The saga of the Roller Squeegee and Roller Keeper illustrates the challenges a small company can face in transforming even the most seemingly mundane products from concepts to market ready.
The Squeegee and the Keeper began as ideas in 2005 by one of two founding partners of Obvious Solutions Inc. They're in production now, but high-volume distribution remains a work in progress.
The company and the inventor-partner, Blake Mowe, are based in Marietta, Georgia, but there's a strong Long Island connection to the effort: Company co-founder and president Chris Ferencsik lives and works in West Islip, the Keeper is made in Edgewood by a subcontractor, Aztec Tool, and the Squeegee is made in China by a company based in West Babylon, Linzer Products.
The Keeper, a can to store a paint-soaked roller, will keep it moist for as long as several months for reuse, the company says. It has an airtight lid and grips to grasp the roller so it can be pulled off the sleeve. Suggested retail: $8.99.
The Squeegee, listing for $7.99, is a metal ring with a handle. It squeezes most of the paint off a roller.
THE CHALLENGE OF PATENTS
Obvious Solutions was incorporated in 2005. Getting all the patents necessary was one challenge -- a process that ended only this year. That's not surprising, said Erica Chase-Gregory, acting director of the New York State Small Business Development Center at Farmingdale State College. "The process is long and expensive," she said -- usually from $6,000 to $10,000 depending on the complexity of the product.
The original designs needed refinements for production. For example, "On our first design for the Keeper, the grip wasn't working properly," Ferencsik said.
Manufacturing also posed challenges. Factories in Georgia and Tennessee had technical problems in 2008 and 2009, respectively, with their mold boxes, into which the plastic is poured to form the product.
Such issues also are common in bringing a new product to market, said Ronni Rosen, senior business adviser and program coordinator of the Small Business Development Center at Stony Brook University. "It involves finding a factory that can make the product according to your specifications," she said. It can be costly, she said, because the developers usually have to pay up front to get one or more prototypes made.
Aztec started making the Keeper in 2009 and now is producing 8,000 to 10,000 a year. Last week, it began production of a major order, for about 1,400 pieces, for a British distributor.
Those Keepers are exactly the same as those produced for the United States because 9-inch rollers are the most common in both countries. But the Squeegee's ring will have to be made larger for Britain because rollers there are larger in diameter. The plant in China is preparing samples to be sent to the distributor in the U.K. for approval, Ferencsik said.
SIZES FOR VARIOUS MARKETS
But that doesn't end the difficulties posed by rollers of various sizes.
Ferencsik said some U.S. union contracts require 7-inch rollers, so that a shorter "Keeper" would have to be made for that market in order for the grips to work properly.
In Canada, the most common length is 91/2 inches and Obvious has licensed manufacture of a longer Keeper there. Ferencsik said he also has gotten inquiries about the Keeper from Australia, where most rollers are 11 inches long.
"Eventually, we're going to have to come up with various sizes," he said. "But I can't do it right now." The major reason: The mold boxes are very expensive -- about $40,000 for the ones they're using now and from $55,000 to about $90,000 for ones that produce two Keepers at once.
At the moment, Obvious Solutions is doing most of its own distribution, with some products being shipped from West Islip and some Keepers from the factory in Edgewood.
The products are sold in some small chains such as the 22-store Costello's Ace Hardware and 23-store Aboff's Paints and Decorating, Ferencsik said. But Obvious Solutions doesn't yet have the production capacity needed for major chains such as Sears, Home Depot or Lowe's. And distributors typically want large quantities.
Said Chase-Gregory of Farmingdale State, "It's hard as a small startup to make those leaps; capacity is a big issue."
AT A GLANCE
NAME. Obvious Solutions Inc.
PRESIDENT. Chris Ferencsik of West Islip
SALES. $100,000 to $150,000 a year.