How to Get Your Invention in CVS

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It’s an unusual day when you consider yourself lucky because there’s “only” a 200-foot pine tree lying on your house.

It’s New Orleans in September 2005, and Hurricane Katrina paid you a visit last month.

But on the bright side of things, you’re able to pay an exorbitant price to a crew to have the tree removed. Thank goodness for that because Hurricane Rita slams into your house the next day. But your house is mostly OK and the tree didn’t become a centerpiece on your dining room table.

Even better, you’re in Atlanta when this happens because you fled to live there at your brother's house when Katrina was on the way. You weren’t able to bring many material goods, just some flip flops and shorts. But you were able to bring your 78-year-old father, his 12-year-old yellow lab, your husband and your 6th- and 10th-grade sons.

So, you enroll your father in an Atlanta hospital because he’s in between heart surgeries and there’s no medical care available in New Orleans. Plus, his doctor’s office is underwater anyway (as are your sons’ schools).

Your business as a retail stockbroker for Morgan Stanley (Stock Quote: MS) is tanking because all of your high net worth clients have fled the Big Easy.

Meet Barbara Cranner, a fifth-generation resident of New Orleans, and today the successful owner of Dr. Holmquist Healthcare, a micro firm that makes a product that is sold in CVS drugstores nationwide.

“After the hurricanes hit, nothing was status quo,” she says. “It’s easy to think outside the box when your box is gone.”

Cranner’s extended family members had always joked about packaging and selling a medicinal-type salve made from a family recipe that had been handed down for generations.

“The hurricanes were a catalyst,” says Cranner. “It was clear that someone in the family needed to focus on this business if it was to go anywhere.”

Today she works out of her tree-free home, using a manufacturer and distributor to help her build demand for Bruise Relief, a salve that aims to speed the healing of bumps and bruises.

Her goal from the get-go was to sell the product nationally. Her mother has largely funded the company. Cranner’s efforts to get a Small Business Administration loan were thwarted because her business is not in a so-called blighted zone in New Orleans, she says. Her mother was able to take out a fully collateralized $1,000 CD, which helped the firm establish a business relationship with a local bank.

Cranner says she was a natural for her new task as entrepreneur. “My job and my life had been calling people and it was very natural for me to call CVS (Stock Quote: CVS) corporate or Walgreens (Stock Quote: WAG) corporate. I know how to get to gatekeepers and how to get in side doors and back doors.”

Her tips for getting through gatekeepers:

  1. Write a catchy e-mail. When someone picks up the phone or reads an e-mail from an unknown person, it has got to catch their attention. “You can’t come across too formal or too helpless. There’s a very fine balance.”
  2. Be constructive. People like to help people, but everyone likes a winner. Say something constructive. Your name and company won’t mean a thing to the person on the other end of the phone. Identify yourself, why you’re calling and that you want an appointment. Know their boss’s name – that makes them pay attention to you. The best outcome is to have the gatekeeper give the boss the message and say she’ll get back to you. The worst is “here’s her e-mail address,” advises Cranner.
  3. Really connect. Make a connection that shows "I need your help but I’m worthy of your time." Don’t come across as helpless or arrogant.

She met her goal by getting a five-minute meeting at the CVS home office and was told that the product was too sticky and too expensive.

“But I didn’t leave with what it wasn’t. I left with what it could be and what would work for them. I had some tidbits,” she recalls. “To say we were an afterthought for [CVS] would be overstating it. They tolerated me.”

She continued to persevere and her entrepreneurial spirit paid off. Her product is now also available at Target.com (Stock Quote: TGT), Drugstore.com (Stock Quote: DSCM), Longs Drugs (Stock Quote: LDG) and Albertsons (Stock Quote: ABS).

Cranner shares some lessons learned for other small firms looking to get national distribution:

Know Your Buyer. Cranner’s first business consultant “had us at a totally unrealistic price point at $28.50 for two ounces in a high-end metal pump bottle.” That kind of price point might work in fancy salons but not in a drug store, she learned.

Hire Savvy Lawyers. Get attorneys that know the market. Cranner hired former Food and Drug Administration attorneys to help the business determine how to position the product and the language to use. The FDA determined the product was a cosmetic and not a drug, which makes a huge difference in how the product is regulated.

Find a Skilled Chemists. She hired a chemist after trying to cut corners. She couldn’t find a consistency that CVS liked until the chemist stepped in. After six months of perfecting the formula, she sent it back to CVS without any packaging. A few weeks later she got an e-mail that simply said: “Yes, much better.”

Target the manufacturer. She knew when the New Orleans manufacturer she wanted had lost a large client and so it had excess capacity. “My timing was right and they were able to manufacturer for us on-demand which is unusual. They also didn’t require that we have huge minimums.” She’s also proud that she’s using local people to help the New Orleans economy grow.

Go to Conventions. Cranner asked the CVS “gatekeeper” which trade shows her boss attended, and Cranner set out to go to one. She chose one hosted by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores because it offered a mentor as part of the package. “It cost me $15,000 to get there and for entry fee. It was not a minor thing and I hadn’t budgeted for it, but through that mentor I learned everything I could. My goal at that convention was to find distribution help and it paid off.”

Don't Ignore Marketing and Advertising. Develop a marketing and advertising plan that fits your budget. “Whoever you talk to in marketing is going to tell you what has worked for other people, but I tell you that no one in New Orleans knows what works anymore. You don’t have to and shouldn’t do what is typical in the marketing and public relations world.”

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

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