Smart Shelf creators realizing entrepreneurial dreams with Disney partnership

The Mickey Smart Shelf opens up a whole new audience of users.
Ed Cass and his brother, Dan, have been working since 2015 to make portable, multi-functional shelves for the public, a sort of nightstand on-the-go with convenient gadgets. The Keel last wrote about Smart Shelf, LLC, in 2017 after the brothers' company won funds through the Emerge Fund Pitch Night, became participants in the Underground business incubator, and went on to win first place at the I-69 Thumb Region's Catapult Business Plan Competition.

Their product has evolved since then, donning iconic features of Mickey Mouse and becoming officially licensed by Disney. The red and black slabs easily slip into couch cushions or under mattresses and can be ordered with drink holders and a light. Think of how useful this would be in a hotel or small cruise ship cabin to hold snacks or drinks, for children while playing, or to keep your bedtime necessities like water, eyeglasses, a book, and a light within reach.

Tina Frazier of the Economic Development Alliance, Ed Cass, and Dan Cass at the Catapult Business Regional Compeitition.Ed and Dan, who live in Algonac and St. Clair respectively, are excited about their product, grateful to see their Disney dreams taking off, and, amid all of their successes, remain true to their St. Clair County roots.

This interview is edited for clarity and length.

Keel: What gave you the idea to partner with Disney? How did that process go?

Ed Cass: Disney has always been part of our business strategy; the Mickey concept design is actually part of our first patent. The Disney process is not easy. We knew well ahead of time it would be a long, drawn-out process with no guarantee.

Disney does not license outside products directly but through vetted licensees. Disney cannot legally answer calls from businesses interested in licensing products, which was the route Ed and Dan first tried. Ed remarks, "We thought you walked into Disney like you walk into Target!"

We were fortunate enough to be taken in under one of Disney's best and well-known licensees who we met at one of the conferences we attended. He liked the product and agreed to work with us, guiding and mentoring us through the approval process. This took several months to accomplish, although we were told our product went through the process quickly. Disney accepted our product and asked us to incorporate three variant designs to our concept that would be in sync with their new Disney Home Store home decor product line…Once approved, we were well on our way and things began moving quickly. We were fortunate enough to be in lockstep with Mickey's 90th Anniversary celebration which began in November, and will continue throughout the entire year at Disney resorts.

K: What is the best thing about the Mickey Smart Shelf?

EC: For us, one of the best things is that we have a character-themed platform with interchangeable components offering a The Smart Shelf is portable and has many uses.variety of solutions that we can build upon. But what matters most is people love it and think it's a smart idea. Mickey is the most-loved character that captures the hearts of both young and old alike, coupled with our concept of a multifunctional furniture platform that solves problems and offers conveniences both as a nightstand and a snack tray.

K: There are two styles out now, Mickey's smiling face or a silhouette. Your press release says to expect more. Can you comment on the ‘more'?

EC: Immediately after receiving approval on our Mickey Smart Shelf concept, we were asked to create a Minnie Mouse version and versions for the upcoming blockbuster Disney movies: "Frozen 2," "Toy Story," "Lion King," and "Star Wars."

K: What is else is next for you?

EC: We have had several other companies reach out to us, too, wanting us to create shelf products for their characters and movie themes. We are also being asked to create college and professional sports Smart Shelfs, so the opportunities are out there.


The Disney Smart Shelf tucks into mattresses to keep items like books and water handy.We're also embarking on weighing out retail opportunities for our product. Our first will be locally in the MC Marketplace located in Marine City. From there, we have a series of conferences lined up to attend to promote our products, the first being the Consumers Electronic Show where we will be working on incorporating wireless charging capabilities into our current product line. Most people aren't aware, but our first patent where wireless charging was just one of our claims was filed in 2015 and approved in its entirety in March 2018. Our second patent was approved in November 2018, and our third patent is currently pending. All of our patents give us a wide variety of embodiments we plan to expand on, so we have plenty of room for growth.

K: You recently donated over $600 plus products to Alyssa Milano's $20,000 Toys for Tots birthday fundraiser to Flint. Of all causes, what made you decide to donate to this one?

EC: Two reasons: we are following Disney's lead of supporting Toys for Tots and supporting the local communities who helped support us along the way. We donated $612.98, which was the amount they were short to reach their $20,000 goal, and rounded out our donation with over $400 dollars of Mickey Smart Shelf products we are donating to the cause. Our entire product line is currently made in Michigan. We have some of our printing and packaging done in the Flint area, and the Flint/Genesee County area is also where we won the regional Catapult contest last year. We are supporting those who supported us.

K: You are a familiar face in the community's entrepreneurial world. Do you have any advice for small business Whether it's a bottle of water and phone, or a bowl of popcorn, the Disney SmartShelf has many uses.owners trying to get a business off the ground?

EC: Starting a business is hard. I can't stress enough how important it is to assemble a team of people who are proficient in the areas that are your weak points and having people and resources that are advocating for your success.

Our roots are in the business incubator program, working with The Underground, SBDC, EDA and several other organizations we were introduced to through the incubator program. They have many assets that businesses just starting out can benefit from. Their facility, functions, resources, education, connections, networking and, most importantly, the friendships we gained have all paved the way to our success and continue to be a part of our journey. We also took advantage of area Chambers of Commerce and small business and entrepreneurial organizations like the Downriver Networking Group and Bluewater Startups and Entrepreneurs. Many small businesses just starting out aren't aware of the resources this community has, and the added bonus of having extended team members and organizations who are there to help with the variety of services - many of them free - advocating for your success.

K: Since The Keel likes to highlight small business owners and those interested in entrepreneurship, do you have anything to say about the challenges in creating the Mickey Smart Shelf and getting it to a place you're happy with? What didn't work?

EC: Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. It's a lot of work and there will be plenty of challenges along the way. One of the things we both can relate to is what our dad taught us early on: "Don't tell me ‘can't,' there always is a way." The Disney acceptance and approval was daunting. It's one of the most difficult things to obtain. We have had our manufacturing difficulties, have been overloaded and spread too thin. Sometimes things go smooth, but other times there will be bumps in the road. That's when you need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and move on. It's your mindset, beliefs, and dedication that will get you through.

K: But how many people would have stopped there after running into the difficulties? Not everybody has the mindset to look for new solutions or find the right protocol.

EC: It takes hard work, determination, patience, and consistency. It is not easy, but we are happy. We're overwhelmed! We're overwhelmingly happy.

Head over to www.smartshelfinc.com to check out Mickey Smart Shelf, or keep up with Disney Smart Shelf on Twitter @SmartShelfs.

 
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