Rejecting naysayers can be the toughest part of turning an invention into commercial success. One determined entrepreneur pulled it off.
The idea that no one created a simple, practical and inexpensive way to repair eyeglasses astounded Nancy Tedeschi.
That fact, which Tedeschi discovered by accident while she ran a real estate title company in central New York state in 2007, was also a life-altering epiphany. Tedeschi has since invented her own repair kit. It includes her patented and trademarked SnapIt screw.
The stainless steel SnapIt kit and screw is built with an extension that snaps off and is less than an inch. It includes a pinky-sized screwdriver. But the best feature, says Tedeschi, what she says separates it from competing products, is that each screw can easily be twisted by hand. It works from the top or bottom of the glasses, she adds, and it comes in five different sizes.
“My invention is so simple,” says Tedeschi. “I can't believe out of all the billions of people who have ever lived, no one thought to do this.”
The invention, moreover, has taken Tedeschi, a Miami native who worked in sports TV production before real estate, on a topsy-turvy inventor-entrepreneur ride. Tedeschi invested $300,000 — her entire life savings — into the venture.
The upshot of that investment is Tedeschi, through her firm, Clearwater-based Eyeego, has sold 5 million SnapIt screws and 400,000 full repair kits since 2010. The company had about $1 million in 2011 sales, and Tedeschi expects to at least double that figure in 2012. The business, with two employees plus Tedeschi, became profitable last spring.
While proud of her accomplishments, Tedeschi is still somewhat surprised at her own success. “If you would have told me five years ago that I was going to invent a screw, I would have said you're screwed up,” says Tedeschi. “Most people would have given up, but I love a challenge.”
Eyeego has a distribution deal with OptiSource International, a New York-based optical supply firm, and customers worldwide. The kits can be bought in thousands of stores, including Rite-Aid, Walgreens and Office Depot.
SnapIt has also snapped up several major awards in the past two years. It won the People's Choice Award at the National Invention Contest sponsored by the Inventor's Club of Kansas City in 2010, and an Award of Excellence from the Optical Laboratories Association.
Another key victory: SnapIt recently won third place in Walmart's Get on the Shelf contest, an online competition for inventors, gadget-makers and marketing mavens. The prize was a spot on Walmart's website and meetings with retail executives at the company's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters, to possibly get SnapIt in the stores, too.
Despite the recent success, Tedeschi's path wasn't nearly as simple as her eyeglass repair kits. It includes hundreds of rejections and several mistakes that cost her thousands of dollars.
But with that phase behind her, Tedeschi says her main goal, in addition to business growth, is to pay the entrepreneurial success forward. She has given free lectures at business schools and community colleges, including the University of Tampa, on inventing and entrepreneurialism. She has also spoken to inventor's clubs in Atlanta and New York City.
“That's my passion now,” says Tedeschi. “I'd like to be the Suze Orman of inventors.”
Tedeschi first came up with the idea for SnapIt in 2007. Her mom's eyeglasses had broken, and she helped fix the pair. She realized the products on the market that claim to do it simply were really complicated, especially, and ironically, for people who can't see well.
“My mom always taught me to never say no,” says Tedeschi. “She was always looking to fix things that were frustrating.”
Tedeschi ultimately fixed her mom's glasses, using a device she created on her own. Then she shelved the contraption, rather than figure out how to bring it to market. “I didn't really do anything with it,” she says.
Tedeschi gave the invention another shot in 2009, when she paid a company to make some prototypes. She followed that with an ad in an optical industry trade magazine. An optician in New York responded to the ad and told Tedeschi he'd searched for this kind of product for 35 years. That led to a meeting with OptiSource International, and a three-year distribution deal, which paved the way for places like Walgreens and Office Depot.
Along the way, though, Tedeschi made some missteps. She paid a firm $10,000 up front that promised to get SnapIt into retail stores, fast. The company failed to deliver.
She also learned valuable lessons about entrepreneurial control, when quality suffered after she outsourced projects, like an infomercial. She also got rejected hundreds of times, in letters and cold calls to retailers, both mom-and-pops and chains. Says Tedeschi: “Everything in this business was trial and error.”
The patent and trademark process was also grueling. It took three years and lots of meetings with attorneys. It cost more than $100,000. “It was a nightmare,” Tedeschi says.
'The easy part'
That nightmare has mostly given way to dreams. Tedeschi lives about eight months of the year in Sand Key, south of Clearwater. She spends Florida summers at a home near Seattle, where she also rents space in a warehouse for SnapIt products.
Tedeschi had an entrepreneurial bent growing up, though not a passion for inventing. Her first career, TV production, included a stint working at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. She later worked for NFL Films.
Tedeschi also sold cars, Hondas, and after that she got into real estate investing and the title business. At one point her title company in New York had 30 employees and $300 million in loans. Her timing was off on the investing side, however, and she lost at least $1 million when the market crashed.
She sold her title business in 2010 to focus on SnapIt. The biggest issues Tedeschi now has with SnapIt are ones most other entrepreneurs face: getting in front of customers. “The invention was the easy part,” says Tedeschi. “My biggest challenge is marketing, and letting people know what this is. Once people use it, they love it.”
Past marketing, Tedeschi says her short-term goals are to find a fastener company to partner with and do more sales overseas. Her exit strategy is to sell the company in a few years.
For each of those goals, Tedeschi plans to tap into the resiliency and perseverance she's already used for SnapIt. “I've been told no a gazillion times,” Tedeschi says. “But no is not in my vocabulary. When I get no, I'm thinking, 'who do I have to take this to for someone to say yes.'”
Nancy Tedeschi has learned a lifetime of business lessons in five years of trying to turn her invention, SnapIt, into a retail success. Here are some of her most valuable lessons:
• Be persistent: Don't quit because someone else says so. “The dream is your dream,” Tedeschi says, “and only you can make it happen.”
• Be independent: “Don't give your product to someone else to do a job that you can do yourself,” says Tedeschi. “Nobody will do a better job than you will.”
• Be vigilant: Never pay anyone upfront for a job. “Any money you pay someone,” Tedeschi says, “should be tied to performance.”
• Be patient: Tedeschi says it could take years to bring a product to market. “It is not a get-rich-overnight venture,” she says.