Most corporate organization charts don’t have a slot for chief inventor, but Mississauga, Ontario-based distributor The Next Trend Designs (TNT) does. And it’s the most appropriate title for Rob Charlton, who co-founded the company 25 years ago with his partner, Janine Taylor.

Growing up in the Greater Toronto area, Charlton flexed his entrepreneurial muscles early on. While still in high school, he started a sportswear company, Authentic Wicked Wear, which featured shirts inspired by the surfing and tie-dye styles that were popular at the time. His customers were so impressed by the designs that he started receiving requests to have their logos printed on the shirts. That experience served as Charlton’s introduction to the promotional products industry.

By 1993, Charlton and Taylor owned their own distributorship. Their interests and skill sets complemented each other: Charlton drove sales and marketing, and Taylor managed the business and human resources responsibilities. Charlton credits Taylor with being “the brains behind the business,” and says she expertly handles the important behind-the-scenes duties that keep the company running. What started as a two-person shop grew to current-day TNT, which employs 35 staff members.

Charlton is not your typical distributor, though. One of his passions is identifying a product that can be improved upon and developing an upgraded device that can be patented. His process includes creating the original design on computer-aided design (CAD) software, printing a 3D sample and locating a factory to manufacture it.

What are some of your inventions or product innovations that have been successful in the promotional products industry?

My background is in sports fitness, so when I create something it usually has a fitness twist to it. I invented the Typhoon Shaker Bottle, which allows the user to create a protein shake on the go. We have been very successful with this product, selling millions across North America and internationally. We own the patent and the rights to it. 

We’ve also come up with a 2.2-liter jug with a shaker-top lid, and a pill case that holds supplements as well as proteins—powders, nuts or any type of pre- or post-workout snack. I don’t come up with new ideas from scratch, but instead I look at products that are out there and imagine how they could be better.

What invention led you to appear on The Dragons’ Den, which was the precursor to the popular U.S. show, Shark Tank?

I pitched a line of performance-enhancing mouthware for athletes, including mouthpieces and mouthguards. The mouthware utilizes patented Dimensional Stabilizer technology, a unique feature that prevents performance depletion. These products are not part of the promotional market, so Janine and I co-founded a second business, New Age Performance, Inc., that offers them.

How did you get interested in athletic mouthpieces?

Back in 2008, I was at a trade show where I met Dr. Anil Makkar, a renowned international neuromuscular dentist, who was demonstrating how a custom athletic mouthpiece can enhance strength, flexibility, range of motion, balance and oxygen flow. I was impressed by the product’s performance, but the process to order it was lengthy and time consuming, and at $2,000 apiece, the price was prohibitive. 

When I got home, I started working on developing a “boil and bite” version, which would eliminate the process and price barriers. When I had a prototype, I contacted Anil. He was excited about the possibilities, and we decided to work together to bring it to market. The final product can be bought at an affordable price and molded at home. 

How did you go about marketing this unique line of products?

It was a tough road at first, because people thought we were selling black magic or snake oil. It began to get a cult following when some prominent weightlifters began using it. We were also fortunate to team up with Pete Czerwinski, otherwise known as Furious Pete, a Canadian competitive eater and YouTube celebrity. With his over five million followers, he grew our reach internationally. Pete also got us the opportunity to audition for The Dragons’ Den for their two-hour premiere in September.

What was your experience pitching the products on The Dragons’ Den

It was amazing. Anil, Pete and I pitched the mouthpieces, which retail for $40, and the mouthguards, which retail for $50. We got offers from all six of the venture capitalists, who are the “dragons” on the show. We had asked for an investment based on a valuation of $1 million for New Age Performance, but we received offers based on valuations as high as $3 million.

What results have you seen from the show?

We were hoping to gain credibility to help us overcome the skepticism that we had encountered, and obviously we were excited about the publicity. But we got so much more than that—as soon as the show aired, our website went ballistic. Before we appeared on The Dragons’ Den, about one percent of our sales came from Canada. After our appearance, that number jumped to 30 percent. We’ve seen a boost in sales of roughly 700 percent overall, which is incredible.

How do you divide your time between your two companies?

Janine and I run TNT every day, and that is our main concentration. We love the business, and promotional products is what we know. But as New Age takes off, it is taking up more of our time, so we’re in the process of hiring. We’re managing offers to purchase the exclusive rights to our products from multiple countries, including Russia, India and Spain. 

How do you spend your free time?

I’m an active, outdoors person, and I love snowmobiling, ATV riding and working out. I just got married in September, and my wife, Francis, and I have a cottage that we like to hang out in on the weekends. I also have two sons—Brock, who is 23, and Kashton, who is eight—and they  keep me busy.  

Terry Ramsay is associate editor of PPB.