Gilda Batista of Weston was creating a haunted house in her garage last Halloween when she started researching black lights, the ultraviolet lights that cast an eerie glow. "While I was researching, I learned about all the different uses," said Batista, a mom of three. One of the interesting facts she learned was that ultraviolet lights, also known as UV lights, are used on crime scenes to detect evidence of bodily fluids.
A different kind of light bulb went off in Batista’s head. "My family travels a lot for pleasure, and I thought that this could be used by families" to detect the cleanliness of a hotel room, she said.
A few weeks later, when the family was staying in a hotel, they picked up a UV bulb from Home Depot and screwed it into a lamp to check out the room. She was appalled by the stains she saw. "But you can’t travel around carrying a light bulb," Batista said.
She thought a small, lightweight UV flashlight would be perfect for travel. Batista started a business called Hotel Inspector to market the product. Here’s how she did it.
The Big Idea
Hotel Inspector is a compact, 3.75-by 1.5-inch UV LED flashlight marketed to travelers to inspect their hotel room pillow cases, sheets and room towels for bodily fluids not visible to the naked eye. In a darkened room, the UV light illuminates phosphorus left behind by blood, saliva, semen, vomit and urine. The flashlight is sold with instructions for $14.95.
Batista was a teacher for nine years before her daughter, Mia, 9, was born. The stay-at-home mom then had Noa, 7, and Jonah, 6. Born with an entrepreneurial spirit, Batista said she was used to working and bringing in an income. In 2004, while still at home, she began working as a distributor for Crocs, and found she was good at it. Then, during the housing boom, she bought and sold real estate.
Another opportunity came when Mia had to come up with a business idea for school. The two created Banditz Hair Bandz, a hair accessory with changeable charms. “"f I see an opportunity, I research it and try to do it," Batista said. "I’ve always been interested in business and entrepreneurship."
For Hotel Inspector, Batista began with an Internet search on black lights, to see what else was on the market. She found light bulbs and tubes online, and in home improvement stores. She also found a UV flashlight that was used in the pet industry, to detect pet urine that owners could smell, but could not see. Batista said she saw an opportunity to rebrand the product.
"I thought there was a niche in the hotel industry, to market to executives and families," Batista said.
Batista started ordering samples of UV flashlights from different manufacturers, and tried products of different sizes and powers. She wanted something small and compact that could fit in a travel case. She designed it with a purple exterior, to set it apart from silver and black flashlights.
Batista and husband, Gilbert, brainstormed names that connoted a criminal inspector, like the Pink Panther. After settling on "Hotel Inspector," Batista went to www.99designs.com to have her logo designed. She submitted her project and several artists submitted sample designs and bid on the job. "I got my logo designed for $299, which for a start-up was great on the budget," she said. Her logo features a cartoon detective with a magnifying glass.
"I wanted customers to instantly recognize what the product was from the packaging," Batista said. "This is an impulse buy. Travelers don’t go in a store to buy this. But when they go in to buy suntan lotion, I want them to see this in the travel section and pick one up."
Batista selected a manufacturer in China that also handles packaging. She ships out orders herself and welcomes all feedback. "I love criticism," she said. "Tell me how to make it better."
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The Hotel Inspector website went live in January 2013 and in February Batista issued a press release on PRNewswire’s iReach, a national distribution service for small businesses. It cost $400 for the distribution, but Batista said it was worth it. The release got picked up by national outlets, and she noticed a spike in sales and web traffic from Canada after a Canadian travel blogger wrote about it.
Batista said she learned about press releases from reading One Simple Idea, by Stephen Key. "I’m self taught," she said. "I read how others are successful and follow their lead."
Batista sells the product on her website and through Amazon.com. She also has had success placing it in retail outlets. The flashlight is being carried by several franchise-owned 7/11 convenience stores, "strategically placed where tourists can see them," Batista said. It is in seven Walgreen’s pharmacies in Key West, South Beach and Weston. It is in some UPS stores, and Batista has sent proposals to Office Depot, Bed, Bath & Beyond and to concessionaires at the Fort Lauderdale and Miami airports.
"I’m slowly reaching out to more and more, but it takes time," she said. "I’m trying to bring it out to high tourist areas."
Batista was contacted by a distributor in February and is in contract negotiations. She has used some Twitter advertising and may offer a Groupon. She is reviewing social media ads on Facebook and other sites to see where she can get the biggest bang for her buck.
Batista said she has used her double minority status – as a Cuban and a woman – to open doors that help minority-owned businesses. "Many large companies have supplier diversity departments that help me learn how to get in and who to contact," she said.
She also sends samples to buyers at major retail outlets and to bloggers and journalists.
Initial Capital Outlay
Batista has spent about $10,000 to get her product off of the ground. About half of it was spent on initial inventory, with the remainder going to logo design, marketing, shipping and website development. "I also spent a lot of time researching, and I don’t pay myself," she said. She has sold 100 to 200 units a month since launching in January, and is not yet profitable.
Batista would like to finalize her distribution agreement, expand to more retail outlets, and one day unroll a more streamlined, compact product.
She also would like to add more products to the line, perhaps travel-size wipes or disposable pillow cases, so she can package them as a travel kit.
Getting the product into a retail outlet buyer’s hands, and waiting for their approval or disapproval. Getting the interest of a buyer with only one product to sell also is a challenge. "I get the feeling that buyers don’t want vendors with only one product," Batista said. "It takes time to open a vendor account. It’s easier for them if they can buy more than one thing from you."
Batista rises at 5:30 a.m. and starts packing lunches and getting school uniforms and breakfast ready. Depending on his schedule, Gilbert, who is in medical sales, pitches in with the morning routine.
Batista drops the kids off by 8 a.m. From then until 1:30 p.m., she handles meetings, phone calls, research and any other business. She picks up the kids at 2:30 p.m. and takes care of after-school activities like softball practice, therapy for her youngest son, who is autistic, and homework. Then it’s dinner, bath time and bed by 8 p.m. for the kids.
"My husband and I work together. When I can’t, he can. We definitely tag team it, and we do a good job of communicating, though we talk more on the phone or by texting than in person," Batista said.
After the kids are in bed, the couple assesses the day and winds down. Batista said she may check emails again, but shuts down by 11 p.m.
"Sometimes my mom or his mom – we call them ‘the abuelas’ will pitch in," Batista said. "We have a fabulous network of family and friends."
"Contact other people who are successful and ask them for advice," Batista said. "I think we can all help each other."