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Inventors try pitch their way onto HSN in entrepreneur contest

Don Kobasky slouched in a chair in front of a training room inside an HSN studio in St. Petersburg. He was the only one of more than a dozen who did not seem nervous to be there.

He stood out in his neon yellow T-shirt and wore sunglasses on his head. The other contestants wore high heels and sharp dresses or suits. Kobasky had dried paint flecks under his fingernails. Unlike more than 70 other contestants who flew or drove from all over the country to get to HSN's headquarters last week, Kobasky lives right down the street.

In the training room, the contestants listened to advice on pitching their products from HSN employees, including Bill Green, who has worked on-air at the company for more than 20 years. Green told contestants to sell their story. He told them to show off their personality. He warned them not to say things like "ladies" and "girls" on-air, which can alienate some viewers.

"What about sugar mama?" Kobasky asked.

HSN partnered with Good Housekeeping magazine to launch a competition for entrepreneurs with a game-changing invention. The contest was spurred by the story of Joy Mangano, who invented the self-wringing Miracle Mop and other innovative products for the home and sold them via television retailers such as HSN and QVC. A movie about her, starring Jennifer Lawrence, was released last year.

One selected entrepreneur will be featured on HSN to introduce the winning product to the channel's 96 million households and will be featured in Good Housekeeping, which reaches more than 25 million readers.

The winning product will be tested by the Good Housekeeping Institute, which could lead to receiving the Good Housekeeping Seal for one year. The seal, which was introduced by the magazine in 1909, is a respected consumer stamp of approval and is backed by a limited warranty that offers a replacement or refund if a product is defective within two years of purchase.

"This is the first time the seal will go to an entrepreneur with a product so new," said Christine Rannazzisi-Gerstein, an associate producer of marketing for Hearst Publications, which publishes Good Housekeeping. "We're thrilled to work with HSN to get the word out about our seal and find the next great entrepreneur. Joy Mangano is one of our seal holders, and this was all really inspired by her."

More than 680 people entered the contest and 122 were invited to pitch their products at HSN. A panel of judges made up of officials from Good Housekeeping and HSN listened to entrepreneurs for two days, then whittled down the contestants to about a dozen semifinalists. Ten finalists will be announced in the December issue of Good Housekeeping, which hits stands Nov. 15. The public can vote online beginning Nov. 16. One winner will be chosen in April.

Kobasky had been to the HSN campus in north St. Petersburg once before, just eight months ago. It was in January when he managed to sneak past the security gate and wander the property with a prototype of his invention.

He didn't get very far before security found him and asked him to leave. But he did leave his prototype with an employee.

"And then eight months later I get an email saying I'm in," Kobasky said. "So here I am."

Kobasky' product is the Drip-Krown, a plastic device that covers the groove of a conventional paint can and prevents dripping that can interfere with the lid closing, which leads to ruined paint. He started production six months ago and sells the device in a few Ace Hardware stores around Tampa Bay for $7.99.

Kobasky invited his friend Doug Hensel, better known around Tampa Bay as DJ Fresh of the Tampa Bay Rays, to help him pitch his product. After the morning pitch training, they joined others in a long line to sell their product to the judges.

A hallway in between several HSN studios was lined with wheeled tables where contestants prepared their displays. One table was for Dog Sport, a water bottle cap made specifically for dogs. Another was Oasis, a moisture control device for gardens. There were mops, candle makers and Go Go Gift Bags, which are gift bags with tissue paper already attached.

Some contestants were from startup companies that had already sold thousands of their products. Others had inventions that were just ideas two months ago.

Peggy Bentley from Memphis came up with a cardboard design for a cheap alternative to privacy screens. The idea came to her when her daughter needed one for her college dorm. She thought being featured on HSN could jump-start her company.

"I've shipped them to every state in America now," Bentley said. "It's a cheap alternative to the pretty, but heavy and expensive screens you can buy online."

Tim Bettles works for a small startup company in Columbia, S.C., that invented MosClean, a mosquito trap that uses a small fan and LED and UV technology to trap mosquitoes and other insects. His company, Sensor Electronic Technology Inc., worked with multiple universities, including the University of Florida, to test the trap.

"We think this is a great product to sell on HSN," Bettles said. "We've been trying to sell it on our own but have had limited success. We're a small company and don't have a big budget to spend on marketing campaigns."

Huck Nicola, a senior vice president of the home division at HSN, loved his product.

"This is amazing," Nicola told Bettles and the other judges. "We need to sell this right now."

Bettles was on the fast track to the semifinals.

Kobasky and Hensel gave an animated three-minute pitch to the judges. Kobasky even sang. They walked out feeling confident about their chances to move forward.

But ultimately, the Drip-Krown wasn't chosen to advance.

"I thought it was a grand slam," Kobasky said.

While there's only one winner for the contest, HSN producers offered some contestants a chance to come back on the channel's American Dreams program. American Dreams is designed to help entrepreneurs and inventors introduce their products to the marketplace.

"We'll be back," Kobasky said on his way out of HSN. "I'm confident this is a product that everyone in the world needs."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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