When Dian Valentine of Rockford lost her job as a special-education teacher, she decided to start looking through some of her past ideas. The one that seemed most promising was The Smart Hook, a decorative aluminum latch that can be used to fasten purses or backpacks to shopping carts, wheelchairs, fences, chairs or to hang them from countertops or bathroom stalls.
Over the years, Dian Valentine compiled a list of ideas she placed in a manila envelope labeled “inventions.”
When the 58-year-old Rockford resident lost her job as a special-education teacher 18 months ago, she decided to start looking through the ideas again to see which one could be the key to a new future.
The one that seemed most promising was The Smart Hook, a decorative aluminum latch that can be used to fasten purses or backpacks to shopping carts, wheelchairs, fences, chairs or to hang them from countertops or bathroom stalls.
She got the idea at an upscale restaurant when she noticed an expensive purse on the bathroom floor. Later she saw the same purse sitting on a table where everyone was eating. Valentine thought there had to be a better, more sanitary way to keep belongings secure without having to keep them in front of you at all times.
Of course, getting an idea from your head to a store shelf can be a long journey. Her second step — the idea was the first — was to attend a Rock Valley College Small Business Development Center patent workshop at EIGERlab and attending monthly meetings of EIGERlab’s Venture Club, where people with invention ideas mingle and learn how to commercialize them.
“That’s where the inventors are. A couple of the men involved have more than 20 patents each,” Valentine said. “They told me how to file for a patent on my own, who to call at the patent office to help with the research, where to try to sell it first.”
Through the EIGERlab classes, Valentine met Gil Krahn, who created the technical drawings she needed to create a prototype, which was made at the EIGERlab in June. Then she started visiting area manufacturers to see who could make her product, which she wanted in many different colors and designs so they would be an accessory.
The last step has been figuring out how and where to sell them, because in today’s tight credit markets banks have been unwilling to lend without solid sale orders to show off.
“I’m finding money is the biggest hurdle,” Valentine said. “I can’t get a loan until I have a large order. (But) how do you get an order without a product?”
She financed the first 1,000 Smart Hooks with credit cards and savings. Although several retail stores were interested in selling The Smart Hook, Valentine said the markup would have made the price too high — she is selling them at $14.99 to $19.99. She is stuck in the Catch-22: She needs high-volume runs of the product to bring the costs down so she can get it into more stores, but she needs to generate sales now to get loans so she can do high-volume runs.
Still, this last week was an exciting one. She is now selling The Smart Hook at the Country Cottage at 122 S. Prairie St. in Rockton — the owner is a friend of hers — and online at thesmarthook.com.
As sales grow, she said she’ll introduce more designs. And then she’ll move on to the next idea.
“This was just to get started. I’ve learned so much about the process from patents to manufacturing that I can’t wait to use what I’ve learned on my next invention,” Valentine said.
Alex Gary can be reached at (815) 987-1339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
It takes a village ...
To create a new product. Here are several local businesses that played a role in The Smart Hook.
Aggressive Technologies of Loves Park is manufacturing the angle design.
A-American Machine of Rockford makes the star shaped design.
The springs come from Rockford Spring.
Chem Processing Inc. of Rockford changes the aluminum to bright colors.
Chicago Anodizing allows for even more color choices.
Illinois Growth Enterprises of Loves Park will do the packaging when sales grow.
Jumping Trout Inc. of Loves Park created the Web site.
A call center in Freeport answers the 800 number.