Making Something From Nothing: Keith Zivalich Of Magic Weighted Blanket On How To Go From Idea To Launch

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

If you believe in your idea AND you know prospective customers will believe in your idea, never give up. It took us nearly 17 years to get major press coverage.

As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Keith Zivalich.

Keith Zivalich invented the Original Weighted Blanket® in 1997, after his oldest daughter placed a beanie baby on his shoulder. Although early reviews for his invention at the local swap meet were not inspiring, Zivalich continued on, sure that he could find a market for his Magic Weighted Blanket. Today, millions of people around the world use his invention to improve sleep and relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression, autism, and other mental health disorders. Zivalich’s motto is to “never give up” and his perseverance and eventual success has proven that his motto is well-founded.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Born on George Washington’s Birthday, February 22, in 1961. Both parents lived through the depression. As a result, their philosophy was to save your money and when you had enough, buy land. Save more money, build your house. Save more money, build another house and rent it out. Save more money, build an apartment building. Keep saving and keep building. Because of their experience with banks and the great depression, they had a strong belief that you start with nothing and the only way to have, and keep, something is to own it outright. They built a small real estate empire from nothing. These were the foundations planted in my childhood backstory.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My guiding ‘life lesson quote’ is to “expect setbacks but never give up.” This is what got me through the early days after coming up with the idea for a weighted blanket and deciding to start my own e-commerce business. Virtually everything was a setback. Virtually everything was a learning opportunity. But quitting was never an option. I taught myself basic coding to build our first website, which was filled with one set back after another. I never quit. Finding a sewing contractor willing to make a very time consuming product like a weighted blanket was filled with more setbacks. I never quit. Explaining to people how something so counter-intuitive as a weighted blanket could help you sleep better was filled with setbacks. I never quit. And today, weighted blankets are a global phenomenon with hundreds of competitors presenting many more challenges and setbacks, and I will never quit.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One of the first books I read was Jack London’s ‘Call Of The Wild.’ It was a story about how bad things happen to a dog named Buck, who has to continually fight for his life against harsh and bitter injustices, but who is befriended by a kind man and this makes an indelible change on Buck’s determination to fight those injustices. Buck was literally the underdog, and something I greatly have an affinity for. After spending many years working in the button-down corporate world, I never got over feeling like the underdog — like I didn’t belong, Like Buck. And it was the need to fight the system that lead me to want to work for myself. I’m still the underdog, but now I’m the top dog too.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?

When my daughter put a stuffed toy on my shoulder and it inspired me to come up with the idea for a weighted blanket, I instantly knew it was a good idea. But I knew I had to make it and show it around to see how other people felt about it. I envisioned the weighted blanket as a product for children so I showed it to parents with kids and their reaction was not encouraging. Again, the counter-intuitive nature of putting weights inside of a blanket was not looked upon favorably, and with a few laughs to boot. But when I gave a weighted blanket to a teacher who taught disabled children and asked her to try it with her students, many of whom were on the Autism spectrum and/or suffered from sensory processing disorder, everything changed. She told me that night that she needed more of those blankets, many more. It was at this moment that I knew my idea was a great idea and that I had a lot of work ahead of me. The lesson I kept learning as I slowly built my business was to ask for help. If I was up against a dead end, I would reach out to friends, vendors, customers, anyone who would listen and ask for help. When I could not find a sewing contractor who was willing to take on the arduous task of making a weighted blanket, I told a co-worker about my struggle and they introduced me the sewing contractor who has been my partner for over 18 years. Ask for help, and don’t ever, ever give up.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

When I came up with my idea in 1997, the internet was just in its infancy. At that time, all I knew for sure was that I had never heard of a weighted blanket. But I knew it was going to be huge, so if I was the first to come up with the idea, I wanted to patent the idea. After searching the patent database and not finding an existing patent for anything like it, I filed for the patent. Unfortunately, it was denied with the reason being it was not unique enough. Even so, I forged ahead. Today, my advice would be to do a google search. If it exists, it’s there. If it doesn’t, you’ve got something unique. But don’t apply for a patent yourself like I did. Hire a patent attorney, which I did for my next invention. The first thing the patent attorney told me was not to be discouraged if your claim is denied. The vast majority of patent claims are denied. But if you appeal and argue why it is unique and needed, then it becomes closer to a 50% approval rate. Don’t quit.

For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

Once you have an idea, the first thing you should not do is to reach out to other entrepreneurs or businesses and try to sell them your idea. They don’t want it. What they want is something unique that is profitable — a proven product. So prove that your product is profitable. Start by obtaining a provisional patent. That gives you one year to develop proof of concept. Most times, you will have to then make a prototype, find manufacturing, make a bunch, create an ecommerce site, run online marketing and PR, and sell a bunch of products. Where do you find someone to make a prototype? Google. Where do you find someone to make your product? Google. How do you build an ecommerce website? Google. Where do you go to market your product? Yep. Google. Now another way, thanks to crowd funding, like through Kickstarter or Indiegogo, you can take your provisional patent and your idea and just talk about it on one of these crowd funding platforms. There are definitely some marketing tricks you’ll need to follow to get the word out and drive traffic to your crowd funding site. But you can get prospective customers to “pre-order” your product before you even make it. That is a form of obtaining proof of concept. Once you have money in the bank and manufacturing already lined up, all you need to do is start production and start fulfilling orders. As far as finding a retailer to distribute your idea/product, don’t! Become an ecommerce “retail slayer” and corporate retail will come looking for you. That is what happened with us.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. If you believe in your idea AND you know prospective customers will believe in your idea, never give up. It took us nearly 17 years to get major press coverage.
  2. When you are starting out: Put as much blood, sweat, and tears into your business as possible; and put as little of your own money into it as possible. When I was taking my idea from concept to our first sale to our first $50,000 in sales, I reached into family savings and stayed out of debt. I knew I was not going to quit, ever. But I also knew that if I borrowed against our home or took out loans, and the idea failed, which you have to know is a high probability, you will end up an indentured servant. Quitting was never an option, but failure is. It’s okay to fail, and it’s okay to try again. Just don’t go into debt trying.
  3. When you have an idea that is a proven success, hand it over to someone who knows how to leverage someone else’s money into a lot of money. I talked about not using your own money to get started. But once you have a proven winner, get it out there in a big way. And it takes money to get it out there. And this time, not your money — let the money people who know how to make money make you lots of money. By 2016 we had been featured in Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, Wall Street Journal and many others. We made our first million that year. The next year, a company sourced weighted blankets from China and did a Kickstarter campaign, generating nearly $5 million is sales — before a single blanket had been shipped. This company put significant money and leveraged connections to launch weighted blankets into the stratosphere. That company should have been me.
  4. Put your heart and soul into bringing your idea to life and into proving its viability. Then let it go. Find people who have experience taking successful start ups and making them successful small businesses. I am still to this day learning what I don’t know. And I’m learning that I don’t know a lot. Phase II of our little family business will be to bring in partners who have the knowledge and experience to take us to the next level. It took us 24 years to get here. The next 24 years are going to be off the chart.
  5. Get in and get out as early as you can. This is related to number 4. I wish someone would have told me that I was going to come up with a product category called weighted blankets and it would do over $260 million in global sales by 2020. If they had, I would have reached out to sell my business after it made its first $5 million for a factor of 5. Our family could live fairly well off of $25 million. I know that company that leveraged our idea with their Kickstarter campaign is doing quite well. Don’t get me started.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Google search for similarities; obtain a provisional patent; make a prototype and show it around everywhere and to everyone; ask for help and ideas; get qualitative feedback; get quantitative feedback; and most importantly, get it out there and start selling it. If it sells, have an exit strategy so someone else can take it to the next level

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

A consultant is going to tell you everything I just said and they’re going to charge you for services you don’t need or can’t do yourself. If you are passionate and believe in your idea, you are the best person alive to make it a reality. No one else will ever have your determination and drive to keep going when the obstacles and setbacks keep coming. Trust yourself. And never give up.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Do both. Bootstrap until you have proof of concept and significant sales to back it up. Then venture-capital-the-hell out of it.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We have helped over one million people all over the world enjoy better sleep and to experience less anxiety. And at a more personal level, we have donated hundreds of our Magic Weighted Blanket to veterans suffering from PTSD. We hear their stories every day and every day I am grateful that we have taken an idea from nothing and done something so good for those who need it the most.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

This is the easiest one to answer. I would want to inspire a movement where people would commit to doing just one kind thing for someone else each day. That one kind thing will inspire the person receiving that kindness to do one kind thing for someone else, and that will inspire the next person and so on. It’s almost 2022, and this world needs a little kindness more than ever.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Mark Cuban. I love watching Shark Tank because of him. From what I can tell, he has no problem making lots of money but also has a good heart. A capitalist with a good heart. That’s me and Mark.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Making Something From Nothing: Keith Zivalich Of Magic Weighted Blanket On How To Go From Idea To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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