Launching Your Product Successfully With Tracy Leigh Hazzard – Part 1 From The Invention Stories Podcast With Robert Bear
The owner of 37 patents, Tracy Leigh Hazzard, along with her husband, Tom, have brought over 267 products to the market with a combined sales of over $2 billion. While the typical convention success rate is commonly quoted by experts at between 1% and 4%, Tracy’s success rate is 86%. Tracy joins Robert Bear on The Invention Stories Podcast to share how you can launch a product successfully. From product development, product-market fit, and getting licensed to working with your spouse, discover golden nuggets from Tracy and be on your way to a perfect product launch.
Listen to the podcast here
Thank you for joining us. This is our interview with Tracy Leigh Hazzard Part 1. She is the owner of 37 patents. Along with her husband Tom, they have brought over 267 products to the market with combined sales of over $2 billion. While the typical invention success rate is commonly quoted by experts as between 1% and 4%, Tracy’s success rate is 86%. She is an Inc. columnist, podcast host, speaker, brand strategist and product launch expert in every sense of the word. I am a fan who subscribes to her Product Launch Hazzards podcast.
When someone tells me they are new to inventing and ask my advice, I tell them that in addition to subscribing and listening to every Invention Stories podcast episode, that they subscribe and listen to the Product Launch Hazzards podcast as well. I recommend before they spend a single penny to listen to her Top Ten Product Launch Hazards and The Seven 7-P Process to Launching Your Product episodes. This is our 75th episode. I am truly honored to have Tracy Hazzard from Irvine, California. Let’s get started.
Welcome to the show, Tracy. It’s a pleasure having you with us. I have shared with our readers that you do an amazing number of things, and you do them all well. I’d like to start off by asking you about time management. How have you mastered it? How do you know what to do when?
That’s such a good question because it is the key to being a successful entrepreneur. A successful inventor at the end of the day is deciding where to put your focus. Where you put that focus is the only thing that’s going to get accomplished. One of the things that I do is I’m a big list maker. I keep my list because I want to take some of the stuff out of my head because I don’t want it to be crowded. I have a list that I’m going to call the idea list. We all have them. They distract us. They become our shiny objects or our squirrels depending on who you talk to. I like to keep that list. I have a journal and I write that in there all the time so that my ideas come out of my head and onto the list.
They’re still in my head because that’s how the way my brain works. Everything I ever thought of is still in there, but I don’t have to actively be thinking on it. It’s now down. I’m going to get to it. I’m going to look it over. About once a week, I review that list and move something up and say, “That idea is good. I’ve sat on it all week. We could do something with that. Let me move it into active.” That’s what I do. I have a list of today’s to-dos and tomorrow’s projects. We balance it from there. What we do often is get distracted by all of the noise in our head. For me, everything needs validating, need some research done to it and some of those things before it should move into, “Let me take action on this.”
It doesn’t mean I won’t take a small action step, but I’m not going to drop everything and move over and do this great new idea. If I do that, I derail what I’m working on. I derail my business. That’s the primary thing that I do. The second thing that I do is I have partner. I have my husband as my partner. I have somebody to bounce ideas off of and validate them. Am I thinking of something that could be useful? That’s a good place to go.
I don’t suggest you do it with your mom and your family, your brothers and sisters because they love you. They don’t know whether or not you should do something. They’ll either tell you yes because they love you. Everything you do is golden or they’ll tell you no because everything you do, they’re worried about. They tell no even when they shouldn’t. I prefer to have somebody you can bounce ideas off who’s in the know in the industry and knows what you’re capable of. Whether that’s a mentor or a coach or your partner that you know isn’t going to say those things to you or isn’t going to say, “Tracy, that’s wonderful.” You want them to be critical.
I’m with you on that. You want people to be honest even if the truth hurts. I’d like to tell you that I’m a Southern California native and that’s why I have a laid back speaking tone.
I’m a New Yorker, can’t you tell?
I wouldn’t have guessed that you were a New Yorker, but I was thinking that maybe you weren’t native to California. You’re in Irvine. Is that right?
I am in Irvine. I’ve lived in California most of my life but somehow deep down inside, I’m a new Yorker at heart. I’m from Connecticut.
You seem like you have an anti-chilled out personality. If you were a car, you’d be traveling in fifth gear going about 75 miles an hour, not frantically fast but efficient. I’d like to start off by asking you a little bit about your background. What were you like as a child? Were you creative or imaginative? What kind of kid were you?Where you put your focus is the only thing that's going to get accomplished. #TheInventionStoriesPodcast #RobertBear #podcastinterview Click To Tweet
I was a bookworm. Most people don’t believe that because I’m verbal. I talk fast and think fast. I was a reader and a researcher. I absorbed a lot of information. Most people don’t know this, but I grew up in South Africa for a couple of years at the height of apartheid. My father was on a project there and we had no television. There weren’t a lot of kids in our neighborhood who were our age because we were on the job site. I had nothing but my dad’s books. He was an English Lit major originally, then he became an engineer. He had Shakespeare and he had all kinds of books like that. What I did was I read all of them.
I can’t guarantee I understood them because I was 8, 9 years old, but I did read them. That reading process has become a significant part of what I do every single day whether I’m writing an article or designing something or advising clients. I take a deep research approach to things, a deep reading approach. Technology has made it a little bit easier to be faster at things. It’s not just reading now. It’s videos, podcasts, and all kinds of media consumption, but it has helped me be informed. That’s what shaped me at that early age as a child.
That’s smart. A lot of us are always looking for shortcuts. Sometimes we miss the picture because we’re trying to do things too quickly. Having a deep research approaches is the best way. I’d like to ask you did you think about inventing? Did you know any inventors growing up? Were your family members inventors?
No. I never even thought about being an inventor until I met my husband. He has a history of family who were big patent holders in the oil industry on one side of his family. On the other side, they were more of what you would call character and advertising inventors, creatives. His great-grandfather invented Elsie The Cow and Elmer The Bull, which you see on Elmer’s Glue. Elsie used to be all over our milk products. He was an advertising executive for Bordon. Tom brought that into my life, this idea that having a patent is a cool thing. I was like, “Whatever.” I was artistic and creative. My mom is a fine artist. I had a lot of that in my back pocket, but I never thought of that as something I want to do. It wasn’t until he came into my life and we started designing and working together that there became a priority like, “That’s something we should do. We should patent this.”
I’d ask you about that, but I saw you did a podcast episode on working with your spouse. It looks like it works for you, but I’m not sure everybody should be working with their spouses.
I know. They watch us like, “That is the craziest thing. I could never work with my spouse.” We finally had to do a podcast episode on it.
You attended Rhode Island School of Design from 1988 to 1992. Somehow you made it from South Africa to Rhode Island.
I’m from California so it’s back to California after South Africa. That’s why I say I’ve lived in California most of my life. I did. RISD was quite a departure. I thought I was going to go to journalism school because of the writing and the reading. I had a teacher that encouraged me to go to art school. They said, “You’re great at this writing. You’re great at analysis and research, but you don’t have the graphic skills. Go get trained in that because then you could write magazines. The opportunities will come for you because you’ll be more well-rounded.” I was like, “I never thought of it.” I applied to art school.
When I think of people who grew up and they read a lot, they tend to be a little bit more introverted and withdrawn, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with you. You seemed to be quite the extrovert. Would that be accurate?
I’m the opposite. I know it is an unusual characteristic. It came out of necessity where I had no neighborhood. I had nobody there to interact with. Books became my playmates. I am a complete extrovert, an enthusiastic extrovert on top of it all, which makes me a good host. It happens to be that it’s a strong skillset underneath it of being a thinker, a reader, and all of those things.
I agree with you that being an extrovert who enjoys deep research are good traits of a lot of things including a podcast host. From 1992 to 1995, you worked as a contract fabrics and woven automated designer at Milliken & Company where you accomplished seven successful market introductions, then you went back to school at Wharton.
I didn’t go back to school. They paid for it. It’s almost like what you call executive education. That’s where I got my first taste of product development as a process, and thinking about it as a system rather than it’s something that gets done along the way. It’s all about the idea or the design. There’s a whole ecosystem around product development that involves marketing, costing and all of these things. That’s what they exposed me to. I thought there’s something exciting here that we can make better products if we know this stuff ahead of time.
Where they’d been over in Milliken, whether I was designing contract fabrics for offices or designing automotive fabrics, those fabrics weren’t coming out for ten years. How did I even know what the economy was going to be like? Who wants to buy what? All of those things were always going through my head. It seemed counterproductive to be designing for that. It started to get me thinking on how we can speed up the design process or the development process of these products. We don’t have to go ten years before they’re ready. We could do them two years before they might be ready. Being able to think in a process-oriented way instead of a product-oriented way, it opened up my mind and the possibilities of what I could do.
Thinking in a process-oriented way instead of a product-oriented way sounds good especially the way that you’ve described it. How did your employers reacted when you made these suggestions? I know that every employer is different, but I can’t imagine too many are open-minded to such a radical change.
First off, Milliken is an amazing company. A lot of the inventions in chemicals, textiles and materials that we have now, we have them to thank for it. They’re a huge organization. I didn’t quite have my position. I was also straight out of college. I was 21 years old when I went to work for them. At that time, I was 23 by the time I did Wharton. They weren’t going to listen to me there. However, I happened to work in a small isolated division of their company up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They had relocated me up there. I was working with companies like Herman Miller, Steelcase, and famous furniture manufacturers like that. While I was there, they were innovative. They were forward-thinking. They had not enough knowledge and not enough in-house designers. They were receptive to it. I eventually switched and worked for Herman Miller. I ran an entire division on color materials and finishes there. They didn’t care how it got done. I had a lot of leeway at a young age to build a process.
I was wondering how you wound up at Herman Miller. It looks like you were there from 1995 to 1997. Why did you leave? Especially if you’re running your own division and all, I would think it would be the dream job of designer. Herman Miller is cool.Passion and emotion are a critical part to being great inventors. #TheInventionStoriesPodcast #RobertBear #podcastinterview Click To Tweet
It’s one of the best companies. They’ve been on the list for over fifteen years or something like that of the best companies to work for. People always ask why did I leave? I left because there wasn’t growth opportunity for what I wanted to do. There was great opportunity there, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Tom at that time had been wanting to strike out on his own, be an entrepreneur, and do all those things. I’d never heard the word entrepreneur before at that point. I was like, “Business owner, you want us to own a business?” It was one of those things where the opportunity to run a business, even though it was ours, that had been where I wanted to go. That was never going to happen at Herman Miller.
I thought, “This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do. If you want to invent this thing, at that time it was a stylus pen for handheld computers, we’re going to run a company on it. I’m going to run the company,” because he didn’t have that mind. He had a design engineering type of mind. He didn’t have the personality to go get investors. I said, “I’ll do that.” We can try out this partnership together and see if it works. That was our first foray working together.
I can see that. I admire anyone who has a good job at a company they respect but still has the courage to make the change. Do you and your husband, Tom, have that yin and yang thing working?
Absolutely. The best part about what we do is we have a shorthand between us. We’ve been working together for many years now. There’s a high level of trust between us that accelerates the process. When I do have an idea, he’s not jumping in like, “Do I trust this idea.” No, there’s already trust built in. It’s, “Let’s evaluate the idea at its core. Let’s think about this and let’s see what perspective I can add to it,” because his perspective is valuable. How could I make it more cost-effective? How can I make this run through a factory if that’s what we need to do? He thinks on those levels of things. The how-to gets put in place. I always joke that my job is to go out there and get frustrated with something in the marketplace. I identify the opportunity and then go, “Here, Tom, I’m challenging you because this is unacceptable. Go fix this.” He then comes up with something. We call that process intentional invention because I’m saying, “Here’s the opportunity, go find a solution or go make one.” He does it every single time. That’s how brilliant his brain is.
You get to go out in the world and see what gets stuck in your craw. Your husband, Tom, finds a solution. That’s the yin and yang I was looking for. That’ll work. What happens when you differ on an idea, concept, strategy or problem? Do you have a system or process to solve it?
Do we fight? Everyone wants to know that. Yes, we do. We have very heated discussions over things because I’m passionate about things. We have such high level of trust and respect for each other. If I say, “This isn’t ready yet, this isn’t good enough yet,” or if he says, “I don’t know how we’re going to make this idea work. I don’t think we can make this in any reasonable cost” or something like that. We believe each other, but we don’t give up. That’s the one thing that we don’t do.
We respect each other enough to say, “I see your viewpoint and I get that. Let me go back to the drawing board or let me go back to my research and see if I can think about this in a different way. Because I trust you so much, if you’re saying this, then the market or the manufacturer is going to say that too. Let me go back and think this through and refine it.” That’s one of the ways that our ideas don’t get tabled. Sometimes they do, don’t get me wrong. We both will go, “We can’t solve this problem now. Let’s table this. We’ll come back to it.” For the most part, that’s how we refine an idea, get it faster, and accelerate it through to something that is workable.
I wasn’t asking if you two ever fight.
It seems like one of the challenges is always to keep the emotion out of decision-making and I can imagine that’s hard to do. We know that inventors have passion. I’m guessing that you can have a feeling that something is the right thing to do or good decision to make. I wanted to clarify, how do you keep decision-making more logical and less emotional?
Don’t get me wrong. Passion and emotion are a critical part to being great in business and being great inventors. They don’t give up. That’s why we hear how Sara Blakely invented Spanx. She goes around and meets with 80 banks and investors and none of them say yes. Yet she doesn’t give up. That resilience is an extremely important part at being able to move forward and go. We don’t treat that as stubbornness. Resilience is not the same thing as stubbornness. Resilience is being able to say, “I get your viewpoint and now I’m going to prove you wrong. Here’s how I’m going to show it to you. I hear what you’re saying, but I now need to take that as input and criticism. I’m going to show you because I didn’t clearly articulate it right before because I still believe in this.”
When we treat it with that, then there isn’t the emotion of, “I’m right, you’re wrong.” There’s an emotion of, “I hear you and I’m going to show you why I think this is right. Not because I want to show you, but because I want to show you that there’s possibility here.” When we remove the emotion of being husband and wife from that, we’re in the emotion of being passionate about our business, our clients, or our products, and that we both respect. At the end of the day, it ends with respect. The argument doesn’t continue, but there’s always a point at which it does get like that because I’m loud and passionate. That’s okay because we never treated it as a personal affront.
That’s good because some people have to be right. Those people are hard to work with.
We believe in input. We believe in criticism. That’s one of the things we learned on school of design because we both went there and that’s how we met. It taught us that you have a critique every single week in every single class. You have five critiques a week. People being critical about what you’ve put your heart and soul in, what you stayed up all night to create. It desensitizes you to the process of taking that criticism. You now start to it as input. You’re now going to translate that into greater success. You don’t treat it as, “They hate me.” It’s not about that. They’re improving me is the way you turn it and look at it. That’s one of the things I’m most grateful about my education.
Let me ask you about what you’re doing now. I’ve been on some of your websites. I’m not sure how many you have. They’re full of useful information for inventors. I know you have the TracyLeighHazzard.com website.
I don’t know where else to send people who want to know about me so you can go there. It’s not a really a website, but Hazz Design is the one you’re probably referring to. It is my bigger site that most people go to.
I was on your ProductLaunchHazzards.com website.
That’s our podcast for product people, Amazon sellers, and inventors. We got a request from many people that I can’t do business with because I only take a few clients every year. They said, “You have such deep knowledge or you have such great connections. Can you introduce us to some?” That’s how that podcast was born. It was out of a request from the community to serve them. It’s a completely free service. Everything on the website is free. It’s articles, interviews and videos and podcasts that talk about those failure points or the hazards of product launching.
We use it as a pun. It helps you with all these things because I’ve done so many things wrong, because my clients have done so many things wrong that we know the right way to do it, the right order of things to do, the things that help us accelerate through the product launching process. We’re in such a fast world. If you don’t get your product to market, you missed your timing. That is more essential than getting it right, to be honest with you. Believe me, I’m a perfectionist. I want it right. Getting it to market as fast as possible and as correct as possible, in the right order and the right things. That’s what we talk about all the time on Product Launch Hazzards.
I’ve been wanting to ask since this interview began and I don’t know what the actual number is, but the success rate for inventors or anyone bringing a product to the market is extremely low. I’ve read anywhere from 2% to 4%, and even less make their initial investment back. Yet you have 37 patents bringing 267 products to the market that have generated over $2 billion in retail sales. Your success rate is 86%.
I want to clarify for your audience that I didn’t make the $2 billion, my clients did. I made my percentage on the $2 billion because that’s how design royalties work for those of us who are in that product design world. Being successful in this world is simply a process thing. Remember when we talked about Wharton and we talked about the process part of it, in the end, we develop this process that allows us to quickly reject our product ideas and find out if there is a product market fit. When I started to write in this industry as an Inc. columnist, I started to do some research. I studied and understood that it’s the product market fit, not the capitalization, not your team that falls apart. Is my product right for the market? Do I have the right market for the product I want to sell?
Sometimes you already have a created market. You’re selling into Costco or something like that. That might be your market that’s already created, but is my product going to fit that market? When that fit is wrong, 56% of failures are caused by product market fit not being right. If we can get that dialed in and get that right at the beginning, we have a higher likelihood for success. We rejected 100 products, 100 ideas before we decide to patent it, before we move forward into it. That’s why our success rate goes up because we already abandon it before we spend a lot of money, before we go all in. Finding that product market fit and the ways to do that is the essential difference because we do it at the beginning. We don’t prototype. We don’t do all of these things that inventors spend a lot of time, money and energy on over years at a time. To get to that point, we spend probably weeks. Our ideal timeframe is 3 to 5 months. If we can get product market fit answer in 3 to 5 months, then it’s worth doing and worth going into. My goal is also to spend under $20,000 to do that. That’s with a complicated product.
Before you give the thumbs up and move forward, do you understand everything that needs to happen from A to Z and have a plan for each step of the way? I seem to meet a lot of inventors have created a product and then they asked me who they can license it to. I’m thinking, “You should have already had the answer to this question before you started.” I am by no means an expert. I’ve never licensed a product, but if I were interested in licensing one, I would contact potential licensees and ask them what they’re looking for. When I started to hear a couple of answers that sounded similar, I’d try to invent that. I don’t have a fraction of the experience that you have. To me, that’s common sense.
There are ways still to get licensed. It starts with knowing exactly what they want. I had one client who accidentally tripped into something that’s highly licensable. We’re in accelerated talks now with the company to license this and sell it. In many years of doing this, it happens less and less than it used to. It’s because everyone thinks, “I can do this. I don’t need to license this. I can do it myself. We can invent it. We can do our own products. We know better what our clients want. We know better what our shoppers care about. We’ll have our own brand.” We’re in our own brand worlds. That’s why licensing has dropped tremendously. The real issue that I see most often with these inventors who come in with this idea is that they do not have an idea of how this works or how the world works.
The advice that they’re getting from the invention community is driven by a lot of lawyers. The lawyers want to write a contract. They say that this is possible when it’s not. That’s where I come to and say, “You shouldn’t be filing full patents until you have a market.” How do you know if you’re going to sell worldwide? Why should you file an international PCT before you’ve even sold a piece if you don’t know that Europe even wants what you have to sell? Why should you do that? Why should you waste your dollars and spend your money there? File a provisional. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big provisional fan, but you shouldn’t be going all-in on patenting until you have a market sense. Is this going to work? Is this of interest? Do I have the right product market fit?
It’s the same thing with contracts. Do I have something that’s licensable? It comes with that end discussion? Did you design it to be that way? Did you invent it for that purpose? Did you already have in your head what companies should buy this? It shouldn’t be like, “Proctor & Gamble should buy this because I’m amazing and my product ideas are great.” Proctor & Gamble will never take your call. That’s never going to happen. That’s not how it works. If you’ve worked for Proctor & Gamble before, and you go outside and you’ve got an idea, they will hear you. Those that leave companies are the ones that are successful at getting licensing happening because the company understands that they have core knowledge of how they work already. They automatically assume the inventors don’t know their consumers.
If you don’t know my consumer, why would I even let you in the door to talk to me? We call that not invented here syndrome because not invented here is a big thing. Those engineers, if they’ve got in-house staff, they don’t want to hear your idea either because they don’t want to look bad. There’s a lot of it that doesn’t work for most people. It’s unfortunate, but it is because they do not have a place at which they can gather knowledge about how it works. It works differently than it did many years ago when I first started.
I want to thank Tracy for being our guest. For more information, please visit HazzDesign.com, ProductLaunchHazzards.com or TracyLeighHazzard.com. Thank you for reading and sharing the show. It is our hope that by sharing the journey, the inventor goes on, since having the idea not only helps inspire others who have an idea for an invention, but gives them some advice on what to do and what to avoid. I recommend that you proceed with caution because there are some terrible people and companies out there that are constantly ripping off the inventor. We invite you to check out the InventionStories.com website and tell us who you are using the guest book or click on the link to share your story. Thank you for reading and please tell a friend.
Watch the episode here: