Anyone who's ever cleaned a sink or bathtub is probably familiar with the hair and gunk (and occasional piece of expensive jewelry) that can muck up the pipes.
But common problems often lead to compelling products when entrepreneurs sink their teeth into them.
On this episode of Shopify Masters, we talk to Naushad Ali, the inventor of Drain Strain: a clog-preventing drain stopper meant for your bathroom sink that was featured on Shark Tank and is now sold in 1,200 Home Depot stores.
99% of all [my ideas] I've shot down. This is the only one that survived.
- The criteria this entrepreneur uses to kill hundreds of ideas.
- What makes a product attractive to a big box buyer.
- The difference between selling on Zulily versus Amazon.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
- Store: Drain Strain
- Social Profiles: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
- Recommended: Amazon, Home Depot, Zulily
Tune in to ABC's Shark Tank on Friday, January 6th, 2017 for an update on Naushad Ali and Drain Strain.
Felix: Today I’m joined by Naushad Ali from drainstrain.com. Drain Strain is a clog preventing drain stopper meant for your bathroom sink and was featured on Shark Tank and was started in 2014 and based out of Woodinville, Washington. Welcome Naushad.
Naushad Ali: Hi. How are you, Felix?
Felix: Good. Thanks for coming on. Tell us a little bit more about the Drain Strain. How does this device work?
Naushad Ali: Drain Strain is an elegant solution to a really nasty problem. Everybody’s had to go down in the drain at some point or other and unclog it or hire a plumber to do it, right? All the solutions out there right now, 90% of them are reacting to the problem. Drain Strain is designed to prevent the problem from getting into the pee trap.
The way it works is, Drain Strain is basically a basket integrated into a drain stopper, so it works seamlessly to prevent clogs, catch hair and gunk and jewelry from going down into the pee trap. It looks more elegant than your existing stopper and the basket is below the drain lines so you never really actually see the gunk accumulating.
Felix: Very cool. Yeah. I remember actually seeing this device on Shark Tank with my wife and we were like, “Man, we really need to get a device like this for our bath tub.” It’s such an obvious answer to a very obvious problem that everyone has. How did you come up with the idea behind this? What was the motivation to create a product like this?
Naushad Ali: My wife and daughter have very long hair, so they clog the sink and one of the things about me, I’m a real estate agent. I’m a relater by trade at the time and not very handy. When it got clogged, we ended up calling a plumber and they came. They basically undid the pee trap, took out a nasty amount of hair. It’s kind of a cumbersome and long process. I watched it and then he plunks a bill down for $150 and I said, “Wow.”
My wife asked him a very simple question is, “How can we prevent this from happening again?” He thought about. He was an honest plumber. I didn’t think he was trying to pull one over on me, but he said, “Nothing.” It really didn’t make any sense to me, so I started doing some research and there are a few solutions out there.
You can buy those plain, you know, the strainers that they look like a little strainer, but you actually have to take your drain stopper out and put the stainer in. It basically sits there and you watch the hair accumulate and then you lose your stopper functionalities, so if you wanted to fill your sink with hair you couldn’t do it. Most importantly, my wife wouldn’t let me put that in because A she would soak clothes in the sink, so we wouldn’t be able to stop the sink anymore and secondly, she said, "We’re not going to have a really nice house and have guests come over and look at this ugly strainer in the sink, so she wouldn’t let me put it in.
They also have these white domes that you can put over it, which is even uglier. They’re like cheap white plastic domes and anyone with a house that has guests, would never use that. It got me down the path of thinking, “Well, there’s got to be a better way.”
I had some initial concept ideas and I’m not very good at drawing but my wife is, so I described it to her. She put it on paper. Then, I started doing some patent research and then figured out there was nothing else like it. Then, I pursued it and here we are.
Felix: Very cool. You mentioned that you are a realtor by trade, but did you have a background of starting product businesses? Did you try other creating products in the past?
Naushad Ali: I never created a product. Now, I get 100 ideas a year in my head. My family will tell you that I drive them nuts, like, “Oh my God. We should do this,” but the thing about me is, I’m a graduate of UC Berkeley’s business school and that helps me a lot because I can run the numbers in my head and run the idea through my head and 99% of all of them, I’ve actually shot down.
This is really the only one that survived because the economics don’t work or it’s not a big enough problem or the solution is too cost intensive or there may not be enough people that would pay for that solution, so I run through a lot of these questions in my head very quickly. Then, I shoot the idea down and I move on.
This is the only one that’s really survived the economics of a start-up. The problem is huge. The opportunity is huge. You’ve got 135 million households in America alone. On average, basically a half a billon potential sinks that the Drain Strain can fit in to, so if you just look at that. Then, also we have the bathtub version that we’re about to launch in a few months.
The bathtub problem is even bigger than the sink and we get tremendous requests for a bathtub solution, so we believe that the bathtub one is actually going to do greater revenue than our sink version.
Felix: Very cool. You mentioned that you have these filters, these criteria that you have set in your head, that you run all these ideas through. I think this is a very valuable assets to have for any entrepreneur because of these hundreds of ideas that we often come up with all the time. The last thing you want to do is have something hang around in your head and disrupting you, distracting you throughout your day and running it through this gauntlet of criteria. I think it’s a great way to put things to bed that don’t deserve to be in your head, so tell us a little bit more about the list then that you go through. You mentioned, you look for things to make sure that they’re not too cost intensive. You look for a large [inaudible 00:07:23] market. Are there any other key factors that you recommend other entrepreneurs that are in this ideation stage to take a close look at to determine if it’s going to be a viable product business or not?
Naushad Ali: Yeah. There’s a few different things that I look at, so just as a side note, I have a … Destruct by Design is a company I started in 2012 when I actually had this idea. I knew when I took this journey to get Drain Strain to market that I was going to do a lot of learning and create a lot of connections that would be helpful. If I were to just document it and create a process that would allow other entrepreneurs to tap in to, to accelerate from taking their product from even ideation to sales or a prototype to sales, so I have this company Disrupt by Design and the whole idea behind it is to allow … People contact me and I basically take it through my filtration system and evaluation system to decide whether I want to invest time, money, or energy or help them to get from idea to market.
The criteria that I use, is … The overarching criteria is the juice worth the squeeze, right? By that I mean, if I’m going to go invest a lot of time and energy as an entrepreneur to take an idea and bring it to market, I mean, that process is so time intensive. It could be financially a burden and you got to have so much energy and passion to get it to the finish line. If you’re going to go do all of that, are you going to make enough money or get enough reward or satisfaction? Is the juice worth the squeeze, right, to get to that point?
A lot of people don’t necessarily look at, “Hey. Is this a big enough market? Is this solution going to be something people are going to be willing to pay for it’s a problem you’re trying to solve? How do you get this product to market? Is it going to require millions of dollars in advertising to create awareness? If it is, do you have that money and if you do it, are you going to get enough return and how are you going to get investors to invest it?”
There’s a lot of different questions, but I always ask people … Steven Covey and the Seven Habits, you know, I read that many, many years ago and one of the habits always have stuck in my head, which is, “Begin with the end in mind.” If you’ve got this product, what is it look like, right? Are you in retail stores? Are you marketing it online? How are you marketing it? Can you market it? Because entrepreneurs don’t really think through the distribution and the marketing, but that’s really where you have to begin, because you could have the greatest product but if no one knows about it, you’re never going to sell it. You could have a great product or solution and you can market it all day, but no one’s going to buy it because it’s just not a big enough market, so what does the end look like, right?
For me, Drain Strain was … Obviously, I couldn’t count on Shark Tank as being a marketing channel. However, I thought, “Because it’s a very specific problem I’m solving and it’s a problem that,” I already knew the market, right? There’s already $200 million in chemical cleaner sales and lots of Zip It sales and strainer sales, so there’s a billion dollar market in here somewhere, right?
I’ve you’ve got a half a billion sinks in the US alone and it’s a worldwide problem, then you’ve got the opportunity to tap into a billion dollar market. Then, the question is how do you get to it? Obviously, you can be very specific in your advertising with a product like Drain Strain. You can tap into plumbers. You can tap into hotels because this is a great hotel product, so when I looked at it, I thought, “Well, I don’t really need to spend millions of dollars advertising if I get it into a Home Depot, if I tap into Rotor Rooter, if I tap into-”
The whole idea was to get to where this problem is and see if I can partner with those people and if I can, that’s really how I could accelerate sales without necessarily investing a tremendous amount in marketing and advertising. This is a very long winded answer to your question, but the biggest hurdle for people is, think through your vision, see what the end looks like, and do you have the ability to execute at that level and is this product going to be something that is the juice worth the squeeze?
Felix: I like that, so your goal, well, not your goal but one of the distribution channels, one of the marketing channels that you’re talking about is getting into a big store like a Home Depot or getting onto some kind of listing, so other … some site like a Rotor Rooter, but that’s also a big gamble, right? It comes with big rewards but it’s also a big gamble. If you don’t get into these markets, you’re not necessarily doomed but you now cut off one of the biggest pieces of your overall plan. Did you hedge against this or how did you-
Naushad Ali: Yes.
Felix: How did you handle that?
Naushad Ali: Yeah, so the other thing was basically online, right? The other … because this is a very specific problem, we could search engine optimize for the problem, so if you’ve got people who are searching online for Liquid Plumber or Draino, we could basically buy add words to basically get Drain Strain in front of them, right, because we know that that person has this problem. If they’re looking for Draino or Liquid Plumber or chemical cleaner or something, we know that person has the problem we’re trying to solve.
If they type in Rotor Rooter or drain cleaner or … There are very specific keywords that would allow us to target the consumer that has this problem. That was the hedges, "Look, even if we don’t get out in the mass market world, we can actually target the right players with keywords because we know exactly who’s looking for it.
It’s not like a fashion item, right, where you don’t know who would potentially buy it or if they would like this fashion. It’s a very utilitarian solution to a problem that is very common and we just knew that if we could create awareness, that we would be successful.
Felix: Awesome. You did get it these Home Depots and you mentioned, I think before the recording, that you are also going to be in Lowe’s.
Naushad Ali: Yes. Next month, yeah.
Felix: Congratulations. 1200 Home Depot stores, 550 Lowe’s stores, that’s what was listed in the pre-interview note. Tell us about your strategy here. How did you get into these stores? Where did it all begin?
Naushad Ali: This was a really strategic and networked opportunity. Actually, there’s a couple of things. One, I connected with a commercial Home Depot sales rep over here at the local regional sales rep in Washington. I showed them the product, and he had a real passion for it. He actually sent the prototype and a note directly to the buyer and made that introduction. The time was such that, I had the meeting with the buyers set up for two weeks after my Shark Tank shooting. It was just coincidental because I would have preferred to have met with them prior to my Shark Tank shooting, so that I had some sort of deal that I could present there but the timing didn’t work out.
I went on Shark Tank before I actually met with the buyers, even though I had the appointment scheduled prior to it. Basically, it was a meeting that was the fruit of just a local connection that had really liked it, was a real advocate for it, and introduced me to the buyer. The buyer, when he saw it, really thought it was a great product and said, “Hey look, we’ll …” Brad said, “Love the product. Love to have you in here,” and it was still in prototype stage. He said, “but because this is such a unique product, we’re happy to work with you as an individual vendor, but it would be a lot easier if you were represented by one of the distributors that are already selling into Home Depot.” He said, “Look, I’ll introduce you to a couple. See if you can make a relationship happen because that’ll accelerate your adoption into the Home Depot stores.”
He actually connected me with a distributor that I hit it off with and they ended up actually introducing me to a manufacturer in Taiwan. Then, we actually found a supplier in China, so long story short, this connection with Brad, the buyer at Home Depot, was really critical to our development of the product and sales cycle and distribution because he hadn’t introduced us to that rep, we may not have connected with the right suppliers overseas to get the cost down to where we needed to. Now, we have a great relationship with the factory and the suppliers and we’re, again, developing a bathtub product and that’s how it all begins.
Felix: These introductions to the buyers, to the reps, the distributors, they’re just obviously showing you the door, but you still have to walk through it, right? You still need to finish and sale the idea. What do you think was it about your business or the product or the problem that you were focused on that made you an attractive partner to work with?
Naushad Ali: Yeah. It goes back again to the evaluation of the product, right? I think one of the things that, one of the filters I use that I haven’t mentioned previously is, is it protectable? If something is successful and you get out into the marketplace and you aren’t a large manufacturer, it’s easy for a bigger player to knock it off and come in with a cheaper, potentially better version of what you have and they already have the distribution channel set up, so the key really is, can you protect the idea and is it something that would be unique enough in the marketplace where the buyer or someone would be like, “Yeah. We don’t carry anything like it. Makes total sense. I’m in.”
With Drain Strain, we had a patent already issued, so they knew that they weren’t going to be able to … A month later, there wasn’t going to be Price Pfister or Moen coming out with a similar product because it was patented. That was really helpful in garnering interest because they knew that there wasn’t going to be five other products exactly like this coming out. We were protected.
Felix: Right, so you don’t want to obviously compete with any products already on the shelves at the big box retailers but on top of that, you don’t want to bring a product to them that could be copied and without these protections that you did have in place. Other than all of those steps that you took to seal the deal, what did you have to do with yourself, with the business, to prepare for a successful launch into a big box retailer?
Naushad Ali: Well, big box retailers are very, are cash intensive because you have to provide the inventory and then most of them pay net 90 and some of them pay net 60. Basically, you could be floating hundreds of thousands of dollars of inventory to your partners for 90 days before you get a check, right? That was one of the learning experiences.
The other thing is, this was a really great exercise that everyone needs to do is, if you’re going to be in retail, you have to understand the pricing model. You need to understand whether your costing makes sense considering the end retail price for the retailer. For example, with us the question is, you know, I’d always envisioned this product to be $9.99 and most replacement stoppers are anywhere from $6.99 to $8.99 if you just buy in essence a dome stopper, a simple stopper that you have in your sink right now.
We felt like we could charge more and have people pay for it because obviously it’s a smart stopper. It solves a problem. It’s not just a dumb stopper, but we also felt that we could be too … We thought at the retail level, it should be at $9.99 and online maybe $12.99 because you have to factor in shipping and all of that.
Then, you have to work the supply chain backwards and say, “Well, if I’m going to sell at retail at $9.99 or $10.99 or $12.99, these retailers are going to want to buy at 50% margin at minimum. Let’s just use some simple math and say, ”Hey, if I’m selling at $10.00, they’re going to buy it from me for $5.00 and maybe even a few points less than that."
Then, you have to say, “Okay. Then, what do I need to really make my product at to be profitable because there’s some additional cost you’re going to have in between,” so it’s the product cost. You’re going to have shipping costs. You’re going to have potentially commission cost to distributors and reps, if you have those. You really have to do the numbers and say, “Can I make this profitable at all supply chain levels?”
A lot of people just say, “Oh yeah. If I’m making it $4.00 and I’m selling it online at $15 or $12 or $13, that I’m doing great.” That works well potentially if you’re online only, but if you want to try and get into other channels, there’s different models and the cost may not work.
Felix: Um-hum. Makes sense. These other channels that you’re getting into, online at least, are Amazon and Zulily, so you’ve had a lot of success with these channels as well. Tell us a little bit about this. Which one did you launch into first or were you in both marketplace at the same time?
Naushad Ali: We started Zulily first because as part of our partnership with the Hershevec Group on Shark Tank, they introduced us to Zulily and Zulily was having a Shark Tank event. Our first actual whole production run, we got the shipment and we allotted … and we had actually sold the hotels first as well, so our first shipment we were down to 2,000 or 3,000 pieces and we allotted those to Zulily. This was our first real marketing test. In the first promotion Zulily ran in the Shark Tank event, we were sold out of product in the three hours of the event, which was super exciting for us.
Naushad Ali: That was really the watershed moment. That was a milestone event for us because until that point, it was still all theory. Would people buy this product? Would people get it? Is there a need for it? When we saw that first event sell out in three hours, we knew we were going to be successful.
Felix: What differences have you found now that you are in both Amazon and Zulily? Are there different strategies in terms of marketing, in terms of how you present the product on those two marketplaces?
Naushad Ali: Yeah. That’s been a really interesting thing and David [Hyslop 00:25:36] is my marketing director. It’s been great to have him because it’s allowed us to test a lot of different channels online and test different … and we’re continuing to add channel partners.
Zulily is more of a promotional value kind of partner. They run short events. We’re not on zulily.com every day. We just are on there during promotional events, so we have a very short window. We’re out there at special pricing and then we’re off.
Amazon is more of our day to day online store strategy and along with our website drainstrain.com. What we find is, obviously Amazon drives a lot of traffic to their site. What we found is that Amazon buyers potentially come to our website to learn more about it and how to install it, how to operate it, if it works. Then, they go back potentially and buy it on Amazon.
We find that Amazon’s really our checkout store but our website is evolved into more of a informational store, as a validation point and a educational point for potential buyers to help make their decision.
Felix: On Zulily, do you find that it’s more impulse buy? What’s the-
Naushad Ali: Yes.
Felix: Oh, I see. In that case then, are there ways to, I guess, [inaudible 00:27:13] take advantage of it, but to set up your profile, set up your products in a way that is more conducive to impulse buying?
Naushad Ali: Yeah. When we partner with someone like Zulily and even we’re, hopefully, going to be able to establish a relationship with the Grommet, they are experts at marketing to their consumer base, so they usually own the content. They actually, in fact, Zulily does a great job with product photographs and marketing it to be consistent with their website, with their promotional strategies, and with their consumer base because they’re primarily female, so their clients and viewers are primarily female.
They understand how to market to them and they own the content and they’ve done a great job with it. We don’t try to mess in a space that we don’t know and we just let them deal with the content and they’ve done a great job with it.
Felix: Very cool. Obviously, a big 2017 lineup for you guys. Again, launching at Lowe’s at the beginning of the year. What else do you have planned? Where do you want to see the brand be by this time next year?
Naushad Ali: This time next year, we want … Here’s the beautiful thing about online sales and the online channels, as you can learn a lot about your customers. In the retail world, you cannot. We don’t know who’s buying our product at Home Depot. However, we do know who’s buying it online and originally and intuitively you would think the Drain Strain would be a mans product. It would be something that men would do because it’s a plumbing item and they would be the ones buying it.
What we found through all of our online sales, is that 80% of our buyers are women because they’re the ones who have the problem. They’re the ones who are creating the problem with their hair apparently, right? They are the ones who are actually buying the product and that can actually, that sort of learning has helped us because then we used that information to help evolve our branding.
We’ve basically just rebranded Drain Strain. We have different colors, a different tag line, and that’s all geared towards our new learning of who our customer is and also we’re growing from one product to multi product company. Like I said, we’re launching Drain Strain Deluxe, which is a metal cap. Our current version is a plastic cap but what we found is that, we’ve learned from our adopters in the hotel space that the hotel space needs something more industrial.
Also, based on our Amazon reviews, we’ve gotten several four star reviews that have said, “I would have given it five stars if it was metal.” That just told us that hey, people are willing to pay more if they feel the product is more substantial, so it looks the same but it just feels heavier and for what ever reason, that is important to the consumer but from a functional perspective, it’s important for hotels. We’re basically, delivering our first Drain Strain Deluxe product in January, which will be a metal cap version of the same thing, so if you’ve got an upscale home or if you just like metal construction, for the homeowners it’s going to be the solution and for hotel that’s definitely the right solution.
Then, we’re also adding the bathtub version, which we’re going to launch in April. It’s in tooling right now and that I think is going to be a huge opportunity for the company. We also have the replacement basket and part of the model here is that most drain stoppers, you sell once and it’ll last for 10, 12, 15 years and nobody ever changes the drain stopper unless they’re changing out the faucet, so with Drain Strain, the beauty of it is, it’s kind of like the Razor blade model or the Ink Jet model.
When you buy Drain Strain, Drain Stopper and the basket gets full, you can either clean it and reuse it, but what we’ve done is, we’ve designed it so you never have to touch the gunk. We have two buttons on the top of the cap that you can just press, the basket releases, falls into your trash can or recycle bin. You put in a new basket and put it back in and you’ve never touched the gunk, so it’s just the easiest, simplest five seconds, no mess, no fuss way to clean it and if we get continued refill basket sales, we’re going to have a similar Ink Jet kind of model. We have started to see our replacement basket sale increase now that we’ve had people with Drain Strain installed in their sinks for several months and I think people for $1.50, if you don’t ever have to deal with this, then you’re just going to press the button and you’re done.
That’s the launch plan for next year, is basically, “Hey, we’re introducing Drain Strain Deluxe.” Then, with Shark Tank, we just shot a Shark Tank update couple months with Robert Herjavec and that will hopefully air in January or February and once that launches, that should be, hoping to be a really huge catalysis for our sales moving forward because, not sure if you saw the original Shark Tank airing but I was there pitching a prototype. I just had a prototype and I was just trying to explain the concept to the Sharks.
When I made the deal, it was contingent on us obtaining a licencing partner, not necessarily going into the aftermarket distribution channel. A lot of people don’t even realize we’re in market because if you were to see that show, you would really figure based on how it ended, that we would be available for sale at retail. You would just assume at some point it’ll show up in a facet because that’s how the show was edited. That’s the deal we made, but with the Shark Tank update, people understanding that, hey, this is a viable product. It’s a real product. It’s a successful product and it’s a functional product with great reviews. We, hopefully, will turn on the facet to those millions of viewers and get our sales accelerated for next year.
Felix: Very cool. Exciting future for you guys, so thanks so much for your time Naushad, so drainstrain.com, again, is the website. How do people stay up to date follow along with these upcoming launches, upcoming new products that you guys are going to release?
Naushad Ali: Well, you can basically sign up for our newsletter on drainstrain.com but we also have a Facebook page. If you like us on Facebook, anytime we create an update or we’re about to launch, we’re going to update our Facebook members and that’s another great way to stay connected with us or you can catch us on Instagram but we’re everywhere that social media allows us to be so just find us, friend us, and we’ll help you follow us.
Felix: Cool. Thanks again so much for your time, Naushad.
Naushad Ali: Hey, I appreciate it, Felix. Have a great day.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters. The Ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit shopify.com/masters to claim your extended 30 day free trial.