Cindy Jones Case Study On How She Sold Antenna Buddies To Walmart

Got an idea for a cool promotional product? Read how this entrepreneur turned her simple idea into a successful business.
Entrepreneur’s Start-Ups magazine – September 2000 
By Don Debelak


Inspiration can strike at the oddest times. For 35-year-old Cindy Jones of Oklahoma City, it happened on Halloween back in 1996, when her husband came home with a Mr. Potato Head on his car antenna. Jones thought it was cute, so she took the idea one step further: She cut up a plastic pumpkin, put it over her antenna, played with the wiring, and voila, she had a lighted pumpkin on her car. “People were coming up to me, wanting to know where I bought it,” Jones recalls.

Since then, Jones has had her product, dubbed Antenna Buddies—currently available as an eight ball, a pair of dice, a banana man and a happy face—featured for two years on MTV’s Road Rules, has signed a licensing agreement with a major neon light manufacturer, and has received orders from the J.C. Whitney catalog and auto electronic stores. What’s propelled her success? For starters, Jones worked through a manufacturer to introduce her product since she lacked the funds to introduce it herself. More important, though, she’s got the perfect promotional product—one that’s proved capable of landing accounts with major companies.

Jones wasn’t in a position to spend a lot of money on a product that wouldn’t sell. So she created 15 Antenna Buddies at home and put the product up for sale at David’s Electronics, a car stereo store in Oklahoma City. When the 15 units sold out in less than two weeks, Jones got an investor and applied for a patent. Problem was, Jones had no manufacturer. “I didn’t have any idea how I was going to make the product,” she admits. And even though major retailer Radio Shack helped out by providing her with three solid leads to manufacturers of novelty automotive lighting products, she wanted to be sure to get the best deal.

Gaining Publicity

Jones’ next move proved ingenious. Rather than try to raise money and manufacture her product all on her own, she decided to try to land a major publicity story to verify Antenna Buddies’ potential in a lucrative market. That’s where MTV came in and helped out.

Oh, it was by no means a simple task to get her product on MTV’s Road Rules show—think major hemming and hawing and a lukewarm reception to the first samples she presented to them when she flew out to the West Coast to show them her product. With persistence, though, she discovered what they wanted: something Southwestern. Enter a cow skull that finally made it onto the grill of the Road Rules trailer, which, by the way, gets quite a bit of airtime. “Rather than walk away,” says Jones, “I just kept asking what they wanted to see.”

What was probably most important for Jones was that her target customers, teens and young adults, also constitute the bulk of MTV’s audience, a fact that was certainly not lost on the manufacturers she later approached for help with her wholesale product.

Jones pursued all three manufacturers suggested by Radio Shack-and all three made offers. The winner was It’s Real Stuff in New York City. Jones’ main concern was that “the manufacturer just wouldn’t work hard enough for the product to really succeed.” So she insisted in her contract that she would receive a commission on any promotional product sales. Now Jones, who is closing in on a deal with Disney, gets royalties on all product sales and a commission on the sales she completes. Best of all, she doesn’t have to worry about manufacturing, billing, collecting, financing and all those other pesky tasks.

The potential for a major promotional product sale proved to be the key in attracting manufacturers, Jones learned. The risk to the manufacturer is greatly minimized, and all parties involved stand to benefit. Promotional products need to be able to display a company’s name in a dramatically visual way. Remember to check out the promotional product potential on any product—it may be the jumpstart you need for your product.

The Antenna Buddies had a red-hot launch, but Cindy Jones will soon face competitors. Protecting her patent could cost a lot. One option she can pursue is patent insurance, which can help mitigate the cost for patent infringement suits:

Advertising specialties is another term used for promotional products, and it generally refers to products that businesses buy to give away or to sell at a low price. For instance, Wal-Mart, which uses the yellow happy face in its advertising campaigns, might decide to buy the happy face Antenna Buddy to sell to its customers. Or MTV might offer the cow skull to its viewers.

Promotional items are typically sold through advertising specialty companies that will put a company’s name on a product for promotional purposes. Advertising specialty houses sell water bottles, golf balls, Frisbees and virtually any other imprintable item.

In Cindy Jones’ case, the Antenna Buddies promotional product possibilities were a point of leverage when approaching manufacturers for a licensing agreement. Jones’ product is an outstanding promotional item because it goes where everyone can see it: on the base of a car antenna. That makes it a great tool for any company to advertise its product or service.

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