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January 2012
Frustration Prevention Invention
By Suzanne Fulton

 “Time and time again the story of American growth is written by the daring drive of entrepreneurs who are willing to roll the dice on a great idea.”

~ David Kappos, under secretary of commerce and director

of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

 

     Who hasn’t cursed the experience of pulling the vacuum cleaner, rug shampooer, hedge trimmer or other electric gizmo just far enough to accidentally disconnect from the wall outlet? Who hasn’t had to unbend the plug prongs or wondered how long a plug could survive repeated yanks out of the wall?

     How many trudges back to the scene of “the accident” does it take before taking a preventive measure? What would be a good preventive measure, anyway?

     Although Mike Schutte has a degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University, he didn’t need rocket science credentials to invent a reliable device to stay connected electrically, but rather an affinity for tinkering.

     You might say repeated frustration “sparked” him to invent an outlet cover that thwarts disconnects from completing leaf blowing and other tasks around the house. Schutte’s maddening experiences with accidental disconnects when using yard tools—exacerbated by the whipping action he employed to free the cords trapped in hedges and around rocks—drove him to find a solution for the routine annoyance and bent and broken prongs.

     The more Schutte thought about it, he began considering even more important reasons to ensure secure, reliable connections. Far more critical situations—like people who depend on their medical devices to stay alive, business owners with sensitive computer equipment running their business, and workplace safety and accident prevention—demanded that he find an electrical connection solution.

     He knew from observation that cords can partially separate from their plugs over time due to weight, revealing exposed wires. Such a situation can lead to fire or shock—even electrocution! In addition, other types of problems can result from the stress on a hanging cord—the ground wire prong may detach from its mounting and/or the electrical prongs could bend and twist.

     Particularly with heavy equipment, it could be a hidden problem or hard to access to repair or replace a wire or plug.

 

Evolution of the Enterprise

     Schutte’s investigation into electrical connection solutions available on the market yielded little satisfaction, so he decided to devise one. Early in 2008, he developed a prototype outlet cover that featured a protruding hook around which a cord can be wound or looped to prevent accidental disconnection.

     After sitting on his idea for quite some time, he fielded his prototype and enterprise idea to friends and relatives. They all responded to the product with enthusiasm. You could say they even got a charge out of it!

     Emboldened by this reaction and confident that his product worked and was unique, Schutte patented it with help from an attorney. He brainstormed with his wife on a company name, and came up with StayConnect, LLC. The matching Web domain name was available, so he snagged it.

     A friend steered him to Richard Turner of Mooresville, owner of AxiomID, an engineering and design company. Turner completed the design for the special outlet cover and ensured that it could hold a cord against 50 lbs. of pull. Turner, already connected with several manufacturing companies, introduced Schutte to a manufacturer in China that could handle the mass production and was capable of ramping up production as warranted.

     One bonus: Schutte and Turner have become fast friends as well as business colleagues. Turner is now StayConnect’s vice president of design and manufacturing and an investor in the company as well. Other investors are family members and another friend, David Skinner, of Huntersville, N.C. Of course, a big chunk of investment has come out of Schutte’s own savings. (And he was fortunate to have had a speed boat whose sale proceeds added to the pot.)

     A second product line was developed—an interior outlet plate minus the hook. Schutte’s vision for that is to address aesthetics—to shroud the outlet holes and relate to the décor, and, although not childproof, inhibit socket-poking by toddlers.

     Schutte and Turner have visited China together to meet the potential manufacturers, and now that the deal is done, they keep in touch frequently via Skype.

     Along his entrepreneurial path, Schutte has worked long hours and weekends learning the elements of business ownership as well as manufacturing and distribution, marketing, sales and all the exacting back office essentials, like invoicing and U.S. Customs record keeping.

 

Developing the Marketplace

     On the market development front, Schutte’s deep experience in sales with successfully garnering national accounts on behalf of an employer has served him well. He presently serves as regional sales representative with C&G Products headquartered in Greensboro, providing rental video game and vending machines.

     He launched his new business at ease with approaching large companies. He has steadily realized enthusiasm for his inventions from an impressive number of target purchasers by courageously approaching national hardware retail chains and owners of franchisees. His strategy has been to approach such companies directly as well as at industry trade shows.

     He hosted an initial launch party as one of many other measures taken to reach audiences and uses other strategies like purchasing ads in industry and other magazines and employing online social media marketing tactics.

     He and his wife, along with Turner, traveled to the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas. There and elsewhere, Schutte has met with representatives of Sears Holdings, Ace Hardware, Lowes Home Improvements, Home Depot, QVC, Wallace Hardware, Orgill and Sporty’s Tool Shop Magazine and more.

     He maintains that all along his entrepreneurial trip, things have fallen into place well and he has received an outpouring of favorable reactions and helpful advice from professionals in the hardware field.

     One example: the corporate folks at True Value committed to displaying the StayConnect planogram (the outline of how a line of products will be positioned on display on a store shelf) at headquarters. Typically, franchise or co-op owners—especially new ones—stock up by copying a planogram rather than making selections one-by-one of items to sell in their own retail stores.

     The True Value commitment is of immense importance because it facilitates ordering and is bound to translate to higher sales volume for StayConnect.

     Another StayConnect success is the Honorable Mention the company received in 2011 from North American Hardware Retail Association for a handsome point of sale display stand as well as for product innovation. The display picture appears on the company’s trifold brochure—clever leveraging!

     Every endeavor has its setbacks, and for Schutte, it was a surprising one-year long wait for completion of product testing and UL certification. Such certification, considered essential by retail store buyers, happened one year ago in December 2010.

     Once certification was achieved, sales growth exploded “about 25,000 percent,” reports Schutte. Now, StayConnect’s patented outlet covers for indoors and out are available to consumers for purchase at a growing number of sources.

     The Ace Hardware store in Cornelius was the first to purchase StayConnect outlet covers, followed by other Ace franchises, like Black Hawk Hardware in Charlotte, and in other states. You can order online from StayConnect.com, Ace.com, amazon.com, sears.com and more. The newest big retail coup is True Value and the product lines can be found in True Value co-ops nationwide.

     “Plugs coming loose from outlets are so common,” maintains Pat Lynch, manager of the Cornelius Ace Hardware store. He is confident that the novel outlet covers featuring the hook will sell.

     Doug Kropelnicki, owner of A-1 Vacuum Solutions located in Huntersville, agrees with Lynch that such disconnecting is very common and expressed interest in seeing the outlet covers. The fact that it is offered by a family business like Schutte’s also appeals to him.

     Consumers who care about the appearance of their interior walls may want their outlets less noticeable. StayConnect interior outlet covers and plates shroud the socket holes with a little hinged door. Presently available in white or beige, Schutte plans to offer an additional choice that features a paintable surface. The resulting appearance of an entire wall will look more uniform than when using builder’s grade plates.

     StayConnect’s exterior outlet covers, intended for power tools, lawn care machines, etc., are not made to be pretty but rather built to be high-quality—metal exterior vs. plastic, lined with rubber, rather than foam, seal.

 

Rave Reviews

     Schutte says the reactions of customers have been “Great.”

     David Hudson remarks, “I’ve been working construction for all my life and have always had trouble keeping my extension cords plugged in. I roll out those 50 or 100 foot cords and the weight of the cord will even pull the plug from the wall. Now no more fines from onsite inspectors for broken ground wire prongs on my cords! My electrical cords stay preserved—no more premature wear and tear, bent and twisted electrical prongs and broken ground wire prong! Not only does the StayConnect outlet cover save the frustration of being disconnected, it saves my pocket book too!”

     Sandy Thomas raved, “In order to provide a finished look to my outlets, I’d been using those push-in child proof tabs! The StayConnect outlet cover provides the look that I’ve been looking for and I no longer have to use a screw driver to pull those old tabs out! Way to go!”

     Schutte wants his business to grow and become “a force in the retail industry” known for its electrical solutions. As labor intensive as it has been to dive into launching a business while still employed with another firm, Schutte claims to be enjoying the adventure, but does miss sharing activities with his friends.

     His enterprise continues to target big box chain stores. A flight to the Chicago headquarters of Sears is on Schutte’s schedule, in fact. To meet today’s requests by retail stores for additional types of useful devices, Schutte plans to expand his line to address various child safety needs, including a childproof outlet cover, which he hopes to release this spring.

     He and Turner have additional ideas brewing. They have begun talks with other manufacturers with the intent of co-marketing products that are associated with each other, like outdoor extension cords.

     As order volume takes off and product lines expand, there will be a point at which Schutte will quit his day job to plunge into running and expanding his new venture full time…and some day buy a new, bigger speed boat. Frustration promises to be fruitful for this enterprise.

     Schutte believes it probably won’t be long before StayConnect is a household name widely available across the nation to meet the electrical needs of hobbyists, homeowners and business owners alike.

     Originally from Indiana, Schutte and wife Tracey, who is StayConnect’s operations director, and their daughter reside in Cornelius.

     StayConnected—more updates to come!

Suzanne Fulton is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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