There's something to be said for love at first sight.
"My type of product doesn't sell over the phone. You have to get in front of a store owner or buyer. My products are so unique and cute, that's what gets them every time," says Diane Baumann, owner of Kidz Entertainment, which offers picture book sets that include CDs, puzzles, coloring books and a plush animal muff-handbag.
Getting in front of potential buyers is the issue. "I need foot soldiers to get my products out there," says the Baldwin entrepreneur, who has been in business for six years.
She is essentially flying solo, going store by store down her list. She uses a few independent sales reps but needs several more to fulfill her dream of being sold nationally and in stores like Toys R Us.
"It's a common challenge -- an entrepreneur has a great idea, but they are the only producer of income and they don't have the capital to take on top [sales] talent," says Rob Fishman, a partner with Sandler Training in Hauppauge, which specializes in sales training and business development.
With revenue of about $100,000, Baumann can't afford an in-house sales team. "I have found women who go to all the trade shows and events, and I make a deal with them to represent me. Little by little my products are getting out there," Baumann says. Her sets, priced at $14.95 to $29.95, are sold in about a dozen stores on Long Island, as well as through her website.
But she quickly learned that using independent reps can be tricky. "One asked for $1,000 upfront and did nothing."
Prospective reps "are great on the interview," Fishman says. "It's the best sales job they do." Then you might get disappointing results.
But Baumann's had good luck, too. A rep connected her with the U.S. military and she is negotiating with buyers for the Navy and Army Air Force Exchange Service to get her products into the exchanges.
Knowing where to look for sales talent is key. "Ask your best customers which reps do the best job for their company. Check with trade associations in your industry," says Charles Cohon, CEO and president of the Manufacturers' Agents National Association in Morton Grove, Illinois, which has a list of more than 2,000 reps in various industries.
Baumann, while frustrated, is not afraid of challenges. She overcame significant inventory losses from superstorm Sandy, and the single mother of two teenagers had her own business doing real estate title work before starting Kidz Entertainment, which she launched after a chance opportunity.
She is a classically trained vocalist and pianist. A filmmaker friend needed a title track for a documentary called "Show Dogs." After Baumann wrote the lyrics, she decided to illustrate them in a picture book and include an interactive CD, sheet music and coloring book. The result was her first product, Show Dog, which was followed by Show Cat, Rescue Hero and others.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Greg Bustin, author of "Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture," offers her this advice: "Be clear about expectations for sales reps, not only in terms of performance, but values. If delivering sales is the only criterion, you may be borrowing trouble. Know how you will measure success, and how much time you will give them to achieve it."
When bringing on independent sales reps, who are typically paid a commission or percentage of sales, proceed with caution.
Ask tough questions. What's their 90-day plan for your company? Who are their most important customers? What is their sales philosophy? How do they manage sales leads?
"Never hire a rep without a face-to-face interview," Cohon says. Don't recruit by email.
Understand the realities. You are one of many clients. The key, explains Paul Schwada, a director at Locomotive Solutions, a Chicago management consulting firm, "is finding a rep channel where you fit into their lives. If you need someone to call on the purchasing manager at restaurant chains and promote a high-tech product, then the reps you partner with should already be calling on those same people with high-tech products."
Company: Kidz Entertainment
Owner: Diane Baumann
Revenue: About $100,000