Brushing up on marketing techniques breeds success

Succeeding in small business

December 23, 1991|By Jane Applegate | Jane Applegate,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Anyone who has ever tried to apply flea-killing spray or powder to a frantic dog or cat can understand why Charles Wilkeson invented the Brush-ette.

Like most pets, Wilkeson's 100-pound German shepherd refused to sit still for any kind of flea treatment. Determined to solve the problem, Wilkeson developed a thick-bristled, plastic brush that dispenses insecticides and other medications through tiny holes in the bristles.

Like most entrepreneurs, Wilkeson spent thousands of dollars on prototypes to perfect his invention. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on manufacturing equipment. After his own money ran out, he borrowed more. He obtained a patent and finally built a big inventory of brushes. But just when it was time to launch a full-scale marketing campaign, Wilkeson, who was in poor health, ran out of money and energy.

"We spent so much money buying equipment, we didn't have much left for marketing and advertising," said Wilkeson's daughter, Jill Alfarone, who now runs the firm based in New Port Richey, Fla. "With thousands of animal care products out there, it was very hard to get the word out."

Like many entrepreneurs, Wilke son invested everything he had in his product, leaving little to support a sales effort. But even if you have the best product in the world, you haven't got anything if no one buys it.

"While the idea that everyone who owns a pet would want a Brush-ette was a good one, no small-business owner could afford to shoot at a universe that big," said Andy Fulton, a principal in the Irvine marketing firm of Hanes/Fulton Inc.

Wilkeson saved the Brush-ette from extinction by hooking up with a veteran marketing consultant, Ronald Safier. Introduced to Wilkeson by an investment banker, Safier spent several months getting to know the Wilkesons and their brushes. Safier, whose specialty is rescuing products from the "scrap heap," liked the Brush-ette well enough to invest about $75,000 to license the patent rights and distribute the product worldwide.

After fully researching the pet care market, Safier decided the best approach was to sell Brush-ettes to veterinarians through veterinary product distributors. He knew that if he could encourage vets to use the brushes, they would like them enough to sell them to their clients.

"I got a list of 50,000 vets and 20,000 veterinary practices," Safier said. "We sent out a direct mail piece, which brought in a 4 percent return with orders." (Anything more than a 1 percent or 2 percent return is considered very successful for a direct mail solicitation.)

To promote Brush-ette to pet care professionals, Safier attends trade shows and produced an instructional videotape. He also publishes a newsletter filled with testimonials from enthusiastic vets. So far, about 8,000 veterinary practices and several veterinary schools, including the University of Illinois, use Brush-ettes on their furry patients.

"Now, the veterinary product distributors are beating a path to our door," said Safier, who handles the finances and marketing responsibilities from Brush-ette's Menlo Park, Calif., office. The Wilkesons still own the patent and oversee production of the brushes in Florida.

The brushes, which retail for $9.95, are available in three models. The original version is for dogs and heavy-coated animals. A new model, designed for cats and small animals, has softer bristles. A third, larger version sells for $14.95 and is designed for horses and other big animals. A reservoir in the base of the bright blue, pink or purple brush holds the medication until it is dispensed through holes in the bristles.

Since March 1990, Brush-ette Inc. has sold about 200,000 brushes. Safier said he expects sales to reach $1 million by the end of 1992.

"My father is happy we met Ron," Alfarone said. "He was so afraid all his hard work and sacrifice would be for nothing."

Meanwhile, Fulton, the marketing consultant, said Safier's decision to sell the brushes to vets, rather than to consumers, was smart because the vets became Brush-ette's best salespeople.

"Try to find a middle person to help sell your product," Fulton said. "And it helps if that person is a professional because they have credibility."

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