John Wirth has been dreaming up business ideas since his teenage days, but so far he's never struck it big. Now, as he awaits word on his latest big idea, the Vancouver native says he thinks the fourth time will be the charm.
His product: bowls shaped like footballs, basketballs and soccer balls, which Wirth hopes to market to sports fans, parents of young children and pet owners. It's an idea so simple that it seems like the sports-themed bowls should already exist. But search on Google, Amazon or eBay, and nothing remotely like Wirth's "Remarkabowl" pops up.
It's not just the product that has Wirth convinced that his new company will succeed, however: He says he's learned from earlier failures, and that this time around he's got the right team and the right business plan to become an entrepreneurial success story.
Wirth, 47, figures each failure brings him closer to capturing the hearts of consumers. He had a lot to learn when he started his first business, which had a name quite similar to the business he's running today. He was just 14 when he started that company, which he called Remark-A-Ball. He made small ping pong-like balls to place on car antennas to make it easier to find vehicles in a crowded parking lot.
At that early stage of his life, Wirth naturally was unfamiliar with the world of manufacturing and distribution, and the company never took off. He abandoned Remark-A-Ball during his sophomore year at Fort Vancouver High School. Years later, Wirth saw smiley face antenna balls for sale at a Wal-Mart, and shook his head at the realization that they looked just like his original invention.
That led to lesson No. 1: "Inventions require manufacturers."
Wirth's second adventure as an entrepreneur began with the precursor to his current Remarkabowl products. About 14 years ago, he developed a dish that looked like a basketball. This time, he knew he'd need a manufacturing deal for the company to grow. Longtime friend Joe Hart, president of Vancouver-based Hart Toys, helped Wirth navigate the process of getting the bowls made.
"I sold 67,000 bowls to 2,400 Safeways, and it seemed like I was off and running," Wirth says. "But I didn't know what I was doing."
Those initial sales covered Wirth's startup costs, but did not bring in enough cash to fund more manufacturing or to pay for a marketing push. The company was profitable, but not enough to grow. So Wirth shelved his product and returned to his sales career.
Wirth had learned lesson No. 2: "Companies need capital to grow."
In 2008, Wirth was ready to try his hand as a business owner again. He invented a product called Wrapid Wrap, a line of themed greeting cards designed to hold gift cards.
Concerned about sustaining the business for the long run, Wirth decided to license the product to a third-party. Chicago-based Calumet Carton would manufacture, market and sell the Wrapid Wrap, and pay Wirth's business a fee based on its sales.
But when Calumet Carton determined it would have to retool more of its assembly line than it originally anticipated, the company lost enthusiasm for Wirth's invention. So much for the Wrapid Wrap.
Too bad. That experience led to lesson No. 3: "Don't give up control."
Eight months ago, Wirth decided he was ready to try yet again. But this time he was determined to go big with his entrepreneurial idea.
He would need a strong manufacturing relationship, enough capital for the company to grow, and the ability to maintain control so nobody else could derail his dreams. A long career in sales and management had taught him another critical lesson.
He entered into his fourth business venture with a critical insight, which can be called lesson No. 4: "Relationships matter."
So Wirth began recruiting business partners who would help his company grow.
Patrick Laing, sales manager at a home improvement company, had previously supervised Wirth, and was convinced by the Remarkabowl vision.
"John shared the idea with me, and I said, 'What are you waiting for?'?" Laing recalls. "He gave me a list of everything that needed to take place for the company to get off the ground, and I said, 'Let's do it.' I'm a motivator and a coach and a trainer, and I'm all about opportunity."
Laing became Wirth's first partner at Remarkabowl, and before long they'd recruited a third partner. Dan Jordan, owner of Millenium Graphics in Hillsboro, Ore., agreed to provide marketing services and access to his company's resources in exchange for part ownership in the company.
Alan Cheung, owner of China-based manufacturer Kinspring, also saw potential in the Remarkabowl idea. "We sent him pictures of our original concept bowl, and he fell in love with it," Wirth says. "He called us and said, 'I don't just want to be the manufacturer, I want to be a partner.'"
Cheung agreed to fund a portion of the manufacturing process, and to offer a line of credit if the company needed more capital to fund the rest.
Preparing for launch
With all the pieces in place, the founders of Remarkabowl say their three product lines — one for pets, one for small children and one for adults — could be on store shelves in May.
Wirth, who is moving back to Vancouver after a short time in Portland, is working for the business full time, and has secured a headquarters location at 2600 N.E. Andresen Road, in a space shared with Hart Toys. He says he's had serious talks with pet store chains and department stores, and he expects to be able to announce distribution deals any day. The company has launched a $20,000 Kickstarter fund drive: though he has access to credit, Wirth says he would prefer to raise money without taking on debt. He hopes to accept delivery on his first 45,000 to 50,000 units by May.
Given the fates of Wirth's previous entrepreneurial efforts, it's hard not to wonder if he and his business partners really have learned everything they need to know in order to succeed.
"I've developed over a hundred products over the years, and it's very rare we have a success," says Joe Hart of Hart Toys, who is not an investor in Remarkabowl, but who has watched the company's development.
Because products that seem bound to fail sometimes make it big, and products that seem like surefire winners sometimes flop, Hart says he's hesitant to predict Remarkabowl's future.
"Nobody knows what will succeed and what won't until it goes out into the world," he says. "But when you have a force behind a product like John (Wirth), that's a tremendous benefit. A lot of products would have been more successful with the right push. John is somebody who believes in a product, and who can make it happen."
Remarkabowl partner Laing says he also puts a lot of faith in Wirth's drive.
"Experience, luck, hard work and mentors, it takes all of those to make it happen," Lang says. "But John takes it to the next level. This guy is the most tenacious person I've ever met."
For his part, Wirth says his previous businesses do not foreshadow Remarkabowl's future — rather, they provided important lessons that he's using now. And as he looks to the future, he sees only one option.
"This will work," he says. "I've lit my bridges on fire. There is no retreat. We will make this a success."