In this series, we interview experienced sales reps who know what it takes to get products on shelves. For this article, we sat down with Drew Sfugaras, a Co-Founder of Abound. Drew is a sales rep with over 20 years of experience and has worked with brands including Home Depot, Costco, Bed Bath & Beyond, Lowe’s, QVC, and Target.*
R: How do you decide whether or not to take on a product?
D: Typically I make decisions pretty quickly. I look at it, and if it fills a need and seems different than what I typically see, I’ll get excited about it.
Usually it comes down to: does it solve a problem. Like when you sit down at a restaurant and the table kind of teeter-totters, and there’s something like napkins jammed under it. Well, there’s a product you can buy specifically designed to solve this, to put under the table, a little wedge, and they solved a problem, so that’s simple but cool.
So it could be something basic, or it could be something innovative, where you go ‘wow.’ Like the first person to solve virtual reality, it’s something that’s just really interesting and cool.
Sometimes those things are a novelty, As Seen On TV type things, like the Snuggie or The Facebook sensation the Squatty Potty. Those have a story behind them and in many cases a lot of marketing or got lucky going viral.
So it either solves a problem, or it’s unique and innovative.
R: How important is packaging and price?
D: Very. The product has to look and feel like it could be successful, and a lot of that has to do with packaging and presentation.
So if the concept makes a lot of sense but they’re not presenting it well, it’s not high quality. Yesterday on our site we were talking about a cool concept, but the marketing didn’t explain the product, and the packaging was pretty dated and not representing what their target market wants to buy.
It was a cool concept, but they weren’t presenting it well, and I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be a tough sell.’ It’s not the right look for the customer who’s buying this, it’s not explained well, they don’t have many images on their website, it just wasn’t done right.
After packaging, you dig into price. You can have a really cool concept in place, like those wobbly tables wedges, but if it’s $50 per wedge who’s going to buy that?
R: Would you rep the undeveloped product and take products under your wing, or are you looking for people who are already ready? Would an idea be so cool that you’re like, ‘I’m going to help you with packaging, I’m going to help you remodel it,’ or if they can’t come to the table and be professional on their own are you not interested?
D: So if I like the people and the product I will definitely help them, and typically if they’re not far enough downstream and they haven’t figured it out, it’s going to take a lot to educate them. I’m going to typically require payment for that, because it’s a lot of time and effort for me that I could be spending with other clients.
Let’s say I have a product ready to go, it’s good; it’s packaged, I just need to present it and get it in front of the buyers. It’s usually 12–18 months before I see a single dollar. So I put a lot of time and effort into helping this company or new product, and that’s if the product is ready to go. Imagine if they’re earlier in the process, it could take months just to get them ready for a meeting.
That’s just how long it takes to get to market, the sales cycles are long. If you see something on the shelves, that’s been planned out for a long period of time. The buyers didn’t just come across it and say ‘Oh that should be on our shelves next week.’ They’re buying most things more than a year out.
So if I’m going to put time and energy into something, there’s gotta be a payout pretty quickly or I’d look for some type of compensation for the time until commissions kick in. And if I’m putting in additional consulting to get them ready for a meeting and to go to market, providing guidance and direction, that’s time away from other clients and has value, just like any consultant.
R: What common misconceptions do inexperienced people often have? Do you run into the same things that people are wrong about and you have to constantly correct them?
D: Definitely. There are different ones, but they typically fall into a couple of buckets.
One is that they haven’t done their research. They think they have, but they haven’t. They say, ‘We’ve got this product that no one else has and everyone loves it!.’ And I’m asking ‘Well how do you know no one else has it?’ And they’ll reply, ‘Well, I went into a Home Depot, and I didn’t see anything.’ So I explain ‘All right, well Home Depot doesn’t sell it, but I saw it in Walmart, or I saw it on Amazon.’ And they go ‘It’s a little bit different,’ and I go ‘Well I don’t think it’s much different and I’m in the industry. Consumers wouldn’t be able to tell and a buyer won’t displace a current major supplier for this one item that isn’t much different than what they have today.’
So they don’t do the research, they don’t know price points, and then they’ll state that ‘Everybody loves it,’ and I’ll ask further, ‘What do you mean that everyone loves it?’ And they’ll reply, ‘Well it’s a mechanics tool, and mechanics love it.’ ‘Well, have you done a survey or have any research to back that up? how many have you sold?’ ‘Well, we sold 10,000 units over the last 5 years.’ That sounds great, but at retail that’s not really a lot. If you can’t sustain yourself as a living, that’s not a lot of sales.
They make generalizations because they’re excited and they’re passionate, and that’s important, but they’re not realistic about it.
And then the other assumption is how retail works. They think ‘I’m going to walk in and they’re going to love it, it sells itself.’ Nothing sells itself. Really. If Coca Cola comes up with a new soda idea, they still have to come in and present it and say, ‘We think you’re going to really like this and here’s why, here’s a bunch of data that says why and if it doesn’t work, we’ll take responsibility for it.’
So there are a lot of misconceptions, they think it’s going to be easy. Because we’ve all had ideas for products where we think ‘Ah, that would be so great.’ I’ve got friends all the time who are like, ‘I have this idea, how can I do this,’ and I’m like, ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ If you have a lot of money, time, and passion for this, and don’t mind being rejected, go for it, but it’s not easy.
And they think they can do it by themselves, that’s a very common misconception even by big companies. They don’t get all the ancillary pieces that are involved. They don’t get packaging; they don’t understand the marketing and how to price it and often even how to manufacture it.
R: That makes sense. It seems like a lot of people’s expectations are off.
D: In a broad sense, yes. You want them to be excited, you want them to be passionate about it, you want them to have these dreams and hopes because they have to believe in it more than anyone else to convince others to buy it. They’re going to have to feel that way to be able to sell it.
But they don’t realize — look at people that run companies, generally, they’re not inventors. There are not a lot of Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobses. Usually, the person that invented the widget and came up with the bigger concept doesn’t run the company.
The people that run businesses are business managers, and they understand how to move a product. They’re good at a lot of different things, finance, accounting, marketing, whatever it happens to be. Entrepreneurs come up with these ideas, but what’s the math behind making a company successful?
If you have the passion and maybe you’re good at sales too because you know how to get someone to believe in your product as much as you do, that’s great. So then the buyers say, ‘Yes, I like this product,’ and you have a bunch of people behind the scenes who have to get it set up and to market. The real work starts after the buyers say ‘yes’ and you need to make sure you’re ready for all that’s involved once they do say yes.
You have manufacturing, pricing, packaging, and other challenges that the entrepreneur has usually not thought about. Maybe they have some basic steps, but they think, ‘If they just give me a purchase order for 10,000 pieces, I can get financing from the bank.’ No one’s going to do that. You have to be able to produce it first. They don’t understand the flow of how these things work, the time and capital investment required is significant.
And unfortunately, a lot of reps aren’t the best to work with for young companies and entrepreneurs. They’re not going to know or want to get involved in these things. They’re going to want you to come to them with a finished product, and they have a relationship, and they’re going to try to sell them to the buyers.
There are some stereotypical sales guy types that you see over and over. The guy’s got a relationship, and he goes in and shakes hands, he takes you to lunch, you know he’s selling you, he’s not doing a lot of the background work. He’s going to say look, ‘That’s your job, you bring me a product and I can sell it.’ A nice thing about Abound is that we vet all the sales reps that join, so you know they’re at least legitimate and they’re responsible to the community if they don’t do a good job.
R: How would someone know if they’re talking to a good or bad sales rep? Besides going through the Abound system.
D: A lot of due diligence. The first thing that people want and expect is a relationship. That’s important but you should check references of their clients and find out if they offer more than just a relationship.
The expectation is that they’ll say, ‘Hey that buyer or that vice president of that retail company I’m very close with him, or he’s is my next door neighbor, or I was the best man at his wedding.’ That’s great, then I know you can get me a meeting, get me in the door, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to actually sell it and then manage it so it persists and grows in the future. Or what happens if that buyer they know leaves?
And if you get it sold, there are all these steps after you sell to make it successful. Just because it’s on the shelf doesn’t mean everybody buys it. It’s not that easy. So, relationships are important, but at the same time, knowing the account, understanding how Walmart, Costco or Lowe’s works, how they get from products to being on shelves, to being successful is what separates good reps from bad ones.
Not everything works. Somethings don’t work, and you have to figure out why that was and why it went wrong. For sales reps, you want to know what their background is, and how they’re going to be involved.
Because sometimes you just want a relationship guy. If you’ve got a really good product and you’ve found success with it, but you just can’t find your way in somewhere this is a good route. If you’re selling it at Home Depot, but don’t know how to get it on air at QVC, or don’t know how to get it into Ace Hardware, then maybe a relationship guy is your best bet.
R: If you have a product, is it a good strategy to try to get in one of those really big chains first, or should you always start to try with your local stores?
D: Local stores can be a tough road, but for many it’s the right path. If you have the time and the energy to sell to local stores, that’s not a bad way to go and there are a lot of people who run their entire business based on smaller, local retailers.
A lot of these makers, they’re making clothes, jewelry, and other interesting little widgets, and you sell these to a local shop initially, not a bad thing to do. You get consumer feedback and can grow at a reasonable pace
But I can tell you that while the local shop might buy decent size order $500 or $1,000 of stuff, you’ve got to sell to a lot of local shops to make a living. This is where independent reps make even more economical sense. Imagine traveling around to hundreds of small retailers in a region and explaining to them about your 1 product or group of products. If they don’t buy it, you’ve wasted your time and if they do, you probably spent much of that revenue on travel.
R: Are there any other ways to test the market?
You should do a gut check. Everyone’s got to do a gut check about their product. A lot of people ask their significant others, their friends, family, people at the office, they get a handful of yes’s and they’re like, ‘Everyone loves it! It’s amazing!’
Remember that those people are inherently biased because they know who you are. For consumers in a store or online, how much stuff do they get bombarded with? Your product really has to pop, make them stop and say, wow, that’s interesting enough I’ll spend my $5, $50 or $500 dollars on it.
You can and should do some real research. With the way the world works now, you could do a Survey Monkey; you can get out there and ask people what they think. Get into a broader Facebook group, one where you don’t know all 500 people, but you’re still putting yourself out there is a good first step.
But that also brings up the issue of patents. A lot of people have this idea, but it’s not protected, it’s not patented, so it is vulnerable to being copied. Whenever I see something I haven’t seen before, I always ask ‘Do you have a patent on this?’ If they do, that’s a good sign, but if not, it’s likely it either exists and I just haven’t seen it or it can be easily copied by a potentially bigger competitor.
R: Would you take a person on who didn’t have a patent, or would you tell them to come back when they had one?
D: If it’s something I think needs a patent, I would take them on if they’re willing to patent it. If it’s something that I think is very easy for someone else to copy, but I think it’s really cool, I would say you need to have a patent, and it’s too risky to bring it to market until you have one.
Once you’ve put it out in market without a patent, you’re putting it in the public domain.**
R: How specialized do reps get? Just from my research, it seems like they’re way more specialized than I would have guessed.
D: They can be extremely specialized. Often reps are regional, so they’ll be in charge of a state, or multi-state area, and sometimes just a city.
For example, I’ve worked with a lot of different retailers, but I focus on Lowe’s, and I focus on seasonal items. So patio, grilling, fire pits, and things in that area is what I focus on.
R: Is that a natural thing that happened throughout your career? Did you love fire pits? How did you end up there?
D: I’ve been involved in a bunch of different categories throughout my career. I worked for a shelving company, a book and magazine publisher. Most recently I was VP of sales for a grilling and outdoor products company which is how I ended up focused in this category. I got lucky, it’s a fun category I enjoy.
So I did mostly grilling for almost 10 years before I ended up going out on my own, just because you build relationships over time, and then you get a series of companies who know you that want to work with you.
R: What’s your favorite thing about your job? What are some highlights?
D: The adrenaline is great, the rush to make the sale, you’re formulating a program that’s going to convince somebody that ‘Yeah, you’re right, I should do that.’
And then seeing it in the store, because when you walk in the store, and you buy something, a lot of times that’s something that the sales rep put on the floor. Imagine a product that sells 100K units a year. That’s 100k homes that have an item I brought to market.
The buyer really made the decision, but someone put that in front of them and convinced them that was the right decision to make. And that’s kind of cool, you walk into the store and say ‘Yeah, I did that.’ And now it’s in 50,000 people’s homes, and it’s just a cool concept, to think about that.
The best parts of the job are working with good people. Most people are very passionate and excited about these products. I enjoy helping people, sharing my experiences so they can avoid mistakes and hopefully enjoy some success. You have to be driven and love what you do. If you’re not, you’re not going to be good at this.
*transcript has been edited for clarity.
**this article is not intended as legal advice.