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Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Housewife Inventor Builds a Homespun Empire

The Wall Street Journal

Fans of HSN, the home shopping network, might recognize Debbie Meyer, the soft-spoken uber-housewife who sells nifty inventions – say, a device that creates holes in cupcakes, while they're baking, for no-mess filling – as if teleported from the 1950s. What many may not realize is that behind the apron is a shrewd entrepreneur who's built a company, Housewares America Inc. of Clearwater, Fla., with more than $100 million in annual revenues. Her patented products, including best-seller Debbie Meyer GreenBags, are now sold in Target, Kohl's, Bed Bath & Beyond and other stores. Meyer, 59, whose breakthrough invention in 1999 was a cake cutter, recently teamed up with Reynolds to sell vacuum-seal bags.

Edited interview excerpts follow.
Q. You're known for solving household problems – does that come naturally?

A. Whenever I was upset growing up, my mother knew to put me in a room that needed the most work! It was very therapeutic to me, to bring order to chaos.

Q. Did you plan this career?

A. No. In the early '50s, knowing how to take care of a home wasn't a business – it was what you did. But I studied business in college and graduate school, and worked in marketing for big companies. Then I met my husband [South African-born entrepreneur Neville Meyer] who lit the fire under me. I came up with my first invention in '96-'97, when my son was young, and I thought, 'this is the perfect time to stay home and do the things I always wanted to do.'

Q. That first invention was the "kake-kut'r" – how did you come up with it?

A. This was born out of a women in search of a piece of cake! When I was little my mother always hated to see people lick their finger as they were cutting cake, and wouldn't let me eat any at parties [because of germs]. I developed this cake cutter – it wasn't very sharp but highly polished – with two handles that you could squeeze together and walk around the room, saying: "Who wants a piece of cake?" To make it, I went to a sheet-metal shop with my design, and asked the guys to cut me a piece of metal. They thought it was crazy, but I said, "just do it." When I showed friends – they said, "Can you make me one? And can you make one for my mother?"

Q. You decided to sell it. Please describe that process.

A. We got some real prototypes made. In every major city, there are people called "sample" or "prototype" makers who do samples rather than full production runs, though it can be expensive. After that, we found a sales rep who let us have a portion of his booth at the International Home & Housewares Show, where people in the trade place orders. That was my jumping off point. Home shopping network QVC came by and said, "We want this on air."

 Q. Were you nervous to sell your product on TV?

A. Maybe I wasn't smart enough to be nervous! You are on a set, so there's no audience. I simply did what I always do. My husband said, "I think you are OK at this." I sold out the complete order in minutes.

Q. You've since created about 40 products, and now appear exclusively on HSN. What's your marketing approach?

A. I launch all my products on HSN, then we decide if we want to go to infomercial. We want to make sure it's a proven, desired product before we do infomercials. Then we roll it out into retail stores.

Q. How do you deal with critics? For instance Consumer Reports recently issued a less-than-positive review of GreenBags.

A. If they are naysayers about the product – well, I do some of the most rigorous testing that anyone can imagine, using independent laboratories. And at least follow the instructions; don't do whatever you want and wonder why it didn't work. Then again, when you are the person creating the product, it's kind of like someone saying, 'well, your kid is not cute.' There's personal angst involved. But you can't be that thin-skinned.

Q. What do you do when an invention isn't a commercial success?

A. We might tweak or re-package, but sometimes you have to face that it's not going to be the next big thing. One time, we reluctantly dropped a cleaning product because a huge competitor also introduced it. I don't think you can be a one-trick pony in an entrepreneurial environment.

Q. Speaking of competitors, what's your advice on patents?

A. Do the research first. People jump ahead of themselves, and want to file a full patent. That's not inexpensive. I can't tell you how many people tell me, "I've invented so-and-so," and I'll say, "I saw that in a catalog five years ago." Hire a good lawyer, who can advise you as to whether to file a provisional or full patent, and how to protect yourself if you show this to somebody before you get a patent.

Q. What are your long-term plans?

A. To keep doing this. I love what I do. This isn't a job for me. As long as I'm enjoying it, and it's keeping my brain firing, that's my long-range plan.