Theron Pickens of Fort Mill is hoping he can turn his simple idea into a thriving business.
Pickens believes he has solved the problem of protecting a television while traveling to a tailgate party, as well as keeping the television from falling to the ground once the party has started. In most instances a fall is fatal to a flat-screen television.
It’s a common problem as three out of every five tailgaters like to bring a television to watch the pre-game show, the game before the game or even the game itself. Some people have even started “homegating,” taking their television(s) outside their house for the big game or movie, enjoying the event with food and friends.
Some protect their televisions by wrapping them in a blanket. Others transport their televisions in the original boxes, which can quickly rip and tear. Others buy their own special outdoor television, but that’s a pricey option with some outdoor televisions costing $4,000.
Even if the box or blanket option works, how do you keep the television from falling? The small pedestals that come with the televisions are not very sturdy. A gust of wind, someone bumping a table or tailgate, and the television has crashed.
Pickens’ solution is the TOC Box, short for Television Outdoor Carrier.
The TOC Box is a simple design. It is constructed from ABS plastic and is rigid and strong.
One piece of the TOC Box becomes the base. The other piece locks into place to hold the television. There are wire braces to give the TOC Box strength. There is even a sun visor to keep the glare off the television.
It can hold LED or LCD flat screen televisions up to 43 inches in diameter. Pickens said the most popular televisions for tailgating are 40 inches in diameter.
But turning a simple idea into a profit-making product is anything but simple.
Pickens is a registered civil engineer who recently retired from Land Design in Charlotte. He is an avid tailgater, taking his wife, Cathy, a teacher at Orchard Park Elementary in Baxter Village, to Clemson and Panther games. They are often joined by their daughter, Jennifer, and son, Michael.
His engineering background helped him design the TOC Box. His first efforts were made from wood and were bulky and heavy. Nonetheless, other tailgaters asked Pickens where they could get a TOC Box. He knew he had found an under-served, niche market.
His engineering background also told him he had to make a quality product that was strong with secure locks and solid hinges.
Pickens became more convinced when he learned that tailgating is a $35 billion industry.
Pickens had some prototype TOC Boxes made from ABS, a lightweight but sturdy plastic.
To translate an idea into a business he turned to the Technology Incubator in downtown Rock Hill for help. Pickens was aware of the incubator through his work with the York County Economic Development board and the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The Technology Incubator – which is affiliated with Clemson University – helped coach Pickens in aspects of business. But it also put Pickens in touch with another engineer who took his prototype and re-engineered it to increase its strength and stability, reduce its cost and make it easier to produce in volume.
The Technology Incubator helped Pickens accept that he no longer needed to be the engineer. His role was relationships, finding the right partners to grow his business.
To help build business relationships, Pickens recently attended the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas where more than 175,000 visitors came to see what 4,000 vendors were showing. In addition to looking for partnership possibilities with manufacturers and other lifestyle companies, Pickens also studied new TV technology, making sure his TOC Box was compatible with the latest televisions.
He also has been meeting with various big retailers about selling the TOC Box.
The TOC Box got a boost recently when Tailgater magazine named it one of the top gadgets and gear every tailgater needs. (The magazine also ranked the top 25 colleges for tailgating. South Carolina was 17th and Clemson was 15th. Tops in the country was Oregon.)
Pickens has self-funded his idea, convinced he has a winner. Winning, he said, would be manufacturing and then selling the TOC Boxes for about $300 apiece. win-win, Pickens said, would be to bring those manufacturing jobs to York County.
A win-win-win, Pickens admits, would be to get the U.S. Army interested. Pickens is a 21-year Army veteran, and while TOC stands for Television Outdoor Carrier, it also stands for Tactical Operations Center, where Pickens once served. A TOC for the TOC.
Pickens realizes “there is a short window of opportunity” for the TOC Box. While he has applied for a patent, he know others will follow. Even the slightest change in design could qualify for a new patent, Pickens said. He is already thinking of a small TOC Box that would appeal to recreational vehicle owners or campers.
Still, with the clock ticking on his TOC Box, “we’re all in,” he says. “It’s risky and scary.”