Illinois native Jill Dybdahl comes from a family of engineers.
Her father, Dale Brinker, is a tool-and-die engineer, and, as children, her brothers Kirk and Doug Brinker were interested in mechanics. So, she said, discussions at family meals involved a lot of around-the-table tech talk.
“We didn’t talk Barbie dolls,” she said. “We talked Popular Science magazine.”
Dybdahl’s parents moved to Wisconsin while she was in college. Her father purchased Del-Tool Co., 640 Commerce Ave., Baraboo, which is now owned by her brothers who, like their father, are also tool-and-die engineers.
And, maybe, some of the many discussions about plastics and inventions rubbed off on Dybdahl, a UW-Madison graduate.
After 10 years in a computer science job, she craved more creative work. That was 24 years ago, when she and husband, Paul, started a kitchen and bath design business, Dybdahl Design Group, 8120 Forsythia St., Middleton.
Dybdahl and her husband, Paul Dybdahl, served as general managers of the company until recent years when her daughter, Anna Herman, took over those reins.
That allowed the now entrepreneurial-bug-bitten Dybdahl to start a new company, LollyZip LLC, to design, build and sell her product idea: an attractive yet functional product to help airline passengers easily meet Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules for carry-on bags.
The TSA’s 3-1-1 rule limits the amount of liquids and gels a passenger can bring on an airplane in a carry-on bag. These limits were put in place in 2006, after a plot to bomb airplanes using liquids as explosives was foiled.
Passengers are limited to using containers no larger than 3.4 ounces for their liquids. All containers of liquid must be placed in a one-quart, transparent plastic, sealable bag. Each passenger may have only one bag for liquids.
While traveling frequently from her home to Los Angeles shortly after TSA implemented 3-1-1, Dybdahl recognized the need for a clear bag with small bottles and jars that are easy to fill and easy to dispense.
“I thought about the travel kit 10 or 12 years ago because of struggles packing for travel. I could not believe that there weren’t quality, easy-to-fill, easy-to-dispense bottles and jars available on the market. And with the advent of the TSA 3-1-1 rules, it got even more difficult to pack,” she said.
Still, she was hesitant.
“I think in the beginning, I kept thinking, ‘Why doesn’t someone come up with this? Why doesn’t someone solve this problem?’ That’s what a good invention does — it identifies a problem and solves it. I just kept thinking the first few years that someone is certainly going to do this.”
But Dybdahl launched into Internet searches time after time and came up empty. Then, a friend, who after listening to Dybdahl talk about developing and marketing her idea for eight years, finally said, “Jill, would you just plug your nose and jump off the cliff?”
And that, she said, provided the impetus to begin. In 2013, she took a sabbatical from the family business to focus full time on designing, manufacturing and, finally, selling her product which, she said, has sold in the “tens of thousands” with sales momentum growing.
Q. You had an idea. How did you start?
A. I like to draw. I think a lot of inventions are born on the back of napkins. I found myself sketching and doodling product design ideas in a notebook here, a piece of paper there.
From the start, I researched the product idea to discover if it already existed. The Internet really helped in doing this research. The nearest I could tell there wasn’t any product like my idea. Next, I called on my brothers, tool-and-dye engineers. I drew up my plans and drawings the way I wanted the product to look and then got some specifics on the engineering behind it to make sure it was going to work.
Q. Where did you go from there?
A. From there I did patent searches online. I certainly didn’t want to develop something that was already under patent.
Q. What next?
A. Next, I moved to get a prototype made as quickly as possible so I could do market testing. Creating a prototype has gotten easier and affordable with the advent of 3-D printing. Instead of costing thousands of dollars for a hand-crafted prototype, it is now only hundreds of dollars, if not less, to create a 3-D-printed prototype.
Q. How did you test the market?
A. I did some pretty loose market testing in that I called together groups of family or friends — anyone that I could pull together to talk about the product. Now, the problem with that could be: Are friends and family going to give an honest opinion or simply be polite? I tried to make sure I was getting people who would be brutally honest. A test marketing service could have been contracted, but that can be costly. Market testing is an important phase a lot of inventors mistakenly brush aside because they are just so sure their invention is a home run or they don’t want to hear any bad news about their product. We talked about all aspects of the product such as color, style and design because we were still in the prototype phase and could still make changes. We also worked on your price points with the test markets.
Q. Getting the product built had to be a challenge.
A. I started exploring manufacturing in the U.S. I really wanted to make a difference and employ Americans. I just couldn’t afford to manufacture in the U.S., which was very disappointing. The retail price would be too high. I started searching for manufacturers in China. As simple as the product appears, it requires six different manufacturing facilities. That was a challenge trying to coordinate all those factories from here in Wisconsin.
Q. But a fortuitous event helped refer you to a sourcing company. What was that?
A. I changed my LinkedIn status talking about my new company, LollyZip. Eric Fritz, CEO of Keva Sports Center, a neighboring business in Middleton, saw the status change. He’s interested in inventions and design and stopped by to hear about my ideas. Eric said that he knows someone who may be able to help me with manufacturing, Paul Ososky, owner of Source 2 Market with offices in Spring Green, Madison and China. Meeting Paul was a gift. He and his staff helped pull everything together. They source the manufacturing, assembly and shipping.
Q. And then?
A. The first products were finally delivered in May 2014. Then there was the task of bringing the product to market. I’m doing direct sales as well as wholesale. We maintain a website, attend trade shows and manage online marketing. We’re in about 30 to 40 retail shops across the country including Landmark Luggage in Madison as well as direct sales on our website and Amazon. There are so many ways to market and distribute products that it can be challenging to know where best to put my energy. It’s all very exciting.
Q. Did you get a patent for your product?
A. I did not initially plan to patent my product. Not having a patent was presenting some road blocks with major retailers. So, I retained attorney Charles Sara, DeWitt Ross and Stevens, to do a formal patent search. The search came back with no findings so we proceeded with applying for two design patents for my products. The products are officially patent pending.
Q. What else should potential inventors know?
A. Read everything, every contract, every agreement, every manual, etc. Just because you may have retained an attorney, still read all documents before signing. For instance, in a recent contract with a large retailer, the agreement was only two pages long, however, the agreement referenced their vendor manual multiple times. The vendor manual is over 500 pages long. It would have been easy to sign the two-page agreement, but I also made certain to read and understand the 500-page manual.
In the movie “Joy,” (about Joy Mangano, a self-made millionaire who created a business empire by inventing and marketing products) this is a grave error that she made early in her journey. She trusted the advice of an inexperienced attorney and a seemingly more experienced businesswoman, but Joy failed to read the documents herself. That got Joy into a bit of trouble. So, I recommend reading all documents.
Finally, if you have a great idea, you may wish to learn about the patent process. Generally speaking, in 2013 the United States changed the patent process to a “first-to-file” system, which means not necessarily granting a patent to the person who invented the idea as in the past, but rather to the person that files for the patent first. Protecting your idea and learning about the patent process may be more important than ever before.
Then, as my friend said, “plug your nose and jump off the cliff.”