Entrepreneurial inspiration comes from many places. For Scott Bonge, Goatee Saver inventor and new Walmart shelf-space occupier, it happened because of an annoying shaving accident.
In the early 1990s, Bonge, then an upperclassman at Ouachita Baptist University, nicked one side of the goatee he had grown, forcing him to shave it all off and start again. For years, he looked for a product that would protect his goatee from human error.
“I couldn’t find anything, so I said, ‘Heck, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to invent one,’” he said. “Never done anything like it. Don’t know what to do. Don’t know where to start. I don’t even know who to talk to. I don’t even know what kind of person I’m supposed to talk to.”
In about 2008, the Little Rock resident finally started taking steps to make his idea become a reality. Using Play-Doh and popsicle sticks, he began fashioning a guide that would prevent shavers from cutting into their goatees. That led to temporary molds and then, with help from a product designer, a working prototype. Bonge loaned one of his two prototypes to staff members working for Jay Leno, who featured it in a segment on “The Tonight Show.”
The template features a faceplate with three rollers to adjust the width, with the product steadied using a mouthpiece held between the shaver’s teeth.
To produce the tooling for the first model, Bonge, who at the time was a pharmaceutical salesman, invested about $25,000 with a Chinese manufacturer. He said American manufacturers wanted $100,000 and cost three times as much as the Chinese to produce each individual Goatee Saver.
His first year, he sold 500. Last year, he sold about 20,000 and had about $250,000 in sales – 90% on Amazon.com and 30% coming from overseas buyers.
The company has three employees: Bonge, his wife, Christy, and a full-time employee in China. Many shipments come to Little Rock, where Bonge personally re-routes them from a UPS dock to Amazon.
But Bonge is hoping for bigger things. He has venture capitalist backing and was given good news while participating in an “open call” with Walmart officials during the company’s 2015 U.S. Manufacturing Summit spotlighting its commitment to American-made products.
When Bonge arrived for his presentation, he was met by the retailer’s director of grooming and personal care, a senior financial planner, and media types, including from Walmart and the Wall Street Journal. The company had a stack of 350 reviews from Amazon, where 53% of reviewers rate it with five stars and another 18% give it four stars. The grooming director said he had given up growing his own goatee because of the problems the Goatee Saver solves and now would buy one and use it himself.
The result of that meeting was an agreement to start selling the Goatee Saver on Walmart.com and to test market it at select Walmart stores, which was great for Bonge. Too big of a release would have exposed the father of three to too much risk.
“He had already made up his mind before we got to the meeting,” Bonge said. “I thought it was going to be a tough sell. I probably wasn’t expecting as much as I got coming out there, but it felt more like a team meeting than it felt like a sales (pitch).”
Bonge was open with the Walmart officials about the fact that the product is not made in America. In response, they told him it would qualify for the company’s U.S.-made initiative if it’s assembled domestically. He’s shopping for assemblers and would love to use a facility in Arkansas.
The Goatee Saver is ugly. It looks kind of like the headgear Hannibal Lecter wore in the movie “Silence of the Lambs,” or maybe the bottom of Darth Vader’s faceplate. People make fun of it. And that’s OK with Bonge.
“We know that,” he said. “We agree with it. We laugh about it. We know it also brings a lot of PR to us, and it kind of intrigues people’s interest. So I don’t care if they come laughing to the website. I’m just glad they’re there to kind of expose them to what the product is.”
Bonge has used his experiences with the Goatee Saver to help other entrepreneurs try to get their products to market. Among his pieces of advice: Keep the product simple; don’t spend too much money on patents; get the product to the market sooner rather than later and then upgrade if necessary; and don’t quit your day job too soon.
“You’re going to need money more than you’re going to need time because you could do it at night, on the weekend, and trust me, it can be done, but if you’re out of money too soon, it’s not going to happen,” he said.
Also, he tells them to believe in their offering. He says to “get a general consensus of people that would buy the product,” but be prepared for naysayers, and don’t ask him if some curling iron would sell.
“You’ve got to believe in that, believe in yourself, and believe in what you’re doing because there’s a lot of rough roads in there, a lot of days you wonder what the heck you’re doing – probably more days of that than others,” he said.