The Internet is fundamentally changing how innovative products are brought to market. It's giving them a lifeline, really, be it through crowdfunding, new launch platforms like The Grommet, and the power of social media. Marketing, as it turns out, is more important than ever. Squatty Potty, the stool invented to help people poop better by adopting a squatting position that was popularized by Shark Tank in 2014, exemplifies the unique power of some of these new trends. I reached out to Judy Edwards, cofounder of Squatty Potty alongside her husband Bill and son Robert, for an interview. (Full disclosure: I met Judy last fall after inviting her to speak at Make48.)
Judy and her family had never brought a product to market before, but she's always had the mindset of an entrepreneur. Since she and Bill got married when she was just 17 years old, she told me, they've been self-employed. In addition to working with her husband, she regularly sought out additional ways to provide for her family on her own, like selling Tupperware and auctioning goods on Yahoo.
"You have to be a little bit crazy to do this. We were never afraid to jump in, but there's been a real learning curve," she explained. "If you want to bring a product to market, you need to be prepared to make a lot of mistakes. You can't beat yourself up about your decisions."
When I expressed surprise, noting that, from an outsider's perspective, her company has been remarkably successful, she clarified. "Oh yes. We threw a lot of money away. Getting our website to work perfectly, deciding who to approach for help with marketing, even determining where to market... you can always throw away more money on advertising. The best place to spend it, you never know."
And this is coming from an entrepreneur whose recent advertising campaign gives new meaning to going viral! Perhaps you've seen it? Unicorns that expel rainbow-colored 'ice cream' aren't easily forgotten. According to Judy, Squatty Potty's viral video "This Unicorn Changed the Way I Poop" has been viewed more than 100 million times since it debuted on Facebook last October. The video continues to be viewed 200,000 times a day, about half of which the company pays for now. The result? Nearly a 600 percent leap in online sales and a 400 percent increase at Bed Bath & Beyond.
"One of our biggest challenges was the fact that it's a stool that provides better pooping. It's a product everyone needs, but no wants to talk about. That was a stumbling block," Judy said. When they tried to run an ad on television, there weren't any takers. Talking bears are still used to sell toilet paper, she pointed out. "These subjects are okay to talk about! They're an important part of our lives. We're giving people permission."
The Edwards, with the help of the Harmon Brothers, who they hired to create the video, transformed Squatty Potty's weakness into a source of strength. (Talk about dialing in on a niche. You won't be surprised to learn the Harmon Brothers are behind another scatological marketing hit, the video "Girls Don't Poop" for the Poo-Pourri brand.)
"A pooping unicorn? It was very scary to say the least. It's easy to see the wisdom in it now. But we had reservations," Judy said. They ultimately chose to follow their gut, she said, which hadn't failed them yet. And needless to say, their faith paid off in a big way.
"We've had some really great breaks," Judy acknowledged. A Shark Tank producer reached out to them after buying and using a Squatty Potty, which lead to their eventual appearance on the show and a partnership with Lori Greiner. The same goes for The Dr. Oz. Show, which featured the product early on. "The fact that it's anatomically correct, and also novel and new... the combination just worked."
Judy remains humble. "We're blessed. I don't know how else to say it. We're not stupid, but I wouldn't say we're particularly skilled either. The three of us, we've each had great ideas. Every time we've made a decision that sounded good to all three of us, it's worked well."
That rings very true to me. Finding a good partner, a partner you can trust, is essential. Judy knows this all too well. As is true of every successful product ever, Squatty Potty copycats have since emerged on the market. The CEO of one of their two main competitors is a woman the Edwards hired to help them create a commercial, but ultimately parted ways with. When the Edwards got out of their contract, Judy said, the non-compete clause that had been signed became null and void as well. "Never in a million years did we think.... Be really careful. That was a big lesson."
She isn't bitter, though. "If you have a good product you're going to be copied. You have to face that. It all boils down to a marketing then. You have to be the best marketer." I wholeheartedly agree. Speed to market and good customer service protects products better than intellectual property. These days, the same can be said of effective video marketing campaigns.
Judy's number-one advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to thoroughly test your market. If you ask 100 people to use your product and they like it, you might have a winner on your hands. And that's more or less exactly what the Edwards did.
"Ask your customers, not your best friends. We got a lot of negative feedback from people who didn't understand the product. But once people tried it, they loved it. That's how we knew." To grow the business, they capitalized on the influence of health bloggers by asking them to review the product.
This year, the company is on track to do between 30 and 40 million dollars in sales.
Want to learn more about how Squatty Potty is making the most of online marketing? The Edwards will be at The Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for Make48, the two-day event competition and conference I profiled last year here, in Washington D.C. this weekend.
Originally published on Inc.com June 9th 2016.