Revenue: $10 million (2013)
$12 million (est. 2014)
Retail price for HANDy Paint Pail: Just under $10;
six-pack of liners goes for about $5.
[This is one of three Spotlight stories from the July 2014 issue, which focused on the theme of business owners' "Aha" moments. Also read the other stories about Irish Titan and Enlivenze.]
Like most inventions, the inspiration for the HANDy Paint Pail didn’t come through divine inspiration. It wasn’t like Paul McCartney writing “Yesterday” in a dream. Mark Bergman just wanted an easier way to paint.
“I was painting around our house in the summer of 2000,” says Bergman, owner of Chanhassen-based Bercom Inc., who had other inventions to his name, including an airplane-shaped spoon for parents of toddlers. “I was redoing the whole basement, and cutting in with a brush and holding on with a paint can, and my hand got tired so I took some duct tape and made a strap to a Folgers Coffee can.
“I used it for about a month. My wife used it, and said, ‘This is a decent item.’ So I brought it down to my buddy the patent attorney, and we realized there had never been a container with a strap.”
That buddy was Jim Young, an intellectual property lawyer at Westman, Champlin & Koehler.
“Mark came in with the Folgers coffee can and said, ‘What do you think?’ I’m like, ‘This doesn’t look like much,’ ” Young remembers with a laugh. “I said, ‘What is it?’ He told me how it came about and how to put it on my hand, and I got it. He had some real crude drawings, so we filed three provisional applications, which are relatively inexpensive placeholders to establish your claim of invention.”
That step would be crucial to the product’s long-term market viability, as it wasn’t long before competitors came circling with similar-looking products—too similar.
“We’ve had to fight off a couple challenges, one from a very big company looking to do a knock-off product, but we had our patent protection in place,” Bergman says. “ I can’t emphasize enough how important that step is for entrepreneurs. It can be tedious and expensive—you wonder, ‘Why am I doing all this?’—but in this case it saved us.”
From the first sale to local paint store Hirshfields—Bergman still has a copy of that first check, for a $1,200 order—the HANDy Paint Pail and its ancillary products (a smaller paint pail and a tray of liners) is in 15,000 to 20,000 stores worldwide, in retailers such as, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Sherwin-Williams, and has sold more than 7 million units.
Bergman had set the price at $10 for the product and faced early resistance from some of the major retailers. None of them could see it going for that much. But Bergman remained steadfast.
“In the beginning I heard from all the big retailers that this thing needs to retail for under $5. I kept saying no, this is the price, there’s nothing else like this, and eventually won out,” he says, noting that he hasn’t changed that price in 12 years.
Menards took an order in March 2002, and other accounts followed, as did profits.
“First-year sales were $800,000 and that was enough to turn a profit. It’s been profitable every year,” Bergman says.
When it came to transition the patents from provisional to permanent, as talks with the patent examiner in Washington, D.C., were dragging out, Bergman, a natural salesman, knew what he had to do. He and Young got on a plane. “Mark brought along a couple pails,” Young remembers. “We went through why we thought Mark’s invention was patentable. Mark got one of those pails out and said, ‘This is how you use it, here’s a paint brush, here’s how it sticks out on the magnet, you put this on the hand.’ You could see the examiner handling it, and we finally got him to put it on, and you could just see the light bulb go off:. It really worked out to do it face-to-face, and since then the patent office has been cooperative.”
The company now has seven employees—including Bergman’s daughter in a PR position and his son handling operations—and 12 products in the category, including packs of liners and HANDy Paint Cup, the pail’s little brother. The company subs out manufacturing to five companies in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and handles all the shipping from its 20,000-square-foot facility in Chanhassen.
“I tell young entrepreneurs to make it simple,” he says. “We’re just trying to make painting easier for people. That’s all we’re trying to do.”