminum plates with three stations in each plate. There is .010 per side clearance to locate the blister and the cardboard backing card. The assembler currently had only been using one or two stations and thought it wasn’t possible to do three. He was so happy to see the improved version!”
Marketing Madness: With the couples’ deadline of the 2010 Toy Fair in New York around the corner (February 14-17, 2010), Wayne and Laura realized that there was so much more that went into bringing an idea from development to fruition than simply building a mold. “We had to find seven million balloons to package with the product, and a filler (the adapter that attaches to the faucet with a smaller end to assist in water balloon filling),” Laura notes.
The group decided the best show combination would be Scott and Wayne. “We could conserve expenses and it seemed to be the right combination,” Laura comments. “They met early on the first day of the show and went right to work setting up the booth. Everything worked out perfectly and seeing the water balloons filled right on-site was amazing. From the very first day fellow exhibitors were showing their interest in our new-fangled simple product; some even compared it to inventing the toothpick—so simple but everyone needs one.”
Tie-Not’s largest sale at the show was from the neighboring booth. “A woman bought many cases to send home to California for her husband’s promotional business,” Wayne comments. “We had the buzz we were looking for. Over the next four days we saw vendors, reps and other toy companies. Person after person stopped by our booth. Toys ‘r Us, Party City has our package. QVC is interested. We have kept in contact with all of these people and have set up meetings for this month and June, when 2011 product lines are typically ordered.”
Sikorcin reports that he is currently working on a product called the Tie-Not 500 with QVC in mind. “I keep Gary Pignata from QVC updated on our status every two weeks,” he says. “We also are in negotiations with Party City at the moment.” And, the Tie-Not could be in some major grocery chains in 2011.
The Next Step
Currently Wayne and Laura are working toward taking their invention to the next level. “When we returned back to Earth from an amazing show we just sat down and talked about what we were going to do and when we wanted things to happen by,” Laura says. “Our first thought was to have Scott start a rep network for our product for novelty toy and gift stores. We now have more than 20 reps selling the product.
“Anyone can invent something as long as they are willing to step out of their comfort zone,” she continues. “You do have to stick your neck out. We are in debt with the bank. There are startup company costs, costs of incorporating the company, patent lawyers costs, mold costs, molding costs, components of the balloon and the filler costs, shipping, safety testing/approval costs, etc.”
Wayne is happy to report that they are on their second generation of tools. “We went from a four- to eight-cavity tool and added the patent number, product name and simpler directions to the tool—all suggestions we received from the Toy Fair,” he says.
Laura concludes that this journey has been rewarding. “Moldmakers and molders need to think outside the box,” she says. “There’s a spot for them at shows like this, where inventors are looking for help. Go to these shows in addition to your own trade shows. Think of who your customers are and position yourselves accordingly—whether it be a toy show or a medical device show. You need to reinvent your-self during these changing times. Business will not come to you.”