Entrepreneur's firm to market sprinkler kit

Author: TOM Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- It all starts with a good idea.

Tim Abbot can attest to this, because four years ago that was all he had, an idea.

Today, Abbot is the president and co-owner of Irrigation Systems Inc., a five-person company born of the product he invented, a combination edging and irrigation system called Hydro-Edge.

The Hydro-Edge watering kit, which will be on Home Depot's shelves next spring, includes 20 feet of black polyethylene edging with Abbot's patented mini-sprinkler heads.

The unobtrusive thimble-sized sprinkler heads attach to the top of the hollow edging, which is pumped with water by a standard gardening hose.

Working in his back yard, Abbot constructed the first prototype for Hydro-Edge using his son's black Legos three years ago.

Despite its humble beginnings, Abbot's product has come a long way since its Legodays, attracting attention from several large-scale home and garden companies, and eventually landing him a contract with Easy Gardener Products, Ltd., a company based in Texas.

It will even be showcased on QVC's television shopping program in the spring, Abbot said.

Abbot drove all the way to West Chester, Pa., to demonstrate how the product worked for a group of QVC evaluators.

"I traveled 700 miles for three to five minutes, but it ended up paying off," Abbot said.

The concept for Hydro-Edge came to Abbot after his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

"She had trouble watering her flower garden," Abbot said. "I had seen some other irrigation out there and came up with this idea."

The idea was to take black-rolled edging, often seen bordering landscaping, and use the hollow top as a conduit for water.

An office equipment repairman for 20 years, Abbot decided he needed a change.

With limited funding and no experience in business, he decided to commit to bringing his product to market.

"I didn't know what injection mold plastic really was, I didn't know anything about negotiating contracts, I didn't know what a license agreement was," Abbot said. "But I decided I was going to learn."

After four long years, Abbot feels like he has almost earned a degree in business.

And if he would have earned a business degree, one of his professors would certainly have been Jim Gregar, associate director of the Indiana Small Business Development Center in South Bend.

When Gregar pulls up Abbot's file on his computer, it shows the two met on 80 separate occasions.

"Tim is the only client that I have on my Rolodex," Gregar said, laughing.

Gregar worked with Abbot by providing him contacts and information and pointing him to resources. Consulting done by the Small Business Development Center is free.

One of these resources was the Collegiate Management Assistance program at the University of Notre Dame, which Gregar started and coordinates with Dave Hayes, a professor in the Mendoza College of Business.

Undergraduate students in Hayes' Introduction to Entrepreneurship class conduct feasibility analyses for local entrepreneurs.

The team of students assigned to Abbot's project concluded the product to be "extremely feasible," calling it "truly unique."

Abbot took advantage of several other free services along the way, including one offered by Purdue University's technical assistance program.

"Any time there was something I knew I couldn't do, there was always somebody I could find who could do it, and who was willing to do it," Abbot said.

Gregar credits Abbot for being willing to rely on other people and to give up control -- something he said entrepreneurs are often reluctant to do.

Abbot, who found a partner in Journeyman Tool & Mold owner Mike Meyer early on, also teamed up with Leo McCormick, a retired patent attorney, and two marketing specialists.

The group found a plastic and packaging company to manufacture the product, incorporated, and eventually signed a 10-year license agreement with Easy Gardener.

Abbot, who has a pet-care product in the works, said one of the best parts about the process has been the people he has met.

"When it truly got down to the end, I could still look back and say I would do this for free," Abbot said. "To me it wasn't as much about the money as it was about the personal change that would come with it."