My thanks to Dorota Shortell for taking the time to do an inventor interview about her invention the Zip ‘n Hang. The Zip ‘n Hang is a adjustable over the door hook that won’t cause any damage to the door.
Tara: Please could you tell me a little bit about where you are based, your background, and how you got into inventing?
Dorota:I live in Portland, Oregon, although I was born in Poland and came to the US with my parents when I was 5 years old. I have a masters degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and have been developing products for other people for over 10 years. My job involves coming up with clever solutions to difficult problems ranging from designing components for printers to mechanisms for industrial equipment. I’ve applied those same skills to finally develop a new product for myself with an opportunity to not only do all the engineering, but also take it all the way to market.
Tara: Please could you tell me a little bit about the Zip ‘n Hang, what it does and how you came up with the idea?
Dorota: Zip ‘n Hang is the world’s first adjustable over-the-door hook that won’t damage your doors. Other over-the-door hooks can scratch your door or even cause it not to close. Zip ‘n Hang’s patent-pending design uses flexible lines that go over the corners of your door quickly, easily, and with no tools required. With a push of a button, you can raise and lower your Zip ‘n Hang to the desired height to decorate or organize.
I came up with the idea a few years ago, right after installing a beautiful new front door with a glass panel in the middle for our house. I realized that I couldn’t hang my wreath. It wasn’t possible to use a nail, so I bought a suction cup hanger, and it promptly fell down. Adhesive hooks wouldn’t hold the weight and I worried about them ruining the door. Most of the U-shaped over-the door hooks wouldn’t allow my door to close and the one that was thin enough to finally close scratched up the top of my door frame. In all that frustration, I knew there had to be a better way, so I pulled out my fishing line and started experimenting until I figured out a way to hang the wreath by just draping the fishing line over the corners of the door. Soon I was looking at everyone’s front doors and realized that I had to make this into a product to address this common problem.
Tara: What were the first steps you took after having your idea?
Dorota: After figuring out what the configuration of the line had to be to hold the weight, I then used 3D Computer Aided Design (CAD) to draw what the hook portion that would attach to the lines would look like. At that point I decided that it would be a much better product if the hook could adjust up and down the door to really allow people to position their wreaths in the perfect location. So I added a hand crank that allowed the hook to move up and down as the crank was turned. Once I completed the design, I had it sent to a rapid prototype company to make the first prototype. After that I made a couple more versions of this design to work out all the kinks and have it ready to show to possible manufacturers.
However, I showed the prototypes to my former boss and mentor and he convinced me that I really needed to put a spring in it so it could glide up and down the door with a push of a button. It was a difficult decision since I knew I would have to start over again in terms of all the CAD work I had done, but the right decision for the product, so I bit the bullet and took his advice. I went through another few rounds of designing and prototyping to incorporate the spring that is in the product today (which I scavenged from tape measures to make the initial prototypes).
Another change was done later to the product after I showed it to an industrial designer for input. He suggested that I get rid of the plastic hook that used to be on the product and add a metal hook. This both improved the aesthetics, helped hold more weight, and made the tool less expensive to produce. Due to the shifts in directions, I made a total of 16 successive prototypes before releasing for tooling.
Tara: Did you try and patent your idea straight away or did you develop it first? How did you go about getting protection for your idea?
Dorota: I wrote and filed a provision patent in the midst of development (before showing it to potential manufacturers). Later my lawyer and I filed the utility patent and applied for the trademark for the name “Zip ‘n Hang”
Tara: Did you get presentation drawing sheets produced or make a prototype for your idea?
Dorota: I did not create any presentation drawings, but did everything in 3D CAD. Drawings were only needed to specify tolerances for the tool, but everything else was taken from the 3D CAD software (including creating images for the patent). All that rapid prototype companies need is 3D CAD files, which is what I sent them to make the plastic components for the prototypes. I purchased the rest of the components and assembled them myself until we went to production.
Tara: How did you go about promoting your idea, did you contact possible companies with the idea of licensing your product or did you want to maintain control and manufacture and sell it yourself?
Dorota: In February 2010 I was approached by a number of companies wanting to license the product since I was selected to be on the second season of Discovery Channel’s Pitchmen show. However since the reason I was working on this project was to learn the business of bringing a product to market, which licensing would not allow me to do, I declined the offers. Ultimately declining to license the product meant that it was not in the business’ interest to stay on the show, so I decided to bring the product to market on my own terms. Right now we are still in the process of setting up partnerships with companies to help distribute, promote, and serve as sales agents for the product. We are selling the product on our website, have a Google Ad Words campaign going, and are pursing press and PR options.
Tara: How long did has it taken from your initial idea to where you are now?
Dorota: It has now been three and a half years. Of course I have not been working on it full time during that whole period as I have a job and two children to take care of. But, other than a few breaks, I tend to average around 20 hrs/wk on the project.
Tara: Where can your product be purchased from?
Dorota: The product can be purchased at www.zipnhang.com. Plus, you can view a 90 second video that explains exactly how the product works right on the page. Throughout 2011 we plan on featuring it on HSN or QVC as well as bringing it to retail, both within the US and abroad.
Tara: What are your future hopes and plans for Zip ‘n Hang
Dorota: Ultimately my dream is that Zip ‘n Hang will become a household name. I would love it if friends visiting friends who couldn’t hang a wreath or bathrobe on their door said “Oh, you need a Zip ‘n Hang”. My shorter term goals are to bring the product to retail and possibly TV shopping channels before the back-to-school market in 2011.
Tara: If you had to do it all again is there anything you would do differently?
Dorota: It’s definitely a learning process, so sure! This mostly relates to picking which vendors to work with, since I’ve had both good and bad luck in this regard.
Tara: What advice would you give any aspiring inventor with an idea?
Dorota: Start small. Do a product that seems easy first since you will learn so much from the process. You don’t want to design a product that takes a huge engineering investment to develop because there are so many other costs associated. Also expect that it will cost much more and take much more time than you expect. So make sure you’re prepared to be in it for the long haul (years). Finally, don’t quit your day job unless you absolutely have to. It’s a lot less stressful to still have income coming in while you’re trying to get the business off the ground.
Tara: Do you have more ideas you hope to bring to market in the future?
Dorota: Yes, although I haven’t allowed myself the luxury of thinking about them since I need to stay focused on getting this product out in high volume.
Tara: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Dorota: I never thought of myself as an “inventor”, but once you have a common frustration, you realize that you certainly can solve the problem and could make a product out of it. The key is to understand the difference between a problem that people are willing to pay to do something about and a problem that while mildly annoying, may not have enough market potential to make money. Customers have told me so many extra uses they have found for the Zip ‘n Hang around the house (like hanging aprons, using them on cabinets, hanging decorations), that it’s quite satisfying to hear that it solves more than just the problem it was originally designed to solve.
If you enjoyed this inventor interview you can read more here.
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