*The following was written by Michael Kaplan and appeared in the July issue of Entrepreneur*
On Valentine’s Day in 2015, Natasha Ruckel and her husband, Fred, were sitting in their living room in Gilboa, N.Y. Natasha was improvising on the piano, and Fred was listening while messing around with the couple’s cat, Yoda. Fred noticed a ripple in the living room rug, forming a half circle on one side. Again and again he tossed toys into the ripple and a delighted Yoda darted in and out. Natasha looked up from her playing. “That’s when we came up with the idea for the Ripple Rug,” she says.
The Ruckels, who had spent around 25 years earning their living in marketing and advertising for brands from PepsiCo to ESPN to Hasbro, were already in the midst of creating their first venture: an app that provided a way for amateur photographers to monetize online images. But they both agreed that the Ripple Rug was a better bet.
A couple of days later, Natasha went to Home Depot and bought some cheap pieces of carpet, and they got to work on a prototype. When they had that, they launched a Kickstarter campaign in May 2015, pricing the American-made product at $39.95, to test the market. Within 30 days, they received $15,000 in backing. They had the products made in Georgia for $15 each, and filled the orders.
The Ruckels were weighing their next step when, that fall, the opportunity of a lifetime hit. QVC, in conjunction with the Today show, hosted an ongoing competition called the “Next Big Thing” for entrepreneurs with new retail products. Participants presented their offerings on the TV program, and the winning products received an order from QVC.
Following an arduous vetting process — including proof of a multimillion-dollar insurance policy, a guarantee of having 1,500 items available for sale and sample videos of the Ruckels in pitch mode — Ripple Rug made the cut. “We drove into New York City, and at every exit, we practiced the pitch,” Fred remembers. “We were there by 5 a.m. and hardly slept the night before.”
They sold a few hundred units immediately. QVC bought 1,500 more and Ripple Rug became a top seller. “It was pretty damned amazing,” says Fred. “We were profitable out of the gate, which is virtually unheard of. It felt like a great moment.”
It was, and it wasn’t. Over the next 14 months, the Ruckels learned that coming up with a truly original innovation attracts not only devoted customers but also the kind of highly organized, deep-pocketed bootleggers who rip off products and systematically grind their inventors into the ground — both financially and emotionally. “It creates so much discord that you are willing to give up the dream of entrepreneurship and go back to your day job,” says Fred.
In the thick of battle, however, the Ruckels learned critical lessons: the importance of copyrighting assets before launching; the reality that people will steal everything from your marketing pitch to your product to your advertising photos; the need to continually patrol for ripoffs and take action. They also got a darkly fascinating glimpse of how ruthless, well-funded, deeply sophisticated bootlegging operations work — and how, with tenacity, vigilance, a good lawyer and the right strategy, they can be beaten.