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Entrepreneur has high hopes for deck-chair markers

July 7, 2008

When Darrell Bowman and his family went on a cruise last summer, more than one scuffle over chaise lounges broke out on the main deck.
"There's high demand to get just the right chair during sun time," Bowman said.

But rather than get riled up, he saw an opportunity. And on the drive home, he couldn't let the idea go.

"People were getting into arguments and I just kept thinking, there's got to be a better way," said Bowman, who works full time as a logistics manager for a local wireless devices company.

So in late May he launched Lounge Hats LLC, an Indianapolis-based company that makes fabric covers that fit over chaise lounges to make one thing clear: This seat is taken.

Bowman withdrew $20,000 from personal savings and added another $50,000 from an investor, his friend Mike Oswalt, to start the company. He runs Lounge Hats out of his garage, hiring a Chinese company to sew the hats and contracting with a local printer to finish them off.

He hopes to reach $500,000 in sales this year, selling the $25 covers to resorts, advertisers and consumers. And that would be tapping into only a fraction of the more than 12 million people worldwide who took a cruise in 2006, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

It's an idea industry experts say could catch on among advertisers who want to reach a certain demographic. While it may not solve tussles over territory, they say it could be a great chance for companies to promote their products poolside.

Others question the product's direct-to-consumer potential, however. Most people don't know the covers exist and wouldn't think to buy one, said Larry O'Cull, president of Priio, a Carmel product-development firm.

But it has great potential as a promotional vehicle, listed in the catalogs distributors take to companies so they can print mugs, ball caps and pens with company logos.

"It's a unique giveaway," he said. "Two years from now, I could see these in all the catalogs next to the pens with logos."

In fact, Lounge Hats' first customer is the law firm Bleecker Brodey & Andrews. A staffer knows Bowman and pointed Lounge Hats out to senior partner Steve Andrews.

"We're always looking for something to give away to clients," Andrews said. And the chair covers were unusual enough to stand out. "Nobody has them and they're really slick."

So the firm ordered a couple dozen for a company picnic and 200 custom-made lounge hats for an upcoming conference. Andrews said he's still working with Bowman on the design. He's thinking, "Take this seat and we'll sue you," but that's still up for debate.

While Bowman must work to build his profile, one industry veteran said he needs to be careful about selling the hats direct to companies.

Promotional products generally are sold through a nationwide network of distributors that frowns on direct sales, said Thomas W. Killion, president of locally based Killion Corp. Killion invented the Bentcil-pens and pencils bent into interesting shapes that feature company logos.

"If he supplies directly to the end user, he will get blackballed by the industry," Killion said.

But getting his product listed with a supplier that has a broader range of products, especially beach-related promotional items such as beach balls and towels, might work.

Locally based Norwood Promotional Products has a catalog featuring slews of products, including outdoor items such as a beach pillow, and fold-out captain chair.

"I haven't seen anything quite like that," said Ashley Dalton, Norwood's merchandise manager, adding the idea could have legs.

While Bowman has a patent pending on the product, industry observers say he'll need to establish a national brand name quickly because copies probably are already in the works.

"It's as good as knocked off already, but he's got the name brand," said Priio's O'Cull.

Killion said an adviser told him early on not to bother with a patent for his Bentcil and instead spend the money on marketing.

"[Patent infringement] is a difficult thing in this industry and it's become more so in the past 10 years," he said. "It's sad, but that's the nature of the business."

Bowman already has started a full-court press to get Lounge Hats' name out there. He's considering distribution options and talked with a chaise lounge manufacturer about getting into its catalog. He also has invested in a polished Web site, www.loungehats.com, and his New York-based publicist is working to get the product on television.

She sent in custom-made samples to be part of the "Today" show's giveaway basket for couples who competed to get a free wedding. And she is in touch with producers at CNBC's "The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch," where the advertising guru highlights entrepreneurs launching their products to mass markets.

"His show is all about products like this," O'Cull said. "It's right in with [Deutsch's] philosophy of seeing an unmet need."

In fact, Bowman is a huge fan of the show. He records it daily and cheered on other Indiana-based entrepreneurs he's seen.

"Hopefully, I can get on there," he said.

Meanwhile, he's already working on the second generation of Lounge Hats, which will feature small pockets for room keys and a cell phone or iPod.

"We want to make this as common as a beach towel," Bowman said.

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