Thursday, November 1, 2012

Timing is everything: inventors' product returns 10 years after initial failure

From the "Prototypes" column in the New York Times, a discussion with Vanessa Troyer and Chris Farentinos, inventors of the Elephant Trunk, a lockable home mailbox for parcels.

Back in 1999, when [Ms. Troyer] and Mr. Farentinos dreamed up the Elephant Trunk, it was designed to be large enough to hold the television-size computers that people were ordering as e-commerce began to take off. But while it was still in prototype, flat-screen computer monitors came along, defeating its purpose.

“It was deflating,” Ms. Troyer said. “All this time and money and energy had been wasted.”...

Even after shoving the Elephant Trunk into the proverbial drawer, the couple were convinced that it would eventually see the light of day; it was just a matter of when. Sure, computers had become skinnier, but more and more people were shopping online for a wide range of products, and they often were not home to accept the packages.

Beyond the annoyance of coming home and finding those packages “behind a planter,” Ms. Troyer said, or wet from the rain, there was the danger of parcel theft.

Still, when they floated the idea of a mailbox for packages, the response from retailers was, “I think it’s too soon for that,” Ms. Troyer said....

Last year, good timing was compounded by luck when Ms. Troyer and Mr. Farentinos met with Theresa Graham, a merchant for the builders hardware category at Home Depot. As they chatted, Ms. Graham explained that she was a working mother who often came home to boxes strewed all over the porch. She said to Ms. Troyer and Mr. Farentinos, “You know, what I’d really like to see is not a mailbox, but a parcel drop,” Ms. Troyer recalled.

“Chris and I looked at each other and our eyes lit up. It was like, O.K., it’s time.”

The Elephant Trunk is beginning a 3-month sales trial in selected Home Depot stores. Will it become a success the second time around? We'll have to wait and see.

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