Think Big Innovations
by Don Debelak


One hot summer day in 1998, Stephanie Heroff of Minneapolis decided she just had to wear a top with spaghetti straps. Sound simple enough - but of course there was that little problem that women everywhere can relate to: those pesky bra straps peeking out, and no decent alternative but those one-size-fits-all contraptions that come in cardboard boxes.

Determined to wear those spaghetti straps, Heroff decided to put her ingenuity to work and create a better solution. Her idea? To sew bra straps to the spaghetti straps so they couldn't separate, and then have small hooks in the top to hold a removable bra. Heroff was on to something: She had a tailor make about 30 prototypes for her friends to try and they all raved, commenting on how someone at last understood the problem of summer clothes. "I started taking little surveys wherever I went, asking women if they ever wore tops with spaghetti straps," recalls Heroff. 30. "When the answer was no the reason was always the same; Women didn't like their bra straps showing and the shelf bra wasn't supportive enough."

Sound like the perfect product for a success story? Not quite. Heroff had some pretty significant problems from the get-go.

- No one had ever made a product like Heroff's, and the manufacturers weren't exactly sure how it could be done. - Stores would have to stock a selection of tops in different sizes and colors, and a selection of bras. They weren't sure how top order her product. - Heroff quickly spent her funds creating prototypes, because she was producing them at retail. Plus, she ended up needing more than 50 additional prototypes before finishing the product's design. - Finally, while fashion designers were fully aware of the technical details of the clothing industry, Heroff was in the dark.

In a nutshell, Heroff product had the potential of turning into a big sinkhole that would quickly drain every penny she had.


The good news was, Heroff realized she needed help. So she started talking to apparel sales representatives, local clothing manufactures, and virtually anyone she could find who might be able to help. After dozens of inquiries, she was given the lead of a potential manufacturing partner, Private Label Industries of Los Angeles, which saw the potential of Heroff's concept.

The company agreed to produce prototypes and help with finalizing the product's design in return for part ownership in the company and an agreement that it would manufacture the product once it was ready for market. Heroff also had some brief discussions with the company about playing a bigger partnership role by picking up production costs until orders were prayed for. "I decided not to ask the company to do more", she adds, "as I felt they had already had done so much to help me".

But Heroff wasn't quite ready yet. It took a lot of work to make her product, and it was going to be downright expensive. Heroff expected her tops to retail for $48-$60 and her bras to sell for $24 - meaning she would need to sell to high-end woman apparel shops. Lacking the expertise to create the kind of look these shops were seeking, Heroff hooked up with designer Robin Monteith, who proved in valuable.


Heroff's next step was to decide how to pay for and sell her product. Her first shot at scoring funding was a bust - on investor wanted her to sell the product herself, but she didn't like the idea of being the company's lone salesperson. She then located an investor through networking contacts who felt she should sell through manufactures sales representatives. More comfortable with that idea, Heroff found her reps by first determining what companies had somewhat competitive products and finding out on the internet which stores sold their products. "I called the stores and asked if they could recommend any reps to sell my product", say Heroff. "the stores almost always gave me someone's name."

Heroff still had one major obstacle. She wanted to offer her tops in a variety of colors and fabrics, but she only had initial orders form 30 stores, and the fabric manufacturers had large minimum requirements for orders. Unwilling to commit to those big order quantities Heroff went back to Private Label Industries (which, after all, did own a stake in her company) and asked the owner what to do. He suggested that Heroff go with "cutting to order", or keeping the inventory to a minimum. The material costs more, but she didn't have to commit all her funds to inventory. It was fortunate that she Heroff did order more material than she needed to handle to reorders - because she started getting them within a month of her initial shipments.


Like most inventors, Heroff has had plenty of day-to-day problems. "One of my biggest challenges is coordinating the production of the bra strap supplier, the bra manufacturer and Private Label Industries." she says. "Producing a quality product has also been a challenge. Workers have never made a product like mine before, and the manufacturer had to appoint a trainer to show each worker exactly how to make it."

Heroff started stocking retailers in July, and within 30 days, she had 30 retailers on board. She has an enthusiastic set of representatives selling her product, and she expects to have a very strong start in her first year. She's also considering licensing the product. But Heroff still remembers the hard times. "Every hour I spent on my new top was an hour I wasn't spending promoting my graphic arts business," says Heroff. "I couldn't help but wonder if I made the right choice."

Heroff's success is the result of hard work, persistence and most of all, recruiting the partners she needed to get the job done. The partners helped Heroff because they liked her, they liked her product, and they liked having the chance to cash in on a great idea. And it could happen for any inventor -- help is there for the taking. Inventors often struggle because they try to do everything on their own. Remember: Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto.