Our 2nd Annual Product Pitch Contest is less than one month away and our community is in full swing voting for their favorite product submissions. We’re excited to soon share the stories of this year’s winners, yet we are still following and supporting those who participated last year. Their story and journey certainly doesn't end at Product Pitch and we know there will be many great updates to come as they navigate through product development and launch.
We also know our community is cheering them on and looking forward to these updates. One of our most popular finalists was a young entrepreneur named Max Ash, who took home the win for community favorite. As a nine year old, he may be one of the youngest entrepreneurs around and has garnered lots of attention for his product MAX’IS Creations “Mug With a Hoop TM.” We recently checked in with Max and his mom, Jennifer to see what life has been like since winning the community vote at last year’s event.
First, a special note from Max:
Hi everyone at The Grommet,
Thank you for inviting me to Fenway Park to pitch my idea for a hot chocolate mug that lets you throw marshmallows into hot chocolate! It’s been a really fun year. What I’ve loved most about the last year is that I’ve made money selling my mugs! It was really fun to go to Mudshark Studios to see them make my mugs. I liked to see them put all of the parts of the mug together and I liked seeing all my mugs lined up. I even got to sign some mugs while I was there! I like getting boxes full of my mugs in the mail. The hardest thing about the last year was seeing them be broken (a few mugs were broken during one of our shipments). I liked delivering my mugs to people and knowing that people paid me for the mugs.
Read on for our Q&A with Jennifer Ash from MAX'IS Creations
What are some highlights from Max and his product since last year's Product Pitch? Anything you'd like to highlight?
This has been an amazing year - support from the community and media outlets has been overwhelming. When we started on this journey, we saw this as a way to support Max’s entrepreneurial spirit. Yet as parents, we also realize this has become a great way to showcase the upside of learning differences. Max has dyslexia, a language-based learning disability, and so do many kids at The Carroll School in Waltham where he attends. Kids like Max are very smart. It's just that their brains process information differently. His invention showcases that people with dyslexia see the world differently and the world is lucky that they do! A portion of the profits from the sale of Max's mugs will go to charities that support research and awareness of dyslexia and other learning differences. Max has already donated over $900 for dyslexia research.
So much more has also happened. Following the event, Max was asked to be a keynote speaker at a youth entrepreneurship event sponsored by YouthCITIES where he received a standing ovation! Max and our family also traveled to Portland, Oregon to see his first edition mugs being made at Mudshark Studios. He has delivered over one hundred mugs to his Indiegogo supporters and has sold many more to new customers. We’re about to place an order for over two thousand mugs from a factory in Thailand. Max has already pre-sold mugs to the Mass General Hospital Gift Shop along with some local toy stores. We’re also hoping to be selling on The Grommet soon.
There have surely been many challenges with bringing this product to market. Anything you would like to mention here, with perhaps some advice for those who are thinking of creating a product?
The hardest aspect of this whole endeavor has definitely been manufacturing. It’s been a lot of hard work trying to find the right large-scale manufacturer and it’s taken a long time. We learned that producing the mugs on a large scale in the U.S. would be far too expensive, just not realistic for selling more than a limited edition. We worked with two factories in China and unfortunately things just didn’t work out. The quality wasn't there. Luckily, my husband was doing some research and found a company called Maryland China that works as a sourcing agent for factories overseas. This is a much better route as it’s monitored and the quality is guaranteed. The first edition mugs are the white porcelain mugs, but these mugs will be orange and black, much more colorful and fun!
My advice for those looking for manufacturing would be to go into the process understanding that the difference between success and failure is not about effort. There are things that will be out of your control so it’s a matter of persevering. It will take longer than you expect and that’s just the way it is.
What are some of the biggest things you've learned about product creation in the last year? Anything that surprised you?
Honestly, it’s been a lot of learning for our entire family and a big investment of time and energy. With Product Pitch we became a start-up overnight. Max continues to come up with new and creative ideas for MAX’IS Creations (stay tuned) and my husband and I spend several hours per week on the business side. We don’t want his life to be entirely about the mugs, we want him to be a kid. He’s the Chief Creator and idea guy and we do much of the rest. We've also learned that there are some amazingly helpful people out there in the entrepreneurial community to support you and pick you up when things are rough. But about 20% of people we spoke with were very discouraging. Some people told us not to bother, don’t spend a minute of time on it. My advice here is to just keep persevering and surround yourself with people who believe in what you are doing. Our experience has been for every door that has closed, two more seem to have opened!
What were some of the benefits you've experienced through having Indiegogo and The Grommet as supports since last year's event?
We received unbelievable support from The Grommet including networking connections, advice on pricing and more. Specifically, our design studio, Sprout Studios was a direct connection through The Grommet. Indiegogo was helpful in teaching us how to crowdfund and they shared their best practices with us. They also featured Max on their blog so that was a great experience.
Any advice you have for this year's contestants that will be pitching their product at Fenway on March 20th?
I’m sure that everyone will have a great product. Yet I’m also sure that each product will appeal to a different audience. The key is to figure out who your audience is and what makes your product special. In our case, it wasn't just Max’s mugs that people loved, it was his story. It’s also important to recognize that having a great idea doesn't automatically translate to a great business. There is a lot more involved. Figure out your own path and stay focused on it. You may get discouraged at times, but stay focused and you’ll be just fine.
What has this process been like for Max as a young entrepreneur? Has his enthusiasm stayed consistent?
This is a great question. Max's enthusiasm has remained high on all things related to selling his mugs and making money. Again, this is Max’s business and creative idea, but it’s important to us that he also remains a kid. He isn't forced to do more work than he should on this and we try not to let it take up too much of our time as a family. Max most enjoys the aspects of figuring out how much money he will make. He also enjoys all things related to mug handling. For example, he loves to help with inspecting the mugs for quality when they arrive. While we take the lead on much of the business development side, Max is always present when big decisions are made or big events happen.
One thing he doesn't always love is having to talk to people about his product. Partly because he’s young, and partly because he has trouble with language processing, he prefers the rest of us to speak on his behalf. We did have him draft a handwritten letter to his fans however and that was priceless because it allowed him to thank everyone in his own way. He understands that he is the best spokesperson for his mugs and we are especially proud of him for persevering in moments that are challenging for him.
Given the amount of time and energy this takes as a family, and given that we want this to be Max's endeavor as much as possible, we regularly talk with Max about whether to continue. At every turn, Max has asked us to keep going. In early January I had a discouraging conversation with a sales rep for toys and gifts. The rep said that while Max's mugs are a cute idea, we should save our money and not go forward. It would be relatively impossible to not lose a lot of money on this endeavor, he said. I shared the conversation openly with Max and his 12 year-old brother Sam (Max's biggest supporter). Sam was very surprised at the lack of encouragement and responded that we should not listen to that person and we should keep trying. I posed the question to Max and he said, "I want to keep going." And so we did!
Thank you to Max and Jennifer for the update!
Our support goes well beyond Product Pitch and we are cheering on our Makers (of all ages!). Who will win this year's competition? That's up to YOU. Be sure to vote for your favorite, the polls are open from now until February 28, 2014.