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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 3, 2010 10 years ago

High Hopes

A Gulf Coast inventor has learned many lessons in a two-decade effort to turn his creations into mass-market triumphs. He hopes 2011 will be a breakout year.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Individual. Dan Molter, Bradenton
Industry. Construction, home repair
Key. Inventor-entrepreneur aims for a big year in 2011

Dan Molter laments that the inventors in his family are always ahead of their time.

In the 1940s, for instance, Molter says his uncle, Robert Shafer, came up with an idea to add a magnet to a can opener to catch a lid. The now-ubiquitous can opener could have made Shafer millions, of course, but Molter says his uncle never pursued a business plan for the invention and died a poor man.

Molter's mother, meanwhile, responded to an invention contest run by a magazine in the 1950s. Gloria Molter's concept: Put BB pellets in nail polish containers, to mix up the fluids and keep the liquids fresh. The idea is widely used today, in spray-paint cans and other household products.

Still, Gloria Molter, like her brother, never pursued the idea for a business. She instead settled for a reward from the magazine, a silver dollar.

Molter inherited his family's inventor gene along with the silver dollar coin from his mother. And now the entrepreneur, who also runs a $1.1 million, 12-employee pest control business in Bradenton, is determined to turn his creations into gold, not what could have beens.

Molter's well on his way, too. He invented three do-it-yourself, patented, water-saving products in the early 1990s. The first invention, Extend-O-Drain, is now sold nationwide in more than 3,700 Lowe's Home Improvement stores and Home Depots.

The two other products are the patented DM Quick Connect and DM Water Saver. Molter's Bradenton-based Extend-O-Drain, Inc. assembles, packages and ships the products, which are manufactured in a separate mold injection plant in east Manatee County run by a friend.

Extend-O-Drain also patented a drain extension kit that provides a way to extend low-level or recessed shower drains — a longtime nuisance for tile and floor contractors. Molter invented the Extend-O-Drain in his garage, frustrated when he couldn't find a solution to the problem in hardware stores.

And it appears other homeowners and contractors finally recognize Molter's frustration because 2010 has been the company's best sales year ever. Indeed, sales of Extend-O-Drain ballooned from $100,000 a year for several years to more than $500,000 in 2010. Extend-O-Drain retails for $7 to $10 apiece.

“We are doing really well, despite the bad economy,” says Molter. “This business is on fire.”

Moreover, Molter expects Quick Connect and Water Saver sales to take off next year based on scuttlebutt he hears at trade shows and reports from sales reps. Like Extend-O-Drain, Molter invented the Quick Connect and Water Saver when he couldn't find a solution to everyday toilet issues in a hardware store.

Says Molter: “I really think these next two products will explode.”

Lessons learned

In preparation to meet his projected demand, Molter hopes to build a 4,500-square-foot facility next year on land he owns in west Bradenton behind Molter Termite & Pest Control. He plans hire 20 to 30 full-time employees to staff the facility, instead of employing people on a contract basis to fill orders like he does now.

Molter is also in talks with producers about filming a TV infomercial to further boost sales. While all three products have been around for decades, Molter wants to ride the current momentum and learn from past mistakes in his quest to hit it big.

“It's a growing process and a learning curve,” says Molter. “And I'm still learning.”

For instance, Molter learned one big lesson four years ago with the Water Saver, which he claims does exactly what it says — saves up to a gallon of water with every toilet flush. The device, the size of an index finger and attached by hand inside the toilet tank, diverts up to 60% of the water that would normally be sent to the toilet bowl into the toilet tank. It doesn't alter the toilet in any other way, Molter says.

In many ways, the Water Saver is Molter's most prized yet maddening invention. He believes the device holds significant potential to save water for homes and businesses, but sales haven't matched its promise.

In fact, Molter's lesson came from his perpetual passion in the Water Saver. The misstep: In 2006 Molter sent promotional letters and several Water Savers to all 50 U.S. governors and every mayor of a Florida city. He also sent the packages to state and local water and environmental officials.

But the research-heavy and costly effort didn't generate one sale.

Molter, undaunted, realized his mistake was a lack of sales focus. So he turned local, and pushed hard to generate sales in Manatee County. That effort was more successful.

The city of Bradenton, for one, bought 8,000 Water Savers in 2007, through a partnership with the Southwest Florida Water Management District. City officials at the time said they hoped to save more than 22 million gallons of water a year with the purchase. And Manatee County, also though a grant, recently purchased several thousand Water Savers.

'A big victory'

The enthusiasm Molter brings to the Water Saver mirrors his devotion to the Extend-O-Drain.

Molter invented the Extend-O-Drain when he discovered there wasn't a solution to his home repair problem: Tile he installed in a bathroom was so thick the drain sunk into the floor.

Molter went to just about every hardware store and plumbing supply place he could find, but found nothing to solve the problem. So Molter invented the product on his own with some nuts, bolts, rubber and plastic. “I was just piddling around the garage,” he says.

Molter showed his invention to some local plumbers and contractors. Several told Molter they would buy the drain extenders if they could.

The encouragement motivated Molter. He worked with a friend who runs a mold injection firm in Manatee County to make more samples. He then hired a few sales people in the tile and flooring industry in Atlanta, to cover territories in Southeast.

A big victory came in 1993, when 100 Home Depots, mostly in north Florida, agreed to stock the Extend-O-Drain. Sales, however, were light enough over the next few years where Molter couldn't justify making Extend-O-Drain anything more than a hobby.

Plus, by 1995, Molter had two more inventions he wanted to bring to market. One contraption, the Quick Connect, stemmed from his desire to find a better way to replace a toilet valve when he couldn't get a plumber out to his house on a holiday.

Molter recalls he spent close to an hour doing the work himself, and after he was done he was left with large puddles and a “black substance” on his hands. The Quick Connect, however, can be cleanly installed in a few minutes with no tools.

The time Molter spent on the Quick Connect led him to create the Water Saver.

Molter already had a few decades of business experience when he invented Extend-O-Drain, mostly from his pest control company, which he founded in 1976. He also had sat on the board of a community bank and invested in real estate.

But much of Molter's work with Extend-O-Drain has been on-the-job education. Writing instructions for Extend-O-Drain packages for Lowe's, for example, was a doozy, recalls Molter. The company needed several revisions, plus a Spanish version. “It took me two days to make it,” says Molter, “and two weeks to write the directions.”

And inventory demands, both for Lowe's and Home Depot, is a constant challenge. Both companies could go months without an order and then hit up Molter for 40,000 units. “You really don't get a lot of warning,” says Molter. “Consequently, you have to keep a lot of inventory.”

Molter learned more lessons from other entrepreneurs who attempted to turn their inventions into mass-market successes. One big one: Avoid China. “I could have all the parts made for 50% less,” says Molter, if he outsourced production overseas. “But I refuse to do that.”

The main reason Molter keeps production local is for quality control, though he also has a patriotic streak. Staying local also allows Molter to remain humble — although the self-described country boy permits himself a few moments to boast when he sees Extend-O-Drain on a shelf in a Lowe's or Home Depot.

“That's pretty phenomenal,” says Molter. “That does make me feel pretty good.”

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