CKIC Inventor Blog

What Does QVC, Direct Response TV and Social Media Have in Common?

August 4th, 2013           

Understanding this common link is vital to the success of selling your invention.

Change is not a threat, it’s an opportunity. Survival is not the goal, transformative success is .   –  Seth Godin

I’ve heard so many inventors say things like, “if I could only get my invention on QVC, then it would sell millions!”, or “if my invention can get picked up by one of those infomercial companies and get on TV, it will be a hit!”.  Now, I’ve seen inventors become successful in a variety of marketing approaches, including home-shopping networks and as As-Seen-On-TV type products.  And while both of those venues continue to have merit and are wildly successful for many products and companies, too many times inventors and entrepreneurs convince themselves that they are the only two choices at their disposal. 

If you boil down television, radio, newspaper and internet advertising to their very essence, you come up with one commonality.  They are a platform, which happens to be a book by the same name that I am now reading and already highly recommend, called Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World by author Michael Hyatt.  In his book, Michael tells us that to be successful in the market today, you must possess two strategic assets: a compelling product and a meaningful platform.  And as technology is changing, so is this platform.  He says that a platform is simply the thing you stand on to get heard.  But unlike a stage in a theatre, today’s platform is not made of wood or concrete.  They are made of people, contacts, connections, followers.  If you get your product on the right TV venue, you are standing on a platform to millions of viewers to see.  But even this is changing.  Today’s platform is the means by which you connect with your existing and potential fans.  It might include your website, blog (like this one), a Twitter and Facebook account, an online video or a podcast.  And while these are important, the successful inventor will likely use a combination of social and convention media venues.

If the idea of using social media to connect people to your invention or product scares you, I have good news.  If you are actively involved in selling or talking to people about your product, you already know how to do this!  Entre-Inventors don’t realize they are already great at social media.  They are meeting people, telling stories, networking and solving customers’ problems.  Now they just have to start doing it online.  Jon Acuff, author of Quitter, says that those who are new to social media think the people they come into contact online are somehow different than the people they meet face to face.  “But we’re not dealing with mythical creatures here,” Jon says.  “Your online customers want the same things your ‘regular’ customers want – respect, honesty and a good deal.” 

So what happens when you sell something on TV?  On some level, you’re building a trust relationship between the person selling the product and the person buying it.  And social media is about relationship building.  On one level, it becomes a more intimate exchange, akin to your customer walking into your “store” than calling an 800 number to place an order. 

As more and more people engage in social media, the question is not will it be necessary for you to connect with people that way.  It is “will you be a part of what is happening”.

Invent Like MacGyver

June 29th, 2013           

Inventors can learn a lot from many aspects of a Hackerspace.

Improvise, adapt and overcome.   –  Adopted mantra in many units of the Marines

Do you remember the old television series “MacGyver”?  It was the TV show where the protagonist, MacGyver, would solve complex problems and escape desperate situations using duct tape, a Swiss Army knife, or anything else that happened to be around and handy.  Using his resourcefulness and knowledge of chemistry, physics, technology and other disciplines, he would often resolve crises and solve problems by creating inventions from simple items that were readily available.  The name MacGyver has even become synonymous with the idea of doing what is conventionally considered impossible by extremely inventive and resourceful means. 

I had the privilege recently of making another visit to LVL1 (pronounced “Level One”), a hackerspace in Louisville.  If you’re not familiar with what a Hackerspace is, it’s a community-oriented workspace where people with common interests in computers, science and various other technologies, can meet, socialize and collaborate on a myriad of projects.  Many of these types of places, also known as makerspaces, are popping up all over both nationally and locally. 

While I was there, I was reminded of how these spaces, have to potential to help inventors and entrepreneurs in very unique ways.  At LVL1, for instance, they have 2 machines called Makerbots, a new breed of 3D printers that can give inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs the power to make plastic parts very inexpensively. 

Among the many an inventor’s dilemmas, moving from the “idea on a napkin” stage to an “I can prove that it works” or “I can build a prototype and shop it around to potential buyers/licensors” stage can be a daunting and expensive one.  Building a prototype, having specialized parts built and tooling up for plastic molded parts can stop an inventor in his or her tracks, many times by way of their pocket. 

So how are an old 90’s TV show, Hackerspaces and inventors not only related but potentially intertwined?  Because I believe the inventor/entrepreneur that can avail themselves to the potential power of tools and collaboration opportunities that lie within the walls of these new Makerspaces can increase the odds of not only getting through many critical parts of the invention process without an inordinate amount of expense early on (which can kill an invention/startup before it even begins), but also their ultimate success. 

For one, the tools and creative talent found in these Hackerspaces can be staggering.  If you are trying to build a prototype or find a way to make a critical area of your invention work, you may find your answers readily available, and it may likely not be the answer you thought it was going to be. 

There is another, intangible asset that is almost palpable in these spaces, and that is the power of collaboration by networking with a lot of other people.  There is a direct correlation between interacting and making friends of people broadly and sincerely and successful people.  And this is never more true than it is with inventors and entrepreneurs.  And making them know you could help them and that you are eager to do so typically reaps you more in benefits that you could ever give. 

So before you go out and pay a lot of money, or worse yet money you don’t have on an unproven product idea, try the Makerspace route to get you to the point where you can get out of the building and prove that you have customers for your product.  And create something that MacGyver himself would be proud of!

What Success Really Looks Like

June 2nd, 2013      

Your invention/business journey will likely end in a completely different way than you began.

No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy  .   –  Helmuth von Moltke

A very good piece of advice I was once given was to try and invest a portion of my time reading good books and other materials to improve myself both professionally and financially.  As I’ve tried to follow this advice, one of the better and timely reads I have had referenced to me recently was by Steve Blank on what he calls the Lean Startup.  It basically tells the idea of a strategy favoring experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional “big design up front” development.  The ideas of “minimum viable product” and “pivoting” are quickly taking root in the start-up world, and I think answers many of the problematic steps – and missteps – both inventors and entrepreneurs find themselves in the middle of when trying to get a product or business off the ground. 

Many start-ups, especially those seeking funding to get started, are required to write a business plan outlining, among other things, what their market is, who their customers are, how many of them are going to buy and why.  And while this is an important and necessary exercise for anyone getting started with a new product or business, it is not the static, unbending master plan that many may be tempted to believe and make uninformed decisions on.  Rather, it is a starting place where you begin to find out what true shape both your product (invention) and market will need to take to be ultimately successful. 

After decades of watching thousands of startups, Steve Blank says that he’s learned 3 things:

  1. Business plans rarely survive first contact with customers.  Boxer Mike Tyson once said that “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” 
  2. No one besides venture capitalists and the late Soviet Union requires five-year plans to forecast complete unknowns.
  3. Start-ups are not smaller versions of large companies.  They do not unfold in accordance with master plans. The ones that ultimately succeed go quickly from failure to failure, all the while adapting, iterating on, and improving their initial ideas as they continually learn from customers. 

And I think that last point is one we should really pay attention to here.  As one successful business owner put it: “We aren’t really successful, we just survived all our failures.  Our success is standing on top of a huge pile of failures.” 

Another point Mr. Blank makes is that in order to find out what the reality is on exactly what the product needs to end up being and who is really going to buy it, the inventor or company founder needs to “get out of the building”.  That means getting out there and talking, listening and carefully watching for feedback from potential customers.  In over 20 years in business, I have to say that nothing could be more correct.  The best research with the truest outcomes have come from out in the field.

If you’d like an in-depth study of this subject, I should mention that Steve Blank has a free course on this subject available online at 

So remember, what you originally come up with and where you think it will sell might be spot-on, but you have to be open to the fact that once you have the real “boots-on-the-ground” information, you may have to pivot and change anything or everything in ways you weren’t expecting.

When Love Gets In the Way of Inventing

February 5th, 2013      

Is love keeping you from being successful at inventing?  If it does, you may not even know it.

I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success . . . Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.   Nikola Tesla

Love can be a wonderful thing.  It binds us to spouses, family, friends, and a lot of other good people and things.  But there is a down side to love.  If applied to the wrong thing or in the wrong way, the results can be disastrous.  Take for instance your invention.  Sometimes love can get in the way of taking your invention from just an idea, prototype, or even finished product to a successful spot in the marketplace.  Now you might think I’m not talking about love for another person or thing getting in the way of your passion for your invention, but you’d be wrong.  What I’m talking about is when falling in love with your invention get’s in the way of your invention actually being successful.  Unfortunately this is a scenario I’ve seen over and over again way too many times. 

It’s a natural tendency to want to fall in love with your invention.  After all, it feels like you’ve given birth to an idea.  Then you’ve nurtured that “baby” and watched it grow.  You watched it take shape as you started to write or draw what you had originally envisioned.  Then you watched it grow into an actual prototype and then maybe you successfully tested it, watching it take its first steps out into the world.  And whether or not you’ve had real children, your invention is starting to feel like one.  You gave birth to it, nurtured it and helped it grow, and many times we become emotionally attached to our invention in ways we don’t even realize.  After all, you’ve invested your time, energy and money to this project.  And where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  This truth applies to the inventor and the entrepreneur and how they relate to their invention and/or business just as much as it does elsewhere in life.  But sometimes it’s hard to see how attached you’ve become when you’re that close to it. 

There are, however, warning signs that will help you recognize this, if you’ll take the time and effort to watch for them.  Here’s a few questions to ask yourself:

How Do You Treat Your Invention?

Like it’s your baby?  Do you pull it close to you and defend it when anyone dares to criticize it?  Do you get a little anxious or angry if anyone tells you of a flaw in how it functions, what it does for customers, the size of your market, the price it will sell for, or anything else that might look to you like a negative?  This should be a big red warning flag.  If you treat your invention like it’s a baby, it will invariably behave like a baby: constantly demanding your time, money and attention, with nothing in return.  But when you start treating your invention like a product, then it begins to behave like one, and good products marketed well have the potential to make money. 

Do You Treat Your Invention/Idea/Business as “Perfect”?

Do you feel like your invention is just right and can’t really be improved upon?  Or you may notice that you bristle at outside criticism or advice.  This is a normal tendency in inventors, but “normal” inventing leads to failure.  Yes, successful inventors get pulled that way, but they have to resist it and be open to criticism and advice from competent outside sources.  Think of it like finding money on the street.  Many times the good advice and direction you receive can be worth far more than money. 

How Do Your Treat Failures and Setbacks?

Do you look at them at face value?  Or do you look deeper and try to find the hidden signs pointing you in the right direction to success?  When Andrew Carnegie was making steel for the railroads, his big setback was that the railroads became overbuilt and he lost his market for what he was making.  But he looked for the signs pointing him where to go from there: He moved into building bridges and buildings and ended up making a fortune because of it. 

So while passion is an essential element for an inventor or entrepreneur’s success, you have to balance that with enough objectivity to be versatile with your idea, design and/or direction.  And ultimately you’ll love a successful idea a whole lot more than a failure . 

The Real Meaning of "Humbug"

December 24th, 2012         

It has nothing to do with Christmas, but a lot to do with something inventors need to watch out for.   

“Oz: The great Oz has spoken! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain…

Scarecrow: You humbug!

Oz: Yes, that's exactly so. I'm a humbug.

Dorothy: You're a very bad man!

Oz: No, my dear... I'm just a very bad wizard. 

Some things are not just what you were sure you thought they were. 

When we hear the word “humbug”, most people immediately think of a line from Charles Dickens The Christmas Carol, where Scrooge cries out “Bah Humbug” in response to Merry Christmas.  Because of that, we identify it with Christmas and grouchy old misers.  But the true meaning of the word humbug is actually something that has more to do with what we think of as scams, con men and hoaxes, in 21st century parlance.  This caught my attention when I stumbled over this word, in of all places, in a reference to the Wizard of Oz (see quote above).  Here they were talking about when Dorothy and company had discovered “the man behind the curtain”, pushing the buttons and pulling the levers that made all the special effects for the big scary “Wizard”, while he in truth, was not. 

The word humbug is defined as “a person or thing that tricks or deceives or talks or behaves in a way that is deceptive, dishonest, false, or insincere, often a hoax or in jest.”  When referring to a person, a humbug would mean a fraud or imposter.  P.T. Barnum was considered a master of humbug, creating a public sensation with the promotion of exhibitions that were obviously fakes, with the paying public viewing them to either scoff or wonder at. 

In modern times, we would probably call Bernie Madoff a humbug, who operated the largest ponzi scheme in history, taking people for millions of dollars.  There is, however, another type of humbug that independent inventors need to be on the lookout for.  There is a pervasive number of “humbugs” out there, particularly on TV and the radio, that are looking to take inventors’ hard-earned money and deliver literally nothing of value in return.  While we commonly call these types of humbugs inventor scam companies, they can show up on the scene with very convincing names and stories, all claiming they can help you make millions with your invention. They’re not going to be obvious about scamming you.  They don’t wear black coats and have thick curly black mustaches.  So how do you watch out for these 21st century humbugs?  Here are some basic rules to follow:

Never, ever, ever, ever buy invention services that you don’t completely understand.  I can’t stress this enough (can you tell?).  If you don’t have a total handle on the harsh reality of exactly what you’re receiving and not receiving for your money, you will have created expectations that you can count on being disappointed by.  And if they can’t quantify what those expectations should be, don’t buy. 

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Most of you would never fall for one of those Nigerian prince email scams where they promise you millions of dollars just for giving them your personal information and/or money.  Just because they drop the words Nigerian prince and add the word invention doesn’t make it OK. 

Know who you’re buying from.  This means using references you can trust.  The CKIC has lots of seasoned inventors you can learn from and find useful, trusted services.  Meeting, knowing and finding these trusted resources can save you thousands of dollars. 

With the coming of the New Year, the barrage of ads from these “humbugs” will begin.  Be watchful, don’t let your emotions drive your spending, and arm yourself by becoming knowledgeable about invention services. 

Are You a "One-Take Osmond"?

December 1st, 2012       

There is a common thread to success that transcends your work, industry or product.  

If you're climbing the ladder of life, you go rung by rung, one step at a time. Don't look too far up, set your goals high but take one step at a time. Sometimes you don't think you're progressing until you step back and see how high you've really gone.”  –  Donny Osmond

Individual tastes aside, you have to admit that when you think of musical families who’ve been etched into the memories of American pop culture, the Osmonds would certainly come to mind.  And when you boil down entertainment to the basic elements of a brand, a product or a business, for their time they were pretty successful entrepreneurs.  The group has sold over 102 million records worldwide, and many of them still perform around the country to full houses of die-hard fans. 

Now while I was never a fan of their particular music, I have become enamored over the years when hearing about many of the factors that made them successful.  And I think there are lessons we can learn from a musical group that was known within the industry as the “One-Take Osmonds”:

Start Where You Are and Network

Early in their careers the Osmond brothers began by singing for local audiences, and in spite of their young ages (3-9), their father felt that their talent and stage presence were strong enough to audition for Lawrence Welk in California.  Welk turned them down, but on the same trip, they visited Disneyland and were hired to perform there, and were seen on TV by Andy Williams’ father.  He was so impressed he told his son to book them for his television show.  Think about this: one connection lead to another and then another.  Had they not tried and failed at the Welk audition, or simply gave up and gone home, they may had never been seen by not the decision maker of the Williams show, but his father.  The moral to this is that you never know what that one meeting, presentation, or call will lead you to, in spite of the initial outcome.  Just because one fails, it doesn’t mean it’s over. 

The Secret of the “One-Take”

This has got to be my favorite part of the story.  They were known as The One-Take Osmonds because they would come into the studios and nail it on the first take.  While other performers may have faltered and had to yell “cut!” and then start the cameras rolling again, these boys would waltz in a get it all perfectly on the first take.  Is this because they had some kind of magical ability?  No, it was because long before their arrival at the studio, there were long unseen hours of sweat!  Did they get it right the first time they practiced?  Of course not.  But they worked hard and did all of their “re-takes” beforehand and behind the scenes so when the cameras came on, they could easily nail it!  The same is true for inventors and entrepreneurs presenting their idea to potential funders or buyers.  You have one chance to “nail it” with these people, and only hard work and practice will give you the power to do that. 

Listen to Advice

When one of the Osmond’s sons began launching his own solo project, he mentioned in an interview that he had received a lot of great advice from his uncles and aunt.  One such piece of advice was “beware of Yes Men”.  You know, those people out there who are always just telling you what you want to hear.  This is never more true than with inventors.  If we don’t seek out, find and listen to those who will be brutally honest with us in a constructive and helpful way, the market and our customers will, but only after we’ve spent countless hours and dollars.  If there is something to your invention, presentation, business idea, marketing plan or whatever that needs to be fixed, you need to find those things out from as many of these good, honest and experienced people as you can.  And then listen to them and make the changes.  The more good advice you can implement into your project, the safer the bet for success. 

So do your homework, prepare well, listen to the hard advice and practice until you can nail it in one take.  If you are successful, you may be able to sell 102 million of your products. 

Juggling and the Business of Inventing


Fellow Blog-Readers,

This is one of the rare times I'd like to do a "re-run", if you will, of an early blog from back in '08.  I think it bears repeating, as it is noteworthy even more now than it was then:

For some time now, I have been in the search for the perfect (for me) activity/exercise: something that’s quick, fun, lightweight and travels well. After a search of several different activities, including going as far as asking for advice from one of our members who is a retired recreational therapist, I finally settled on something that so far seems to stick: juggling. This is certainly something that is not for everybody and probably even something that sounds kind of odd to most people, but hey, we inventors do seem to run upstream with most everything. So far I’m just getting the hang of the beginners level of juggling scarves (plus it’s more aerobic than balls), but while I am still learning, and might not ever be good enough to be seen juggling in public, in the process of learning this new pastime I found myself drawing some comparisons to this time-honored art and the worlds of inventing and business. Here are some comparisons I observed:

Juggling is Not About Catching, It is About Throwing:
I noticed early on that if you want to be successful, you have to concentrate more on the throwing than the catching. Watch a juggler and notice how they always seem to be looking up, not down. The same can be said for the world of inventing. You have to be proactive, concentrating on your throw, on what you’re doing or going to do, rather than focusing on trying to catch that bad throw. Wild throws equals wild catches, and subsequent drops. So keep your eyes on where you’re throwing, not where you’re catching. You are catching enough bad things that happen by themselves in the invention-to-market process without adding the results of unfocused actions you could make on your own.

You’re Going to Drop Some Balls
It’s going to happen. And it’s going to happen more in the beginning, when you’re just trying to get the hang of things. This is also the time when you are the most vulnerable to get discouraged and quit. OK, so you dropped one, or two, or a hundred and three. After a while, you’ll find your rhythm. Until then, don’t give up. Rome wasn’t built in a day – if needed, take baby steps until you get the hang of it. I learned recently that the famous vacuum inventor James Dyson had over 1,000 prototypes to fail before he perfected what is now his famously successful invention with over $1 Billion in sales worldwide.

Juggling is a Learned Skill
And so is the business of inventing. You’ll basically learn from three areas:
1. You’ll learn from experts. Learn all you can from those that have gone before you.
2. You’ll learn by practice. The more you practice, the better you get a catching those “stray balls”.
3. You’ll learn from mistakes. You can turn mistakes from reasons to quit to valuable information on how to move forward.

Don’t Make Things More Difficult Than They Have To Be
When learning to juggle, one of the first things they tell you is to practice in front of a chair or a bed. Why? Because they know that in the beginning, you’re going to drop a lot of balls. Use all the tools at your disposal. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help when you need it. There are more tools out there now for the independent inventor and entrepreneur than has ever been available before, so take advantage of every possible tool that will give you all the edge that you can take hold of.

Juggling is About Risk
Yes, you can drop a ball. Remember what you’re risking: your money, time, talent, your ideas, your invention itself. It’s safer if you don’t throw anything into the air, but then you wouldn’t be doing anything at all. You want to be wise and very aware as to what you are risking and what the risks are. Anyone telling you the truth will tell you that inventing is a high-risk venture. Many inventors are willing to take these risks, but the wise ones know what they are getting into and take calculated risks based on their individual situation. If you’re not successful, you could have made more money delivering pizzas. For me, however, this is a lot more rewarding than saying, “That will be $11.95” on a number of levels.

Be Prepared to Sweat
It always looks so easy when you see the performer (or successful inventor) up there from the comfort of the spectator seats. Once you’re throwing, catching, and trying to keep rhythm all at the same time, however, you find out quickly it’s a lot of hard work. I think probably the most fun I have with inventing is that “light bulb” eureka moment, when you are creating that great idea in your head. But that’s just the 1% inspiration, compared to the 99% perspiration that Edison spoke of. And you have to really put your whole body into it; half-hearted throws just don’t work very well. But if you can practice, pace yourself when you tire, and move from that “I don’t fell like doing this today” phase to the “I feel like I can’t stop” phase, you will have moved closer to the guy you saw from your spectator seat.

How to Deal with Setbacks

September 1st, 2012                          

How we see them can ultimately effect how we react and where we end up .  

A great man must not make up his mind merely to overcome a thousand obstacles, but to win in spite of a thousand repulses and defeats ” –   Theodore Roosevelt

OK, so your prototype failed its 3rd test, and won’t do what you wanted it to do. Or maybe you got an office action back from the patent office telling you that they are rejecting all your claims.  Maybe you pitched your idea or product to a marketing group, who kindly told you that it just wouldn’t be worth their while to pursue it. Maybe you had an accident or illness that knocked you off your feet and out of the game for several days or weeks, costing you valuable time and opportunity.  The seasoned inventors and entrepreneurs will tell you that this has happened to them in at least one or more inventions, projects or startups they have been involved in.  But how do you recover from setbacks, those things that seemingly come from out of nowhere make you feel like the wind has been knocked out of you, and usually at a time when you felt you couldn’t afford to have anything go wrong? 

You Have to See It For What It Is.

Sometimes we let difficulties along the way cloud our judgment and blind us from seeing the bigger picture.  There is an old saying that goes “to a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish”. And that’s kind of what happens to us when we get sucker-punched by setbacks in our inventing and/or business journey.  If we let ourselves, we can get so consumed by the difficulty until that’s all we can see.  And that can be dangerous to our chances for success, because if we stop everything to stare at the ball that got dropped, we’ll never see the other balls coming at us that need to be caught.  Yes, you do have to see it, you do need to deal with it, but don’t make it your 24/7 hobby.

You Have to See It for What It Isn’t

One thing that it most likely is not is the end of the world, or even the end of the project or invention.  What I’m trying to say here is find the silver linings – yes, they’re most likely there, but they won’t be right in front of you.  You’ll have to look for them, and the bigger the setback, the harder it may be to find.  You can find many a home-run idea/invention/product found behind the junk heap or under the ashes of failed and mediocre ones that most everyone else overlooked.  But it’s not going to jump out and bite you. 

You Have to See It for What It Tells You

Many, many times setbacks are trying to tell you something very important.  If the prototype isn’t working, it needs you to figure out why.  If people aren’t buying the product in one area or under a certain circumstance, there is a reason for that and you need to figure out what that reason is.  A setback is telling you that there is important information out there that you need to know, and is most likely pointing the way to it.  In 1943 naval engineer Richard James was trying to develop a meter for battleships when one of the springs fell to the ground.  When he saw how the spring kept moving, the idea for the Slinky toy was born.  The naval research project may have well been a bust, but the slinky idea became an instant hit and ended up selling over 300 million units. 

So yes, expect to get knocked down.  It’s going to happen.  If you try very hard for very long, it is pretty much inevitable.  But you can be knocked down but not knocked out.  The difference between success and failure is getting up just one more time than you fall.

How Do I Know If I'm Ready for a Tradeshow?

August 6th, 2012                   

Being ready for a tradeshow is more than just setting up a booth.  

Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility” –  G.M. Trevelyan

Sometimes, there can be nothing more exciting than a tradeshow for an inventor.  It can really give you the feeling you are stepping up to the big leagues, that you’re about to get your moment in the sun.  Unfortunately, many times an inventor can spend a lot of money, set up a booth at a tradeshow, and ultimately not see much if anything for their time, money and trouble. 

Yes, having a booth for your invention, product or new business at a tradeshow can be exciting; and you can make a lot of good connections that you could not make otherwise.  But fortune favors the prepared mind, and in this case, the properly prepared inventor or entrepreneur.  Below are some things to keep in mind to make sure it will be money well spent:

Perfect your prototype

Most first prototypes have a face only their mother (meaning you) could love.  In a tradeshow setting, you have to remember that the people looking at your invention for the first time have no idea how much time, inspiration and hard work you’ve put into making it do what it does.  So you have to “pretty it up”.  Make it look as if it came off of a production line and was ready to be put on the shelf, or as close to this as you possibly can.  You can also in many cases not spend thousands of dollars, if you can get creative about it.  Use the COTS formula as much as you can.  COTS is a military term meaning Components-Off-The-Shelf.  Don’t reinvent the wheel where you don’t have to, and it can save you a lot of money.  But don’t forget – presentation is everything at tradeshows – so make it look good.

Figure out your costs and margins

Don’t leave figuring out how much it is going to cost to make your product to the potential buyer, manufacturer or licensee.  This is something you need to have figured out as much as you possibly can, in advance.  You also will want to know how much it will sell for in the marketplace, and how it will stack up against any and all competitors.  You need to take this information and then distill it down into a sound-bite that tells them what it costs to make and how much they could make from it.  The more turn-key you plan is to turn this into a production-scale product and make “X” $$, the easier (and more likely) it will be for the people looking at it to make a decision to buy into your invention.

Figure out your numbers

Don’t wait until you have someone interested looking at you and asking how much you’d be willing to sell or license your product before you start thinking about how much that should be.  Think it through and have a high and low amount already figured ahead of time based on what you know are going rates and what you can live with.  The more you know these figures the better you will fare.

Put the odds in your favor

Remember, a tradeshow is just one of many marketing tools, and an extension of good old working-in-the-trenches marketing: meeting people and communicating the opportunity of your product.  So use this tool to it’s greatest possible potential.  Meet, talk to or at least get information to as many prospective buyers and attendees that you can before the tradeshow, especially ones that are local or relatively close by.  Send advance information to as many companies that may be attending so they will remember to look for you once they’re there.  Don’t depend on the luck of the draw and just hope the right people may wander by.  Draw as many of the right prospects to you as many ways as you can. 

So before you rush out and plunk down the big bucks to do a booth, think it through and prepare yourself, your invention and above all have a plan.  The money you save will be your own!

The Real Hard Work An Inventor Does

June 30th, 2012                     

An essential part of a successful invention can be summed up in only 2 words.  

Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up” –  Thomas Edison

“This looks like work”. This is what a colleague jokingly emailed to me the other day in response to an extensive outline I had sent out of action items for a project we are working on.  And yes, it was (and still is) a lot of work.  This was also a project where most of the inventing, engineering, patenting and product development work has already been done.  So you may ask yourself, with so much work already completed, what could possibly yet need to be done?  While the product development and legal protection of an invention is very important and a lot of work, there is an equally important piece to the inventor’s puzzle that must be completed before success is achieved.  This very important component is essential and must be done before you should ever expect to receive the first dollar for your invention or product, and can be summed up in two words: Your Market. 

Finding, knowing and successfully competing in the right market may very well be the toughest part of an inventor’s journey.  Yet it is so many times the part that inventors pay the least amount of attention to. In all the excitement of coming up with a great idea, developing it, protecting it, and making it, inventors can easily lose sight of the fact that nobody makes any money until somebody buys something. And they won’t buy anything if they don’t know about it; and they most likely won’t know about it until you find out (and then go to) where they live.  This is called market research.

Of course, it is always best if you can find and be sure of your market before you spend a lot of money on developing or protecting your invention, so you can be sure there’s a return out there on the money you’re about to spend.  Sometimes you may find out later, rather than sooner, that the market you thought was going to be the slam-dunk was not what you thought it was, forcing you to switch your marketing efforts to another area.  In many of these cases, the smart inventor needs to be more thorough and be very sure of the facts before switching markets, especially if he or she has burned through a lot of cash already.

I’ve found that many successful inventors find a niche market first, a Normandy-type beachhead that they can storm to gain just enough market to get enough dollars changing hands without too much competitive damage along the way.  How do you find these niches?  First, watch for pain points in industries where your invention may provide a unique solution to their problem.  Then approach carefully, being thorough about what’s being used now (your potential new competitors) and how it stacks up to what you can provide.  You also want to get as intimately familiar with your new potential customers as you can.  Find out who they are, what they like and don’t like, what’s important to them and what’s not important.  Remember, you are selling to their needs, wants and opinions, which may be very different from your own or even what you think theirs might be. Take this information very seriously and make sure your invention/product can be a custom fit that can solve their problem or fulfill their want or need.  If it’s not, you have two alternatives: change your product to fit the niche, or find another niche. 

I can’t tell you if finding, researching and reaching your market will be the hardest work for you in your invention’s journey, but it can certainly be the most rewarding.  Because if you’ve come this far, you are very close to seeing a return on your idea, hard work and investment. Somebody is about to buy something.  And I hope that something is your product or invention!

Don't Be a 1-Hit (or a 1-Miss) Wonder

May 26th, 2012                

Doing the wrong thing with either can keep you from ultimately winning.  

Keep in mind that neither success, nor failure is ever final” –  Roger W. Babson

It has been said that the reason for many a success is only because it was sitting on top of a pile of survived failures.  Thomas Edison had 999 light bulb failures and 1 success. The Wright brothers crashed a lot of planes before they got one to actually fly. Most successful people can tell you that they had a lot of failures, and one of the reasons for their success was that they just got up one more time than they fell down.  This is never more true than it is in the worlds of inventing and business. 

Here are a few ways to look at both your successes and failures that can help you to win over the long haul:

Survivable Failures

You know the scenario.  You get up one morning and have an idea.  It might be an idea for an invention, a new business or maybe a way to execute or implement one or both.  By the time you step out of the shower, you’re convinced it’s a great idea, and by breakfast you’ve started wondering why you’ve never thought of it before. Then by the middle of the afternoon you’ve convinced yourself that what you have is a true epiphany.  Then, hopefully only after about 2 weeks (or sometimes months or years) of hard work, time and money spent, you find out that it was not the great idea you had convinced yourself of.  We have all had bad ideas. Many times our bad ideas convince us that they are good ideas, and when we are blinded to the facts, whether from preventable or non-preventable reasons, we are led to an ultimate failure.  But right here is the part that you don’t want to miss, because this where the path of the successful person and unsuccessful person part ways.  The unsuccessful person, feeling like a total failure, adopts a negative attitude, paints their entire world with the one failure they’ve just experienced, and quits.  The successful person, still feeling like a total failure at the moment, steps back and like Edison and the Wright brothers, learns from the mistake, and then uses what they’ve learned to adapt.  Additionally, the successful person will gauge beforehand that they are not risking too much of their time, energy or money, so if it did crash and burn, it is the kind where you can walk away from it without too many bumps and scrapes.  They know that failure is part of the road to success.  They also know that in order to reach those successes, the unavoidable failures along the way need to be as fast and as cheap as they can make them.  The secret is to venture out and take the risks, but to make sure that if they don’t pan out, if it does lead to a failure, that it is a survivable failure.  That way you avoid those dreaded “fatal mistakes”.

Survivable Successes

When we have a success as an inventor or an entrepreneur, there is a tendency to sit back and look at it like it’s a big trophy on the wall.  After all, we worked hard to win that trophy.  Many times that win represents a lot of blood, sweat and tears while all the time walking through a valley of uncertainty, where the risk of failure seemed to be always looming in the distance.  But despite all the trial and error, all the naysayers, and all the uphill battles, you made it.  You’ve beat failure, and you’re standing tall (as you rightly should), and maybe you’ve even patted yourself on the back a little for your own tenacity and ingenuity.  But at some point you’re going to have to ask yourself: what am I doing now?  You see, that’s the thing about success; just like innovations, products, the market and business in general, it isn’t static.  You can’t rest on your laurels forever.  Customers, licensees, and others will at some point begin to ask “what have you done for me lately?”.  And if you don’t have an answer for them, or if your answer is to look back up at your winning trophy, that is now looking tarnished and gathering dust, you are headed down a bad road.  You see this happen to large successful companies all the time. Blockbuster failed to survive and adapt from its highly successful video-rental chain model to compete with upstarts like Netflix and Redbox, closing hundreds of stores.  Eastman Kodak ruled in the camera market for nearly a century, but missed out on the advent of digital photography.  We love to talk about these big, headline-grabbing stories, but I think we need to look at these more as cautionary tales for both the independent inventor and the entrepreneur. 

So it really doesn’t matter if your first attempt at an invention and/or business is a success or a failure.  Just be sure you know what to do with the hand you’re dealt.

Have You Written Your Invention's "Autobiography"?

April 29th, 2012         

The good, the bad and the ugly of keeping records on your invention.  

  No matter how you calculate it, poor record keeping adds up to lost money ” –  Kimberly Bagley

If you have ever been a parent, you can probably identify with those who have just had their first baby.  They are in for a memorable year full of firsts – their first smile, first food, first steps, etc., and parents often want to record all these things and more as their child grows.  It’s not so different with inventors and their “baby inventions”.  They are also in store for many firsts: a first build of a prototype, a first sift through product and market research, a first market test, and the first of many failures.  And while your invention is going through its first stages of growing, you need to make a record of its progress from an idea into ultimately a product.  With a child this is called keeping a scrapbook, with your invention this is called documentation. Unlike the scrapbook, however, the reasons for documenting your invention can go much deeper, farther and take more time. 

On the surface, the reason for documenting seems obvious.  You need a legal record for when you came up with your invention, in a bound notebook (the kind you can’t take or replace the pages out of) that is witnessed, signed and dated by someone who understands the invention.  This is to prove that you were the person that came up with the idea for the invention, and gives you the date of the record in your notebook to prove you were what it called “the first to invent”.  However, this is changing with the advent of the new changes to the patent law that will be implemented on March 16th 2013.  On that date, the United States will move from a “first to invent” patent system to a “first to file” system.  While the new law means many more things than I can cover here in this writing, one of the things this will mean is that the inventor’s notebook you have been keeping won’t be able to hold your foot in the door anymore if someone else files for a patent on the same invention as you have, if they file before you do.  It won’t matter if you thought of it first, or if you documented it first, unless you act on it first.  No more sitting on your idea. 

Now before you freak out and start throwing your inventor’s notebook into the fireplace, stop, take a breath and chill.  You still NEED that book.  Number one, if you do file before anyone else, you need a good documented record to show you were the one with the idea that filed for the patent.  Two, if you’re anything like me, you desperately need an organized record of your idea, and three, you need the power of the written word to move both your motivation and thought process forward to keep your invention from just sitting there and doing nothing. Let’s look at each of these very important reasons for documenting your invention in more detail:

  1. Yes, you still need the legal record.  Let’s say that you filed a patent for your invention, then someone came up and said you had stolen their idea, that it was never your idea.  All of a sudden, your documentation becomes very important to prove that you were the one who came up with the idea and filed first. 
  2. An organized record can make the difference between an opportunity seized or a slow death for your invention.  Most inventors I know, including me, have a hard enough time trying to remember what we had for breakfast.  You’ve got a plethora of ideas, actions, plans, meetings and swaths of work that keep you in an almost constant state of motion.  While flying through the whirlwind that is your life, stopping to take the time to organize your thoughts, actions and plans for your invention can take a tremendous amount of discipline. There is nothing worse than taking time you don’t have to sift through a stack of disorganized notes to find the one that you need before you can accomplish an important task. Taking the time to keep your records organized can save you untold amounts time and money.
  3. The power of writing it down may be the most important reason of all to document your invention’s life story.  Something almost mystical happens when we commit something to writing.  It’s almost as if the act of documenting forces us in some way to begin to live out what we’re writing down.  It makes it real to us in ways we weren’t feeling it before.  And how we feel about our invention and what we should do about it can change not only the way we see it, but also how and when we act on it.  And action, especially after March 2013, will count more than it ever has before. 

So there you are, like the proud parent, watching, helping and cringing when it falls and skins it’s knee.  If you haven’t started your invention’s story, it’s autobiography, you need to start right now.  Regardless of what changes in the law, what changes in your invention’s progress is what will ultimately count the most.

3 Inventor Mistakes to Avoid

March 28th, 2012                      

Choosing the right path to successful inventing means avoiding the pitfalls.  

Do make mistakes, just make them cheap and make them fast.” – Fred Durham

Being a successful inventor is a lot like starting your own business.  Like an entrepreneur wanting to start a small business, lots of people talk about doing it, but many let the time and opportunity pass them by.  In many cases, being a financially successful inventor means actually going into business in one form or another.  And no matter whether you are an inventor, an entrepreneur or an entre-inventor, you will gain experience and wisdom from making mistakes.  This is what they mean when they say you’ve been to the school of hard-knocks.  While painful, earning a degree from Hard-Knocks U. can be an essential part of a successful inventor’s journey. 

It is much less painful, however, to learn from the mistakes of others who have gone on before us and have blazed the trail already.  With this in mind, here are a few common inventor mistakes and how to avoid and/or overcome them.

1. The “Castaway” Inventor Syndrome

Inventors and entrepreneurs are typically what you would call independent spirits.  Most of us started with an idea ourselves, have developed it on our own, and we tend to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  And while that is the natural tendency of inventors, there is a downside that can pull you into the ditch if you let it.  Do you remember the movie where Tom Hanks is stranded on the deserted island?  Too many times inventors end up identifying with Tom.  We feel like we’re in this all by ourselves.  But truly, no successful inventor works in isolation.  When you look at inventors who are successful, they are always connected to people.  People matter and your connections to them are important to both you and your invention’s well being.  The more connections you have and continue to make, the more opportunities you will have to learn, to stay motivated, and when the time is right, ultimately connect to the right buyer or licensor for your invention.

2. Inventor Paralysis

Too many inventors have been stuck and are right now still stuck in this place.  Typically there are two reasons for this: One is that we just don’t know what to do next (a lack of education or wisdom), and two: that we let fear take over and paralyze us. Fear that we’ll make a mistake or fail.  While a small amount of fear is healthy and makes us stop and think before making decisions, letting it hold us in one place in our invention’s process can be a huge problem.  We end up feeling like the needle on a record that’s stuck, playing the same part over and over again.  But how do we overcome being afraid? First, step back and look at the reasons you are afraid. Yes, a wrong decision could end up costing you time and money, but you can’t let that possibility drive you to do nothing. The best way to deal with fear is to come up with a system to deal with it.  Gather all your facts and options, work out the worst-case scenario and develop a plan on how you will deal with it if it happens.  Then set a deadline to make a decision and move on to the next step of your invention’s development. These are just some of the ways you can face and overcome the fear that holds you back.

3. Where Fools Rush In

As I mentioned earlier, a small amount of fear is a good thing.  Healthy fear, that doesn’t permanently stop us in our tracks, helps to keep us safe.  This is the kind of fear that keeps you from touching the hot stove or crossing the street without looking both ways.  On this end of the scale, with paralysis on the other end, we see the inventor with the great idea that wants to rush in without giving any thought to the path they are on or the direction they are going in.  This is where we see so many inventors fall prey to inventor scam companies, who promise they’ll get rich quick without having to do anything but send them their idea and a lot of money.  These inventors are usually in a really big hurry, and have convinced themselves that they have to do something, usually spend a lot of money, right now before learning anything about where or why they’re spending it.  If you find yourself wanting to rush in, stop and take a breath.  Stop and learn what you need to know first.  You put 3 things you’re your invention: your wisdom, your time and you money.  But if you don’t stop and learn, putting the wisdom in first, you won’t spend the time or money correctly, and will likely pour it down a hole never to be seen again.  Successful inventing is not a microwave oven, it’s a slow-cooker.  Do you ever notice how food tastes better from a slow-cooker than a microwave?  So will the end result of your invention process if you take the proper time to learn all the facts and then decide what you need to do in the right order. 

As painful as learning from your own mistakes are, when they happen (and they will), when you learn from them you will be able to look back and call it experiential wisdom.  Learning from the mistakes of others, however, is called learned wisdom and is much less painful. When possible, however, I think both you and I would much prefer to avoid a lot of the pain with the learned kind. 

Why Are You An Inventor?

March 3rd, 2012                

The motivation of why you do what you do can have a big impact on the outcome of what you do.  

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”
– Simon Sinek

As we go through our life as an inventor, if we’re honest with ourselves every once and a while we need to stop and ask ourselves what our motivation is.  In other words, if I stopped you right now and asked why you were pursuing your current invention, project or business opportunity, you might give me any of a number of answers.  Many inventors may blurt out, “to make money”, or the popular “I want to make a million dollars”.  But this being the primary focus of why you want to be an inventor can be a big mistake for a number of reasons.

Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not one of those who have jumped on the bandwagon of thinking that making money is evil.  On the contrary, I believe that there is both a great dignity and morality to business when it is done with integrity.  In his book Thou Shall Prosper, Rabbi Daniel Lapin says that making a living is much harder if, deep down, you suspect it to be morally reprehensible activity.  I firmly believe that the ability to make money is an important tool that provides for yourself, your family, and additionally gives you the opportunity to give and help others.  And while making money is important for the aforementioned reasons, alone it is just not enough reason to keep you motivated enough in order to truly win at inventing.  There has to also be the reason that it is something that you love doing, something you truly have found a passion for, and/or a vehicle to help others in some way.  This passion will give you the fight and fire on those tough days and give you that reason to fight on another day.   

Many people make the “money only” mistake when choosing any career, whether it involves inventing or not.  Seth Godin said it best, “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” Business, and particularly the business of inventing, is way too hard to work at just for the reward of money.  You won’t work at it and keep that high energy level that is sometimes required to get to the desired payoff if the payoff is only money, because working only for the money ends up being an empty goal.  No matter how much money you could make, the work becomes a prison cell if it has no meaning.  A good example of this is observing certain people in a business where you are the customer.  You can’t miss this comparison, and see it in almost any industry.  The first “employee” we see is just there for the money, and you can see it on their face, their body language and in their actions.  You can almost smell it on them.  The second example is not what you’d want to call an employee but would think of more as a member of team.  They believe that they’re there for a reason, believe in what they are doing and it also shows on their face, body language, and in how they perform, which usually results in a great experience for the customer.  Both of these people are being paid the same amount of money to perform the same tasks.  The difference is the WHY of what they’re doing.  And that is the same difference that can make or break a successful invention, business venture or both. 

The WHY of inventing is also truly a balancing act, and I’ve personally seen failures caused by extremes on both ends.  On the one hand, if you are only inventing for the love of tinkering and coming up with new ideas, that is great, unless you have an expectation of making money at it without doing the things necessary that cause money to be made with an invention.  On the other, if you’re focusing only on the money without any of the passion or fire of the “why”, you will most likely fizzle out when the going gets tough.  The trick is to have both, tempered with wisdom, to truly win at inventing and/or business. 

How to Play Nice with Others: Your Relationships with Inventor Service Providers

January 30th, 2012              

Finding Mr. Right is just as important as avoiding Mr. Wrong 

“The quality of your life is the quality of your relationships.” –  Anthony Robbins

I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you.  I can’t keep you from hiring bad inventor service providers.  No one can, except for one person: you.  If I were to go out and haphazardly spend my hard-earned dollars on a bad service provider and end up with nothing to show for it, ultimately there is only one person to blame: the guy staring back at me in the mirror.  This is true about so much of an inventor’s success and/or failure.  Sure you can blame that bad service provider (and there are a lot of hucksters out there!), that bad partnership, the bad economy or a lack of opportunity, but ultimately, it will always all boil down to you.  That’s the thing about inventors and entrepreneurs; they are ultimately the one in control.  The steering wheel is in your hand and the gas pedal is under your foot.  Where you take the vehicle is where you take the vehicle!  

So how do you take the vehicle where you want it to end up? Well, for one it’s up to you to get a map or stop and ask for directions! So many inventors have asked us those “directions” questions over the years.  Ones like, “how do I know who to trust?”.  

Let me make this crystal clear: yes, there are some heavily advertised, very bad companies out there that are looking to take your money, give you false hope and leave you with nothing but just that.  There have been court rulings, charges by the Federal Trade Commission, and laws passed to try to keep these snakes from taking your money. Some people have even dedicated websites to pointing at the biggest offenders.  But the problem is that the scam companies that don’t have any integrity to begin with are hard to point at and identify.  It’s like trying to nail Jello to a tree!  The bad guys aren’t going to just lie down and say, “well, I guess you’ve got me”.  If you turn over a rock and find a snake, it’s going to just slither under another rock!  Bad companies with no integrity will simply shut down, reorganize, and go across the street, advertising themselves as the “new and improved” inventor scam company. 

So what do you do?  How do you acquire the wisdom to know the difference between the really bad and the really good companies out there?  If you can’t necessarily figure out who the bad guys are by looking at their name, then you’re going to have to identify them another way.  There’s an old saying, “by their fruits you shall know them”, and I think it definitely applies here.  If they walk like a duck, quack like a duck and swim like a duck, they’re probably a duck, especially when they tell you they’re an eagle.  And if any company uses greed or fear to motivate you, or applies pressure for you to send them money, they are not a company with integrity.  Basically, run!

That said, there are many good service providers out there that do have integrity.  They can be found, but it takes time and patience.  Ask the right questions.  What exactly am I paying for?  How are the results measured and quantified?  Are there any fees prior to the work being done?  Do they have references that you can verify with people you know and/or are involved in a good inventors organization like the CKIC? 

I’m also a big believer in getting 3 quotes for everything.  Once you have know what the quantifiable results will be, you can shop around, apples for apples.  And never, ever, ever, ever, ever (did I say never?) purchase invention services that you don’t completely understand.  Define the deliverables (exactly what they’re providing for the money).

Be totally immersed in the inventing step you’re purchasing services for. Understand your needs.  If you don’t know what you need, you’ll pay more for what you want.  You also have to be able to properly communicate exactly what it is you’re wanting done.  I can guarantee you that even with good companies, any venture where the 2 people involved have different definitions for the same word will end badly with both parties feeling like they got the shaft. 

In our microwave culture, some inventors have the idea that they can hire a service provider, add water and instantly have a successful patent, prototype, or whatever.  Take the time to know and understand a potential service provider before you trust them with your money.  And take the time necessary to find and work with good companies that have integrity and then refer them to others!

The Real Reason Why Most New Year's Resolutions Don't Work

December 31st, 2011      

Hint: It’s the same reason why many Inventors’ ideas don’t become reality.
“I think there is something more important than believing: Action! The world is full of dreamers, there aren’t enough who will move ahead and begin to take the concrete steps to actualize their vision.” – W. Clement Stone

Can you remember the resolutions you made last year?  Were you able to keep them? If most people were to be honest, they would say probably not.  How about that idea you resolved to make happen at the beginning of this year? Where are you now compared to where you’d thought you’d be last year?

As we look over our shoulder as we near the end of this year, looking back at it like an old crumpled piece of paper, and turn our heads to look to the next one and see a fresh new sheet, we start to think about all the things we wished we had done in the past year, and all the things we really want to do in the next. If you’re an inventor, you have that idea, that drawing, prototype or project that you really want to start getting some traction on.  You’ll say to yourself, “ this year it will be different.  I can really see the potential in this idea and this is the year I’m going to do something.  I’m going to change my career, my income and the course of my life with this invention!”  All these sentiments are great, and needed.  They are the fuel and lifeblood of any inventor that wants to see momentum.  You need that motivation, that vision, that fire in your belly to implement the intensity and tenacity necessary to be successful.  However, there is a danger here.  The “want-to”, that desire to have your dream, idea or project become a money-generating reality will not take place with simply the promise to yourself that you’re going to do it. All you have at this point is a dream.  What you need is a plan. 

In his book EntreLeadership, Dave Ramsey talks about the fact that the difference between a dream (or what we can call our idea) and a goal is a plan.  And for these goals to really be tangible goals, they must have certain components that make them real and give you traction that you can both see and feel.

First off, your goal must be specific and measureable. You can’t just say “I want to make money with my invention”.  That’s just a naked dream of an idea. You have to put work clothes on it by making it specific with something like “I want to make $”x” with my invention”, or “I want to license my invention with a company”, or “I want to outsource a manufacturer and sell “x” units.  When you give it specifics, something important changes for the inventor.  It blows some of those clouds of abstraction away and makes you begin to see and think about how it can be done.  

Secondly, they must have a time limit.  Time limits can be used as a powerful tool for the inventor who needs traction to move forward. You can now take those specific measureable activities and break them down into smaller, more digestible goals with specific deadlines that you can see yourself achieving.  And nothing motivates like a deadline.  These time constraints also evoke discipline. We tell our inventors: you set an appointment with your invention, just like it’s an appointment with a doctor or an attorney.  You tell yourself, “Thursday between 6 an 9 PM, I’m turning off the TV, getting off the couch and working on my invention”! 

Also, you need to put your goals in writing.  Just like documenting your invention, it is important that you write your specific plans, goals and timed milestones down. This helps you on a number of levels.  When you verbalize your thoughts, you force them through one layer of understanding, and yet another layer when you write them down. This gives you an even clearer understanding of your invention and how to go about bringing it to market. Even with documenting your invention, you shouldn’t do it just for the legal record.  You need to do it for you; to help you better understand what it is that you are doing and how you are going to do it.  Successful inventor Rob Vorhees says “ you have to know where you are, where you want to be, and how you’re going to get there”.  A written plan is the map to do just that.

If you can do these things, it will help you to make your invention something a lot more attainable than it was when it was just a dream.  But remember, if you don’t do the things necessary to hit the goals within the time allotted, that goal will condemn you and call you just a dreamer.

Nobody Wants to Dance with the Wallflowers

December 1st, 2011           
You have to create the right product and the right perception to market your invention effectively.

“It is said that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.  But you can put some salt in his oats.” – George Godfrey.

After the last 20-plus years of living on both sides of the fence between product development and marketing, I had some validation recently from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “What the Dog Saw”.  In it, he described his interview with Ron Popiel, an inventor and marketer who by himself conceived, created, and sold, among other things, the Showtime rotisserie oven to millions on TV.  Now if you think Ron Popiel and only envision a campy pitchman on late-night infomercials, you may want to think again.  In the last 40 years his products have pulled in over $2 Billion in sales (Yes, B as in Billion). One of the things that struck me in Gladwell’s book was the statement that the Popiel family believed it was a mistake to separate product development from marketing.  “Developing and marketing a product are like left and right feet,” says Popeil. “They both have to work for the product to succeed.”  In his mind, the product that sold best was the one that sold itself.  And in his infomercials, his marketing effort completed the walk all the way into the consumers’ kitchens. 

So much of bringing an invention to market successfully is building on the right foundation, a solid foundation that you can hold firmly to when you go to market. And so many of the important steps successful inventors take early on are an integral part of the later ones.  What I’m saying here is that you need to have done your homework before you go to market. And by homework I mean researching and making sure the invention you’re about to invest your time and money into has a good chance of success.  You need to pick the lowest hanging fruit of both an invention that has a high degree of success and one that you are able to execute. You must have a clear understanding of your marketplace and an even clearer, concise plan about how you’re going to enter that marketplace.  You must remember that the inventor serves the consumer.  And you do that by proving to yourself that you know what they really want – not just what you think they might want – and be able to deliver it in a way that they’ll want to buy into.  And sometimes that means modifying or even completely changing your idea along the way.

I believe that one of the best ways to get kick started into a market, even if your ultimate goal is licensing or selling to a large company, is to be able to cheaply produce a small number of the product and get it into that market, especially if you can find a niche market to start with (this is why first choosing the right invention that you can tackle and bring to market is so important).  This is your foothold, your Normandy, your beachhead. Once you can gain that foothold, something amazing begins to happen.  When you actually begin to sell products and money begins to change hands, you have made your invention a real product that is selling. This can have a powerful effect on you, your invention and even the market itself. Potential distributors or licensees that would not give you the time of day back when you had an idea on a napkin or in a frankentype are now suddenly sitting up and taking notice. 

Even if marketing is not what you have done before, you can learn to do it, just like any skill, and I believe it is a great skill to acquire.  Everyone is bad at something until they learn how to do it, and then practice it enough.  If, on the other hand you absolutely do not want to go there, I highly urge you to do two things: learn everything about marketing that you can anyway, and then hire or partner with someone who is good at marketing.  But remember, you can’t communicate with the natives until you learn their language. So unless you learn everything you can about marketing, any hired or partnered relationship can and will typically end badly due to miscommunication. 

So the auditorium is full, and the band is beginning to play.  Now it’s time to decide if you’re going to stand along the wall or get out there and dance.

Are You An Under or Over-Protective Inventor?

October 26th, 2011                    
Having a balance and a clear vision makes a difference

OK, so you’re walking down the street and pass by 2 homes and two very different parents in their front yards with their kids.  The first parent is passed out in a lawn chair with a newspaper covering their face, while their child is running amuck: teasing the neighbors mean dog, playing with a live extension cord, trying to find a way to climb up on the roof carrying a skateboard, etc.  Then you pass by a second parent with his child, and you see a very different picture: Under the ever watchful eye of this parent, the kid is so wrapped up in a helmet, padding and other protective gear that it makes you think of the Michelin Man. He’s so encased in safety that he can hardly move.  Unfortunately, both of these extreme scenarios are what I see with many inventors and their inventions. 

On the one hand, we see inventors that spend all their time, energy and money on a patent.  They have the unrealistic idea that “if I patent it, they will come”.  Unfortunately, that only works in bad Kevin Costner movies.  The reality that many inventors need to come to grips with is that there are many parts to successful inventing, and properly protecting your idea within the right context is only a piece of a much larger whole.  And thinking that people will want to buy your invention just because you spent all your money on a patent isn’t any more realistic than if you were to think that people will show up from out of nowhere, all lining up to buy a house from you just because you just purchased the deed to it. 

On the other hand, we see some inventors that rush to making and selling their invention without giving the slightest thought to at least the bare minimum of work necessary to both properly protect and prepare themselves.  I have to admit that I have fallen into both categories with different inventions, and have had to pay the price each time.  Wildly successful inventions that were never protected in the least ended up getting copied like paper in a Xerox machine, while others that were all buttoned up with an over-intense focus on patenting ran out of steam and never went anywhere.  This is called learning from your own mistakes, and I can tell you they were lessons learned well. 

In his book EntreLeadership (a great book I highly recommend), Dave Ramsey talks about the fact that just because you have a signed, legal contract with someone, that doesn’t guarantee that the other person will do what they’re supposed to do.  The same could never be more true when it comes to patents.  Patents do not have some magical power that will keep people who have no integrity from taking your idea, making it and selling it for themselves.  In fact, there is no mystical power in any legal document, be it a patent, a contract or a marriage license that will make bad people do the right thing or incompetent people suddenly become competent.  People who steal things anyway are typically not going to be stopped just because there is a patent number stamped on your label or product.  You will struggle in business (or as an inventor) if you think that you are free from the risk of having your invention stolen just because you have a patent. 

You’ll notice that I didn’t say patents were useless.  In fact, I don’t believe that they are any more useless than the deadbolt you have on your front door or the beware-of-dog sign you have in your yard. But I also know that neither of those things will guarantee you from not having your home burglarized.  Both of those things are deterrents, or risk mitigators, something to make the bad guys want to move on to an easier target.  What both of those things aren’t, however, are magical talismans that guarantee your house will never get broke into.  Even if you have the most expensive security system you can buy and the best locks on your door, if someone really wants to get in your house and steal your valuables, they can use a bulldozer to tear down a wall and get in.  The same is true with your invention (your valuables) and your patent (your deadbolt or beware-of-dog sign). 

The first important point here is to do the things you can do to protect yourself within reason.  This means don’t spend your entire invention’s budget on patenting, and don’t think that the very first thing you need to do after you’ve written down an idea down on a napkin is to run down to an attorney’s office and start blindly spending gobs of money.  The second point is to have reality-based expectations about what your patent, trademark or copyright will actually do for you, and what it won’t do.  First weigh the risks against the costs, then make your decision based on how prepared you will be to live with the risks vs. the costs.  Most people call this good business practices.  It is also good inventing. 

Do You Plan to Make Money with Your Invention?

September 25th, 2011           
In order to make money with your invention, you have to have a plan

It’s a simple question.  Do you really intend to make money with your invention?  Of course I expect your immediate answer will be a very loud and emphatic “YES!”.  But how do you expect to do it?  Many inventors may imagine some person in a business suit coming up to them out of the blue and handing them a big check in exchange for an idea that they had scribbled out on a napkin.  Can you see this imaginary scenario now?  “Yes, Mr. Inventor, I don’t know you, but I want to give you this check for $10 Million for your napkin!”  You take the check, hand Mr. Businessman the napkin and skip merrily to the bank where you deposit the check and live happily ever after.  Sounds kind of ludicrous when you say it out loud, doesn’t it?  That’s because it is. 

Now let me make this very clear: Do business people hand checks to inventors for their inventions? Yes. Does this happen with no work or plan showing that money can be made from the invention for sale or license?  While I can’t say that it has never happened, I think that it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s really, really close.  As a matter of fact, seasoned inventors and entrepreneurs can tell you that even when you have done your research, evaluation, prior art search, made a prototype, protected your intellectual property and have a detailed marketing plan, it can still be a hard sell to the potential customers that you usually have to go out and find, not the other way around.  That’s because making money with your invention isn’t easy, it’s hard.  But it’s worth it. 

Let’s get back to the basics: you came up with an idea that you believe can make money.  You do all the things you are suppose to do; documentation, evaluation, research, prototype, etc., and prove to yourself that yes it indeed works and looks like it will be worth your time and resources.  But if you stop there, you are likely dooming yourself to failure.  Because one of the next crucial steps you must take next is to develop a marketing plan.  You build a prototype so you have an answer to those seven words that every inventor is asked: “Can you show me how it works?”.  You develop a marketing plan to have a compelling answer to the next seven words a potential buyer or licensor will ask of you: “How can I make money from this?”.  Because no matter what it does or how it works, if a company can’t clearly see how they can easily make money, they will not be interested no matter what else you do or say. 

The good news is that knowing this can be a powerful tool to the successful inventor.  You’ve done your homework.  You know that it works, and can prove it.  You’ve protected yourself.  Now it’s time to crunch the numbers: find your costs, figure what people will pay, find out how many people will likely buy it, etc.  You may already have a lot of this data from your original research in an earlier development step. 

Now that you have your data, your next step is very important: you must craft a presentation that will easily communicate to other people that if they make and/or sell it, they will make more money than they put into it.  The important part to this is you have to cultivate this presentation in a way that they can see it in their own head, and not just yours.  If you’ve done your homework correctly, you already know that it works and will make money.  But now the challenge is to climb inside their heads and remember what it was like to not know those things.  This can be hard to do sometimes, but if you can really see it from their perspective, it will give you an amazing advantage and leverage to open their eyes and cause them see what you already know. 

So can you make money from your invention?  Of course, many of us have.  But you can’t do it without a plan. 

Why Do Some Inventor’s Dreams Die in the Woods?

September 5th, 2011           
Surviving the wilderness has a lot in common with the invention process

“I once read that most people who die in the woods die of shame. They ask themselves: ‘What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?’ And so they sit there and they die. Because they didn’t do the one thing that would save their lives. Thinking.” 

The above line is a favorite of mine from the movie “The Edge”.  In case you’ve not seen the movie, it involves a couple of guys that survive a plane crash in the wilderness of Alaska, only to have to fight to survive and find rescue.  It’s a great action-adventure-survival movie that uses the themes of man vs. nature and brains vs. brawn very well.  Plus there’s a bear chasing them through most of the movie.

So what does a movie about getting lost in the woods have to do with inventing? Much, as it turns out, especially if you turn from Hollywood to the very real issue of survival.  If you look at real world advice from experts in wilderness survival, many will tell you that what get’s most people into trouble is when they panic and do something totally stupid. The same goes with inventors.  Panic and fear-based decisions can cost you a lot.  Paul Turpin, a former Green Beret who teaches a wilderness survival clinic in California, puts it this way: “Sit down. Breathe deeply. Think things over. Fear is like hot or cold, you just learn how to deal with it.” 

Many an inventor will come in to us here at the CKIC looking like they’re lost in the woods.  If you think about it, walking into the invention process is much like climbing a mountain or making your way through the wilderness.  Even the experienced can run into trouble out there. Undiscovered prior art, sudden changes to the market where you were going to sell your invention, and new competitors coming at you from out of nowhere can all spell as much disaster for your invention’s survival as a sudden snowstorm or an encounter with a grizzly bear would to hikers.  The trick is, knowing what to do about it before it strikes.

Experts in the field of wilderness survival have several rules of thumb for preventing what can become a hiking, camping or for us, an inventing nightmare.  Here are just a few:

Always Be Prepared.

Survival experts also say that many people get in trouble in the wilds due to lack of preparedness.  Many a disaster can begin with the words “I thought you brought the map!”, “but it never snows here this time of year”, or “What do you mean, you’re out of water?”.   The same is true in surviving the invention process, and fortune favors the prepared mind.  Know the steps that successful inventors take from the idea to the marketplace.  Learn about the pitfalls and how to avoid them.  And make sure you are totally equipped to begin your journey.

Have an Itinerary.

Successful inventor and author Rob Voorhees says a good inventor needs to know where they are, where they want to be and how they’re going to get there.  Yes, you need an itinerary.  Sometimes that takes the shape of a business plan.  Sometimes it’s keeping good documentation on the work you’re doing on your invention.  Sometimes it’s just learning the best route for your invention before you set off for the “woods” of product development, IP protection and marketing. 

Let People Know Where You Are.

Successful independent inventors are not really independent.  They are connected to other people, especially other inventors.  Members here at the CKIC know this very well.  The more people you are connected with, the more stories you’ll hear about what to do and what to avoid.  Also, more opportunities will cross your path for help as you complete each step of your invention’s journey.   And when you’re ready, more good connections will give you more opportunities to connect with potential buyers. 

Why do a lot of independent inventor’s inventions, dreams and innovations die?  Many of them die of shame.  So don’t just sit down in the middle of the woods, defeated.  Knowing this, plus acting on it can potentially save your invention’s life. 

What Your First Prototype Should Look Like

July 26th, 2011                               

When is "ugly" a really good thing?

Sometimes you’ll see them in the hardware or home improvement store, with a cart full of an assortment of items that just don’t look like they go together.  Sometimes you’ll see them in the auto parts store, looking for parts or accessories for cars they do not own.  Or sometimes at a Walmart, picking up an item only to take it apart and nearly toss away the main piece and focus on some minute, seemingly insignificant part.  Sometimes you’ll see them in junk yards, at garage sales, or in “odd-lot” stores, pilfering through what looks to some like refuse only to see that gleam in their eyes that tells you they’ve found some kind of holy grail, although it looks to you like nothing at all.  Who am I talking about?  Crazed people wearing tin-foil helmets?  Lunatic zombies?  No! The people I’m describing above are the truly savvy inventors who are looking to make their first prototypes! 

Too many inventors make the mistake of thinking that their first prototype needs to be specially designed and made (translation – expensive) and perfect, when this could not be further from the truth.  The first prototype you build will, by its’ very nature, eventually become the one with the most flaws.  Michelangelo said that in every block of marble he saw a statue as plain as though it stood before him, and that he only had to chip away the pieces that didn’t belong.  This is where you are with your first prototype.  Sure, you see the perfectly shaped statue before you.  But you have to first start with that rough block of stone.  This is your first prototype.  It’s imperfect, it’s ugly, it’s held together with gorilla glue and duct tape, but it’s your very own invention, version 1.0.

The truth is, you will probably make several prototypes before you get to that “just right” version.  And the first one of these, what you could call your “first prototype” should be the cheapest, fastest, and ugliest prototype of your invention’s entire life. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: you have to remember that your first prototype will be the one that comes before all the improvements that you won’t be able to see - until you actually build the first prototype.  And as you build and work with each version, these improvements will come to life in your mind, and that will prompt you to improve and/or move on to the next version, and so on.  So if you start out spending a large outlay of cash on a first prototype, you can get into trouble in a hurry.  Fortune favors the prepared mind, and you must prepare yourself by finding all the flaws and failures before you start spending a lot of money.  This may mean tinkering in your garage or basement.  But don’t stop there, because testing is as much a vital part of prototype as the building.  Keep in mind that your final goal with a prototype will be to first prove to yourself that it can and will work, and then be able to show, prove and convince someone else that it will work.  And the first of many phases in this step of the process is your first prototype. 

Most times you really won’t know exactly “how it’s supposed to be” until you build it, see it and test it.  Sometimes you won’t even know how it will work or if it will work at all.  Sometimes the invention that is “ready for prime-time” (aka- has the greatest chance for success) doesn’t even closely resemble the first prototype or the original idea.  And the earlier prototype versions will help you to get there more easily and affordably. First prototypes are riddled with failures, so you want those failures to be the cheapest lessons in how it will not work that you can get by with. 

Many a great invention that has earned its place in a museum or hall of fame has had an exhibit of an ugly, Frankenstein-esque version on display for people to see and reflect on its’ humble beginnings.  So don’t be afraid to go digging in those product graveyards to build your own first “Franken-type”.  The money, time and frustration you will save will be invaluable later on. 

The U.S. Constitution and Inventing

July 2nd, 2011                  

Our system of inventing and patenting has deep roots in the United States - and Kentucky

“A country without a patent office and good patent laws was just a crab and couldn't travel anyway but sideways or backwards- Mark Twain

“The Patent System added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius” – Abraham Lincoln

Many inventors may not know this, but our system of inventing and patenting has deep roots here in the United States, and may have even been influenced by a Kentucky inventor.  The U.S. Constitution, which is the foundation of US patent law, was drafted at the height of the industrial revolution.  Adopted in 1789, the Constitution grants Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries”.  At this time, inventor John Fitch of Bardstown, KY was developing his steamboat, running a series of trials including one on the Delaware River.  It is believed that the Constitutional Committee went to see a trial of Fitch’s steamboat.  I find it amazing to think that not only was the act of an inventor demonstrating one of his prototypes possibly influential in some of the writing of the Constitution, but also that it was an inventor with ties to Kentucky!  Today you can see the memorial to Fitch that stands in Bardstown KY at the Courthouse Square, complete with a replica of his first steamboat. 

Today we are faced with the possibility of changes coming to our patent system here in the United States, anticipated by some and feared by others.  I have heard arguments from both sides of the fence, and still personally feel that moving to a first-to-file system may eventually do more harm than good for small, independent inventors (we are currently under first-to-invent).  I do agree that the patent office keeping the their revenue and not having it siphoned off to the general fund is a good idea, however, I have heard in just the past few days that even if the patent reform bill does become law, that arrangements are already being made to divert the USPTO’s revenues anyway.  To me that makes this a bad bill, and under my current understanding of it I would advise everyone to call to their Senators and ask them to address both of these issues – ending fee diversion and keeping first-to-file. 

All that said, if the bill does become law one of the first things we should not do is panic.  So many times we forget that as inventors we have a secret weapon that no law or misguided public official can stand against: our own ingenuity.  OK, so they do change some laws that aren’t in the interest of independent inventors.  We are particularly good, or dare I say the best there is at finding solutions around what everyone else sees as insurmountable problems.  When bad things happen, and they always do, we will find a work-around, and turn things around to our favor.  That’s what we do. 

As flawed as we see many of our government institutions, we need to take into context the fact that we are blessed with one of the best places in the world today to innovate and be compensated for those innovations, not just with regard to the legal protections, but also the opportunities and available tools we enjoy here in the United States.  There are so many other inventors in many other parts of the world that would give anything to have what is available in abundance to you and I. 

So this 4th of July as you’re celebrating our independence with hotdogs, fireworks and the like, you’ll want to take a moment to remember and be thankful that as an inventor, you have deep roots here, and that part of your freedom includes the right to protect your own intellectual property.  And if you ever think that you’re just a little inventor tucked away in some obscure part of the country, you need to remember and think about John Fitch. 

Finding The Truth About Your Invention's Market

May 31st, 2011  

In order to really see your invention as a "product", you have to go live where it lives.

In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success”, Malcolm Gladwell offers a vivid and memorable exploration of a single question: what makes some individuals so successful?  In one of the main themes of the book, and one that I believe is worthy of extra special attention to inventors, is what he calls the “10,000 Hour Rule”.  Gladwell claims that greatness requires an enormous amount of time practicing.  Think that the Beatles were an “overnight” success?  Before they were well-known, you would have found them performing live in Hamburg, Germany, over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time.  So many famous people that the general public considers to be overnight successes, were not really “overnight” at all.  Gladwell also notes such well-known successes such as Mozart, Bobby Fischer, Bill Gates, and Bill Joy, all of whom he claims had not just sprung up out of obscurity by mere talent or inspiration alone, but rather had been intensely preparing, practicing and intimately familiarizing themselves with their respective crafts before “suddenly” becoming massively successful. 

I believe there is something vitally important here that inventors need to see.  You may have a great invention, or a great idea for an invention.  You may even have a great idea and/or invention that has the potential to become successful on the order of magnitude of some of the above mentioned successes.  A real game-changing, ambitious project that could become the biggest accomplishment of your life.  But whatever level of potential of what you have in your head, down on paper or built in your garage or basement, talent and inspiration is just one ingredient to this recipe for success.    

So what does this have to do with market research?  Much, as it turns out, because I believe that in order for you to be successful with your invention, you need to first know if you have a market for the invention, how big that market is, and probably most importantly, you must know any and everything you can about that market.  In other words, you need, no, must, totally immerse yourself in whatever industry or market that your invention has the best chance of making it in.  You need to go live where it lives. 

Do they have trade journals?  Get them and read them cover-to-cover.  Do they have trade shows? Go attend them, be a fly on the wall with your eyes and ears open, learning everything you possibly can.  Keep your ear to the ground about all things that pertain to that industry.  Get as close as you can without getting a court order for stalking.  Because if you live where it lives, then you’ll know what it knows.  Doing this will give you insights and ideas you would have never had otherwise. This is enabling you to build muscle for an upcoming task in your invention process: It will help you know what to do when it becomes time to put together a marketing plan, which you’ll need to prove that money can be made in the real world once your invention becomes a product. And yes, this is something you’ll need to have, perhaps even more so, if you’re planning to license your invention. 

This kind of total immersion market research will teach you things about your invention’s market that you will not be able to get from a book, magazine or research report.  While all those things are good, they just can’t give you what you’ll be able to find when it’s your ear to the ground.  You’ll also begin, and this may be the most important result, to see your invention in a whole new light.  You’ll start to look at your invention as a product and not an invention.  This can be extremely powerful for the independent inventor.  Seeing your invention as a product and not an invention will help you to understand and communicate your invention to the outside world with immense effectiveness. 

So whether or not you are able to do 10,000 hours to have a shot at the success level of the Beatles, remember that the further away you are from “0” hours of immersion in a market, the better your chances of being successful in that market with your invention.

Is This One Worth It?

April 20th, 2011                                    

Knowing if your idea is worth pursuing.
So you we’re going about the routine of your day and it hit you.  Or maybe you woke up in the middle of the night and it struck you with such awe that you had to get up and furiously write it all down.  Maybe you were watching TV, listening to the radio or surfing the web when you were suddenly seized with a realization so intense to you that you felt as if you had been given secret information from some unseen force.  If you’ve ever had one or more ideas for an invention, then you can probably relate to at least one of these scenarios above to some degree.  In business, Michael Gerber calls this “having an entrepreneurial seizure”.  In the inventing world, it is more stereotypically symbolized by the proverbial light bulb going off inside your head. 

No matter how it happened to you, once struck with this innovative notion, many times you just can’t seem to get it out of your head, like an annoying song that just won’t go away.  Except you really like this annoying song.  Finally you become convinced that this idea would be big, and that “everyone would want one”.  Herein lies the real question: Would everyone really want one? 

Just assuming that everyone would want one is probably one of the worst mistakes you can make as an inventor.  Another one is when your total product and market research consists of asking your spouse, your brother-in-law, or friends and neighbors.  This is because they will not want to hurt your feelings.  Nobody wants to hear that their baby is ugly, and if this baby is truly hideous (and many invention “babies” are), people that you have relationships with (spouse, in-law, friend, neighbor, etc.) are generally not going to want to add any stress to that relationship by telling you something that they think you probably won’t want to hear.  And the truth is, deep down you don’t want to hear that your invention “baby” is ugly.  This is why so many inventors seek out, sometimes even unconsciously, people that they know won’t tell them anything negative about their invention.  This is a natural tendency, but it will lead you to trouble if you don’t do the difficult (and right) thing and seek out people and/or companies that will tell you the unvarnished truth about your invention. 

So how do you go about finding out whether your latest flash of genius is truly an invention worthy of your time, money and hard work?  That depends on how you want to go about it.  You can pay a company to do the research (they’re out there in droves), you can find free resources that can help you do the research (we just had a great speaker recently from the Reference Library on that very subject) or you could do the digging, working, surveying, interviewing and calling on companies in your target market yourself.  Whatever the case, it will take a combination of time, work and money.  It just depends on how much of each you’re willing to invest.  This is another factor to consider: how ambitious is your idea, how much time/work/money will it take to make it a marketable reality, and do you have the skill and/or resources to carry it out to completion?  This might make you look to an idea that is an easier target that you can use as a stepping stone to that more ambitious one.

Remember the old adage, “there’s plenty of fish in the sea”?  It’s true for inventions as well.  Don’t give yourself the expectation that one idea is the only one you’ll ever come up with.   If you’ve been inventing any length of time you know that ideas come to you, sometimes several at one swath.  Collecting all these seemingly great ideas leaves you with another quandary: which one do you work on?  This takes us back to the finding out if your idea is worth pursuing.  Having more than one idea to choose from may seem like a perplexing thing, but you can use it to your advantage.  Now you have several inventing options to choose from, and the more there are the better chance of weeding out the not-so-good ones and finding the real pearl.  You know, the one that has the greatest chance of success.  The one that you will have the best chance of accomplishing within your own reach of resources.  The one that everyone will really want.

You'd Better Write That Down

March 30th, 2011                                    
The Real Reasons Why an Inventor Should Document.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the big debate over the Patent Reform Bill, which has now passed in the Senate and being considered in the house, as of this writing.  While there are some things in the bill that can be essentially positive, like the Patent Office keeping their revenue from the fees they collect and not diverting them to the Treasury, one of the more critical areas of debate for the independent inventor is the proposal to go to a “first to file” system. This means that instead of being able to claim (and prove) that you thought of the invention first, the first inventor to file with the patent office is the one that would be considered the legal inventor.  Under a "first to file" system, even if you were to have documentation that you thought of the invention first, if someone filed with the patent office before you, they would be considered the inventor and awarded the patent. 

While this is a definitely a hot issue and worthy of attention, especially with independent inventors, the patent reform debate is not the specific focus I want to discuss here.  That’s because the more practical question that needs to be addressed, and is often overlooked, is one of the importance of your recordkeeping if you are an independent inventor whether or not the bill does indeed become law. 

So should an inventor throw their “inventors notebook”, or any other documentation about their invention, out the window if the US goes to “First-to-File”?  Let me say absolutely and unequivocally: NO! 

You see you don’t just document your invention and the work you’re doing to develop it just for the legal record, although that is certainly a good thing to do.  One of the most important reasons you should document is for you.  To accurately develop a plan, any plan, you have to gather, organize, categorize and analyze information. And it is of the upmost importance that you do this with the development of your invention.  This will not happen unless you document your information.  As you begin to organize your information, you will be amazed at the answers to problems that will suddenly appear.  Problems that would have ordinarily stumped you otherwise suddenly become clear. 

As we have said many times before: even if you are not the entrepreneurial type of inventor, if you have any expectation of making money with your idea or invention, if money is changing hands somewhere along the lines, that is called doing business.  And once you think of yourself as doing business, you need to remember this: the small business administration says that the number one reason for small business failure is poor recordkeeping. 

There is another, deeply emotional reason it is important for inventors to document.  Something mystical happens when we commit something personal to writing, as if somehow the act of documenting forces us to begin to live out our plans.  If you clarify the goals and aspirations of your invention in writing, and then factor in the facts surrounding the invention, it changes the way you see your situation and ultimately act upon it. 

So yes, I want to encourage you to get involved any way you can to let those in Washington know the voice of independent inventors, and do our best to influence the outcome of this bill.  But fortune favors the prepared mind.  Even if “first to file” does become law, don’t find yourself throwing out your documentation, or worse yet not documenting at all when it comes to your invention.  It’s value to you goes way beyond the legal aspect. 

So What’s Really in a Name?

February 23rd, 2011                                      
The Power of Naming What You Want.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – Romeo and Juliet. 

 I beg to differ with Shakespeare.  The power of a name, or maybe of more significance the power of naming something, can be very underestimated.  It is said that when naming your company, product or invention, that the right name can put it on everyone’s lips, where the wrong one can doom it to obscurity and failure. 

Moreover, there is another power to naming something that is many times overlooked by the inventor, and that is the power of naming where you are going with your invention.  Many times we see inventors with ambiguous, non-specific goals, something like, “I just want to make money with my invention.”  Even when you know where you want to end up, not having a plan on how to get there can play the biggest factor in a venture that is doomed from the start.  If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.  Now I’m not saying that you have to have everything rigidly planned out ahead of time with no margins for errors or changes.  On the contrary, you should be prepared for some potential change happening to you and your invention every time you receive new input or engage in the development process.  In the military they say that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.  This may sound contradictory to the importance of planning, but it is not.  Let’s say that you have no plan.  You’re just going into the invention process with no information, no course of action, no “battle plan” whatsoever.  You could succeed by accident, but your chances for disaster have just risen sharply.  You see, the plan is not so much to ensure that everything is going to happen just the way you have mapped it out, because it isn’t.  The plan is for you to know the lay of the land when you hit the ground. You have to be able to identify the target.  And if you shoot at nothing you’ll hit it every time.

When you name where you want to go and how you want to get there, you become familiar with where you are and more importantly, what to do when things go awry.  This is why it is fundamentally important for inventors to understand what they are buying when the engage with services to help them through the different steps of the invention process.  I don’t have to be an expert in mechanics when I go to have my car repaired, but I do need to know enough so I don’t end up paying to have my “muffler bearings” replaced (as far as I know there is no such thing as muffler bearings, or blinker fluid, for that matter).  Yet we see too many inventors that jump into a process that is not a process, but an ad-hoc array of fits and starts that usually end up costing them a lot of time and/or money with little or no results to show for it.  The creative way you came up with your invention is very different from the way you successfully develop it to something that produces money.  Successful inventor and friend of the CKIC, Rob Voorhees, put it best: “you have to know where you are, where you want to be, and how you’re going to get there”. 

So yes, definitely find that right name for your invention, inventions or company if you start one.  But don’t forget to identify and “put a name on” the map that leads you to the results you want to see from your invention work efforts.  It may be the most important “name” you come up with. 

When Inventor Scam Companies Attack


January 24th, 2011
The most cruel setback for inventors is when they fall for inventor scams.

Maybe you’ve heard the ads on the radio, seen them on TV or the internet.  Or maybe you’ve filed your provisional or non-provisional patent application with the patent office, where after which you were barraged by all sorts of new mail from companies wanting to “help” you.  If you’re a seasoned inventor, you see the ads for what they are and know the signs all too well.  If you don’t know the signs, beware.  These guys are some of the best there are at marketing their schlock and making you believe it is what you need and must have to be successful as an inventor.  Don’t think you’re immune; I’ve seen some of the most educated people I know fall or nearly fall for these scams.  And don’t think what you’re looking for is a sleazy salesman or creepy presentation.  These people have made a pure art of making themselves look extremely legitimate.  Remember, most of the inventors that have been scammed were just like you: smart, creative and usually pretty savvy, otherwise they most likely wouldn’t be inventors.  These companies will align themselves with celebrities, popular TV programs and even weasel their ways into legitimate trade shows, all in order to gain your confidence. 

We’ve seen the statistics: It is estimated that over 25,000 inventors are scammed every year, costing as much as $200 million.  And that is most likely a low estimate, reflecting only the reported cases.  We’ve also seen the real people who come limping in to us, only after paying out most of their hard-earned money that they could have spent on goods and services that would have increased their chances of success a lot higher than getting swindled out of it via inventor scam companies. 

These companies play on your desire for striking it rich and your fear of not knowing what to do next in order to manipulate you in giving them thousands of dollars, usually a little at a time, for which you receive goods and services that end up being nearly if not totally worthless.  The average amount of money that inventors get taken for with these scams on average is about $10,000.  And these vampires will suck every last dollar from you if they can. 

If Inventor scam companies are like money vampires, the guy behind is their Van Helsing.   This site makes no bones about educating inventors on companies that have had run-ins with the law, the courts and the FTC.  He even lists companies on what he calls a Watch List, a Caution List, an Extreme Caution List, etc. 

An interesting article that recently appeared in Inventors Digest did the math on the success rates of the various companies that are out there.  The numbers say it all: many of the more notorious companies had a success rate of 0.5% or less, one with a whopping 0.027% of their clients actually making more money than they had paid for their services. 

So what do you look for?  One big sign is what I call management by abdication.  This is where you send them money and aren’t actively involved in what is going on. You don’t fully understand what or the value of what they are doing.  You’re not double-checking to make sure that the product or service that they are providing is a good price for what you’re paying.  Remember, this is your invention, and you are the one that is paying the money.  You don’t hire a painter unless you know what room, what color, what kind of paint you want to use, and you certainly have to know if the painter is reputable and that he’s not going to rip you off.  The same holds true for inventor service companies.  If you get the feeling that they are telling you to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”, you are about to be in trouble.  And any time a company pressures you to send them money, the red flags should be flying high!

Of course this isn’t to say that all companies that provide services for inventors are scams, but you have to know what to look for and what research to do before you shell out the bucks.  There are a lot of very good and reputable services and resources out there, but you have to know who they are, what they’re selling and exactly what you’re paying for. 

Are You a "Saddle Your Own Horse" Inventor?


January 1st, 2011
When Inventors Need to Be Involved and Engaged.

You probably don’t know the name Connie Reeves, unless you have been around horses a lot or perhaps have a daughter that has. I would not have known who she was if it were not for a radio interview I overheard nearly a decade ago.  In the interview, they were talking with the oldest member of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame about her life and work of over 67 summers teaching over 30,000 young girls how to ride. What was it about the story of a 100+ year-old horseback riding camp teacher for young girls that would intrigue an independent inventor?  There was a statement she made, one I didn’t know at the time that had become an unofficial motto at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.  It was something that really stuck with me in a mantra-sort of way: “Always saddle your own horse”.  It is said that Connie lived her life to that same philosophy.  She always took charge.  She always took responsibility for what needed to be done, for every consequence.  And initially she meant just that: Saddle your own horse, develop a relationship with your horse. But it also had a greater meaning: Take responsibility for your life.  Saddle your own horse and live that life the way you choose or intend to. 

I believe this motto and it’s meanings can go way beyond the framework of young girls learning to ride horses.  It can also be a good thing for an independent inventor to carry as they go through the process of inventing, and timely here on a day when we take a backward glance over our shoulder at 2010 and look forward to the fresh new year of 2011. 

You Should Develop a Relationship with Your Horse (or Invention)

In saddling your own horse, you are engaging with the horse you are about climb up on and ride.  This gets you more familiar with the elements such as the horse’s disposition, something that may be very important once you’re up there on top of, and will need to be in control of, a very large and powerful animal.  The same is true for inventors and their inventions: the more you are intimately engaged with the process, the better your chances of catching a mistake before it becomes an extremely expensive lesson in how not to proceed. 

I’ve heard this story from new and novice inventors so many times: “I’ve got this great idea for an invention, and I just need someone to do (all) the work in getting it (fill in the blank here).  What really worries me about this statement is the underlying part that tells me they are not willing to do any of the work themselves.  This mindset also makes you ripe for the pickings of an inventor scam company, who love for you to pay them money but not pay any attention to what they’re doing while they literally rob you blind. 

The Responsibility of Saddling Your Own Horse

There are so many parts that require so many different types of expertise in getting an invention from an idea to a product on the market, that typically everyone will need help or need to hire work done, be it research, prototyping, marketing, etc.  But even (and especially) when you outsource part of the work to another individual or company, it is of paramount importance that you take ownership in what is going to happen and immerse yourself in whatever part is being done.  If they are making a prototype for you, the absolute worst thing you can do is just throw a drawing on a napkin at them a tell them to “make it happen”.  That’s a bit of exaggeration, but you get my point.  Part of this is education about the elements of what you’re getting into, but another part is responsibility.  Remember, the buck stops with you, and it’s your bucks, so spend them wisely. 

So yes, do go out and get the training, resources and outsourced work to fill the missing skill sets you need to make your invention process complete and raise your chances of success.  Just don’t forget that it’s you and not someone else getting up on that horse. 

The Danger of One

December 5th, 2010              

When we need some “Rodney Dangerfield-esque” advice  

“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too.” - Rodney Dangerfield.

Rodney might have a point when he says, “I get no respect”.  In life and particularly in the business of trying to get an idea into a product and a product into the market, this can be especially true.  But we don’t like being told that our idea, invention or product, which can come very close to be being called “our baby”, is ugly.  Nobody wants to hear that.  So many times we see our invention as part of our being, something we conjured up, and subsequently that will cause anything negative someone may say about our “baby”, to make us intrinsically feel as if we are being told that something is wrong with us on a personal level.  We literally take it personally.  Even the most grizzled, seasoned and calloused inventors among us can still feel a ping of personal insult when someone tells us that our baby is ugly. 

But herein lies the danger.  Because of this personal pain that we can potentially experience when we solicit opinions on whether our newest invention is a value worthy of pursuing, we tend to, sometimes even subconsciously, want to ask only those who we know will only say nice things about our product.  Here are some good examples of where you can make some big mistakes: Your spouse, brother-in-law, neighbors and friends will not tell you that your baby is ugly.

Sometimes even people that you pay to tell you what your baby looks like will not tell you that it is ugly.  This is due to what I call the rule of the flow of money.  If the money is flowing from someone to you, say in the case of you selling a product to a customer, you are the party that is going to be the most conciliatory.  If the money is flowing from you to someone else, the reverse should be true and the other party is generally going to be the one who tries to placate.  I say this here because especially for inventors working with third parties to sell or license their invention, if someone is breaking the rule of the flow of money, the red flags should be flying high.  If you’re paying for an evaluation and they are giving you nothing but sunshine and rainbows, look out!

Another place where you may even see people giving you too much respect and not telling you that your baby is ugly can even be from your own customers.  Sometimes people would just rather be polite than truthful, especially if they think it may hurt your feelings.  And by the way, if it really would hurt your feelings to tell you the unvarnished truth, they will be able to smell it on you. 

This brings us to another big danger here, the danger of one.  By one I mean one customer, one person, or even a small number of people that will not be representative of the cold, impersonal masses that you will never meet but will give you a very honest answer about the value of your invention by voting with their pocketbooks.

I have seen veteran business people make this very mistake, taking sometimes even just one customer’s advice and running with it.  Only after they’ve spent gobs of money and launched it on the market do they find out that the one, two or more customers that they surveyed were only being nice or just weren’t representative of the whole market they were selling to. 

So how do you weed out the ugly babies from your brood of ideas and inventions?  Here there is safety in numbers.  The more strangers you can find that will give you honest feedback on your product, the better.  Don’t forget, the more impersonal these encounters, the better.

Another good place to get feedback is of course at the Inventors Workshop we hold for CKIC members on the 2nd Tuesdays of each month.  One of the best things we can do for you, if nothing else, is save you thousands of dollars on going in the wrong direction.  Many inventors find that once they can quit spinning their wheels in the wrong direction, it removes a stumbling block and enables them to go forward with a good idea in the right direction.    

So be like Rodney, and purposefully go out and look for those “no respect” opinions.  They are worth their weight in gold. 

The 4-I'ed Creature That Successful Inventors Must Pass

October 25th, 2010                 

The Confluence of Ideas, Innovation, Information and Implementation we saw at Inventors Conference 2010!

As I write this, we are all still reeling from the overwhelming response, attendance and participation at this year’s Inventors Conference.  We had upwards of 200 people and nearly 30 exhibit booths at what we can confidently call the largest event for inventors and entrepreneurs in Kentucky and surrounding states, and certainly the largest one that we have had in the six years of the Inventors Conference’s history. 

We were so privileged to have so many great presenters this year, with so much good information: Nick Wilczek with the Central Library Reference showed us how literally thousands of dollars worth of access to research resources are available for free, within the walls of the very library we were standing.  Gordon Garrett with the Small Business Development Center talked to us about the question that is on the mind of every inventor: the process of turning a concept into a commercialized product.  And this year we had a tremendously dynamic keynote speaker, Stephen Key, who talked to us about taking one simple idea and the many great ways of turning it into money making licensing propositions. 

After the presentations were over, we moved out of the “packed and overflowing” Library Theatre and up to the 2nd floor exhibit area.  I was one of the last people out of the theatre and up to the exhibit area, and what I saw when the elevator doors opened on the 2nd floor was I sight I won’t soon forget: there were so many people from one end of the exhibit area to the other that you couldn’t even see the booths until you got into the area! 

We also had a great number of inventor service provider-exhibitors that helped as a contribution and great resource to our CKIC Inventors Connection Clearinghouse booth, where we helped inventors at different stages of the process to connect with the potential services based on what stage they were in the process of their invention’s development. 

And then there were the inventor-exhibitors!  We saw so many great ideas, inventions and products: everything from inventions to help florists cut flowers, all the way to a giant board game for kids, and all things in-between.  Some inventors where at the prototype stage, while others had gone the entrepreneurial route and were producing and selling their inventions as their own business.  All were so exciting to see, hear and talk with. 

While the results of this year’s conference exceeded any and all expectations we had, thanks to the contributions and hard work of so many, I think it also speaks to the mood and spirit of innovation right now.  So many smart, creative and innovative people out there are reaching within themselves, finding and developing opportunities and ideas, and making them real.  And we saw so much of that at the conference.  We also saw a lot of new inventors with new ideas, coming to find those connections they so desperately need to move forward in the right way. 

Did you say you missed the Inventors Conference?  Well, I have good news for you.  Helping inventors learn, connect and move forward is not just something we do once a year at the CKIC.  Actually, coming to the annual Inventors Conference is just the beginning of the journey for many.  We meet on the first Tuesday of each month, and I believe it’s the overall follow-through of inventors coming to meetings and becoming involved that helps their invention to nurture and grow.  You can’t learn, absorb and connect to everything in just one night.  You have to immerse yourself in the right environment, over time.  As we said at the conference: Good inventing is like a great meal carefully prepared in a slow-cooker.  Bad inventing is like that awful microwave burrito you got in a convenience store. 

So be patient and tenacious, come to the meetings and workshops, and get your idea cooking.  And don’t forget to mix in all the right ingredients like innovation, information and implementation! 

The Power of Connections

September 2nd, 2010 

The Difference Between a Live Wire and a Dead One

A lot has been going on for inventors over the past year.  New local companies have popped up, like Idealitet and Inven, that provide new and needed services for inventors.  And not just local, either.  We’ve seen an influx of products and services that seem to be at least more visible as resources for inventors and entrepreneurs. And we’ve also seen a lot of new inventors, inventions and innovations over the past year, again both locally and nationally. I believe, and have heard from a lot of good sources lately, that the economic rough patch has actually caused a lot of people and companies to dig within themselves, finding abilities, resources and opportunities that they may have not otherwise found.  As the old adage says, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. 

So how does an inventor or entrepreneur move forward, or dare I say do well, in hard times?  How do they “dig within themselves” to find those jewels?  One way is to connect.  Someone told me a long time ago that the difference between a live wire and a dead one is connections.  On the surface it may sound trite, but it really stuck with me over the years and I think it is key to an inventors success.  A good example of this is the annual Inventors Conference.  We had well over 100 people attend, exhibit or participate last year, some from as far away as Texas.  We could have never drawn such a crowd, I believe, if it weren’t for the people, companies and organizations that partner with us in this endeavor.  And speaking of the Inventors Conference, which is now only a few weeks away, our theme this year is “The Power of Connections”.  Every year we see people connecting in ways they may not have been able to before at the Inventors Conference.  It’s always a great place to connect with the right people or services, and this year we’re cranking it up a notch with our “Inventor Connection Clearinghouse”.  So many inventors come to us at the CKIC asking more or less the same question: “where do I go from here?”.  The Clearinghouse will offer a great opportunity for seasoned inventors and professionals from the CKIC and elsewhere to help point inventors in the right direction, based on where they are in the timeline of their invention process. 

The more people you can connect with, the better your chances of getting the right information, collaborations, and services needed to not just move forward with your invention, but to move forward in the right direction.  You don’t want to “move forward” with your invention process, only to turn around at some point, way down the road, and realize you’ve been going in the wrong direction. 

So connecting with the right people can help you to avoid going in a bad direction with your time and money.  Probably one of the worst “wrong directions” we see inventors go into is when they get hooked up with an invention scam company.  We see way too many inventors come limping in to our meetings only after they’ve paid many times as much as $10,000 to a company, with nothing to show for it except some weak services that end up being next to worthless. 

It’s also good to connect with other inventors.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he talks about how a firefighter seemed to have an uncanny ability to sense danger and avert disaster.  What does he attribute to this ability to?  He subconsciously tapped into a large database of not just his own experiences, but more importantly the experiences of other firefighters that routinely told their own stories around the fire station.  As inventors we can tap into this, because we can also listen and learn from others, standing on their shoulders and amassing a database of do’s and don’ts when it comes to the inventing process.  Knowing how one inventor took one direction or another and how it turned out for them can be a priceless commodity to you as you move forward. 

So don’t be a dead wire.  Connect with the right people, products and services you’ll find at places like the CKIC.  And don’t miss the Inventors Conference on October 12th.  It may just be the right connection you need to be a “live wire” inventor!

Finding the Low-Hanging Fruit

July 30th, 2010

When you need to take the baby-steps to take the giant ones

Inventors, by their very nature, are big dreamers.  When the rest of the world wants to know why, inventors ask why not?  It is both part of the essence of who we are and part of the secret sauce of how we’re able to do what we do.  A problem arises, however, when we need to change hats from the inventor in us to the very different persona of the entrepreneur.  Believe it or not, these are 2 very different kinds of people. The inventor is the creative big-dreamer: running out 10 steps ahead of what everyone else is doing or thinking, out where the angels fear to tread.  The entrepreneur, on the other hand, needs at times to be more process oriented; carefully drawing from the wisdom of his or her own experience, plus standing on the shoulders of the wisdom of others; making the right decisions to move the invention forward to the ultimate goal: turning it into a product that sells and brings in cash flow.  This typically requires a totally different mindset from the one that successfully got you to your great idea or prototype. 

As I mentioned, inventors naturally think big.  When you try and translate that into selling your invention or product, however, it will require you to think more strategically.  You have to ask yourself, “if I can’t get into the Walmarts of the world, where can I get in?”  This is where the law of the low-hanging fruit comes in.  I have both seen and experienced this for myself in a number of inventions and products. 

When you think big business, think risk-adverse and slow-moving.  They are a lot less likely to trust an unproven product than one that already has a track record.  Sure, you can (and should) do test marketing, but there is something about the perception of actually selling it in the market already that makes distributors sit up and listen like no other.  Nobody wants to dance with the wallflowers.  But when they see your invention out there cutting the rug with their smaller and more nimble competitors, it makes them want to dance.  With you. 

So where do you find this low-hanging fruit? Look for the smaller guys, ones that are specializing in the niches that best describe where your invention belongs.  These are the ones that are fighting hard for the attention of their customers by being different than the big-box stores.  By differentiating themselves from the sea of big-box products, they cater to specialty groups of customers and many times can command a higher price than the cut-rate mass retailers, providing the additional benefit of ultimately helping your bottom line. 

And here’s where you can actually draw some from that creative side of yours and really make it pay off in the business side.  Think of creative ways to promote and sell your invention, ways that are untraditional or even ways that may have not even been tried before.  Let me stress here that you want to test these methods on the small and especially on the cheap, to make sure that they will work before you spend too much time, energy or money, and to make sure that it won’t give you adverse effects on a grand scale.  While you want to kiss a lot of frogs with this method, you’ll want the ones that will blow up in your face (and there will be some) to be small explosions.  I can’t tell you what these new creative ways are, though, because you haven’t thought of them yet.  But the exciting part of this is that you can.

The personas of the inventor and entrepreneur can be and are many times balanced in the same person. But as we have said so many times here at the CKIC, even if you are an inventor and don’t want to be “the entrepreneur”, it is vitally important that you become intimately familiar with the business side of inventing so that you can partner and effectively communicate with those who have the skill to do the necessary parts of the successful inventing process that you do not. 

So aim for the stars, of course; you never know if you might actually grab one.  But in the meantime don’t forget to also grab some of that low-hanging fruit that is currently within your reach.  It may be just exactly what you need to keep you from going hungry on your way to the stars. 

Double Bagging

June 28th, 2010

The importance of having a back-up plan for each step of your process

I was sitting in a McDonalds the other day, sipping some coffee and watching the goings on.  You can learn a lot from sitting in a McDonalds, or a lot of other places for that matter, just by observing the doings and events of the customers, employees and managers.  This particular morning, I was watching an employee remove the sizable garbage bag from one of the many trash receptacles you’ll see scattered throughout a restaurant.  Just as I was starting to think about all of the half-drunk beverages and other things that you know could potentially leak from such a bag, making a real nasty mess in a public place where people are eating, I noticed that not only did the bag not leak, but it held up rather well in spite of the sizable amount of fast-food trash inside.  However, what happened next is what really caught my attention: when the “waste management technician” (you know they have to have some kind of name like that made up somewhere) put the new bag back into the waste container, she put a layer of two bags in, not just the one.  Now before you start thinking that I must have just way too much time hands, or what could this ever have to do with inventing, I really am going somewhere with this.  And by the way, if you are an inventor, you probably already know that it almost always invariably seems to be that the most mundane and routine moments of life are where and when, if you’re paying attention, you are struck by those real flashes of inspiration. 

My flash on that particular morning was this: in any phase of the inventor’s process, it’s always good, and most times of paramount importance, to double bag.  What I mean by that is to always have a back up plan, a plan-B, a “what do I do if what I really think will turn out just fine without a snag actually does blow-up/not work/somehow fail miserably”, type of strategy already mapped out. 

Of course, you may think that there isn’t anything that can go wrong.  You may think you’ve got everything covered.  This is usually the time you really need to be thinking the most about what you’ll do if actual things out there that you may not have thought of actually happen.  Everyone can’t think of everything, and I hate to break it to you, but you and I are no exceptions.  Things can jump up out of left field that you never would have expected.  Those sure and no-brainer tests can fail.  Suppliers can go belly-up or decide they don’t want to sell you that critical component you need for your invention.  Customers that you thought would be lining up for your invention as if it were a new version of the iPhone are suddenly nonexistent.  The one aspect of your invention that you almost tossed aside as the stupidest thing that nobody would ever want suddenly becomes as hot as the next iPhone in your customers eyes, and you’re not prepared for it.  These things have and do happen all the time.  I have personally seen inventions that I thought no one could do without go over like a lead balloon, and others that I thought would never see the light of day take off like a rocket.  And for times like these, as disruptive as they may be, you have to develop the agility to plan for what you didn’t plan for. 

Business plans are important and very needful for a great number of reasons.  You have to know how to get where you want to go.  You can’t have a plan that goes something like: A. Do this. B. Do this. C. A miracle happens. D. I reach my goal!  You have to have a battle plan.  But to quote a famous military general, “no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”.  So you need contingency plans.  This isn’t the fun part of the invention process, either.  It’s the boring, non-romantic part, a lot like, well, taking out the garbage. 

So whether you’re carrying out a huge bag containing a slurry of half-eaten fast-food and half-full drink containers, or going through the steps from your own flash of genius to a product that makes money, don’t forget to double bag.  It may mean the difference between a great plan and a smelly disaster. 

Free Training for Marketing Your Invention

May 29th, 2010
There are some great resources out there - hiding in plain sight

We hear from a lot of small independent inventors that have a lot in common.  Many of the problems that you face, even ones that you may feel are unique to you, are shockingly similar to other inventors out there.  For instance, a lot of inventors are stuck at the one of the real big hurtles of the inventing process, marketing.  This is such a large and challenging part of the inventor’s process that we dedicate a whole night to talking about it at least once a year.  And there are a lot of really good inventors out there that just haven’t yet acquired the skill of selling their invention to their market, be it direct, through distribution or with licensing. 

 In typical sales and marketing training, a new person without experience in a specific company or industry will pair with a successful and seasoned rep, dogging him or her and watching what they do, how they do it and why.  This watching and learning gives the inexperienced person valuable information they can use once they are on their own, avoiding the pitfalls they would no doubt fall into had they not gained that “experience through osmosis” by watching and learning from those that do. 

But training costs money, and good training costs good money.  Which leads me to another common problem among small independent inventors: a short supply of funds.  So, what does an inventor do to acquire a valuable, yet needed skill (like marketing) and keep it under a budget that is less than ample? 

If there is one resource that an inventor has over others in an industry or market, it is their creativity.  It was this cleverness, genius and imagination that made you an inventor in the first place.  Yet so many inventors take this talent for brilliance and set it aside once they move past the idea stage of their invention.  And unfortunately, it is this ingenuity that is just as desperately needed in what can be the much harder steps of the invention process. 

A great example of this, I believe, is in finding creative ways to learn the marketing expertise in your particular industry or market.  Let’s say, for instance, that you have an invention that is in the fitness industry.  If I had such an invention, and wanted to learn the best skills about how to market my invention to whomever, I would find those who are doing it – those marketers out there that are very successful in marketing exercise or fitness equipment.  Let’s take this one step further and pull another example out of the air: QVC.  In 2009, QVC shipped more than 145 million units and handled more than 115 million phone calls worldwide.  Their consolidated sales increased 11% to $1.8 billion in the first quarter of 2010.  So we can definitely conclude that they are good at selling stuff, including exercise equipment.  And they have top-notch talent practicing their trade on TV and the web 24/7. 

Now, if I told you that some of the best marketers in the world for products in your industry were giving free lessons on TV and the web about how to sell those products, would you be interested in attending this class?  Well, they are, but they just don’t call it that.  If I were wanting to learn the best way to market my product, I would be recording and watching these “training videos” over and over, immersing myself in learning the key words that they used, how they presented the product, and how they engaged the customer.  Not parroting what they did, but rather accessing, attaining and emulating the skills of how they do it; reviewing and dissecting not just the what but the how, until I made that knowledge, wisdom and those skills my own. 

Now this is just one example of how this could be done.  You may think of even more creative ways of gaining free skills specific to your invention process needs.  After all, you ARE an inventor!  Don’t discount the power of your own creativity in the more mundane steps of the invention or entrepreneurial process. 

When Failure IS an Option

April 26th, 2010
Why failure is a good thing to the process of inventing

How could failure ever be a good thing?

The current book I am reading is called "Reinventing the Wheel" by Steve Kemper, and is the story of Dean Kamen and his invention now known as the Segway.  In the early part of the story, Steve outlines the culture of working for Dean's product development company, DEKA.  At DEKA, mere brains just didn't cut it; Dean wanted people that thought it would be fun to jump off a cliff and design an ingenious new parachute on the way down, not literally, but with their ideas and projects.  Did they crash sometimes?  Sure, but Dean didn't hold anything against them if they learned something on the way down.  He wanted people with the nerve to jump.  This took the edge off of failure and fostered an atmosphere of heading out into a wide-open territory where anything was possible and you weren't limited by what people normally thought was feasible. 

Thomas Edison once said that no experiments were useless. "You've gotta kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince", Kamen is also noted as saying, and even condensed this phrase into a gerund - frog kissing.  I believe there are some good things we can take from both Edison's and Kamen's remarks on this culture of not being afraid to fail.  

First let me tell you what I'm not talking about.  I'm not saying that you should foolishly run off in a wild direction with all your money and bet it all on a whimsical direction with an unknown chance of success or failure.  You should buffer your decisions with the wisdom and common sense of counting the cost of the steps you must take and areas you must explore in order to accomplish your invention or innovation goals.   

What I am saying is that we should not be so paralyzed with fear as to the point where you are afraid to try anything new, innovative or out-of-the-box.  Fear can be very destructive to the creative process.  This is clearly illustrated in a lot of large companies where fear of short-sighted management hierarchies can limit creative talent.  The irony in this illustration is that these same large companies are constantly frustrated with their resultant inability to be creative or innovative, and typically can't figure out why this is.  Many of these companies end up turning to smaller, nimble companies and even individual inventors that aren't afraid of the failure, who can provide what the larger companies have lost. 

Individual inventors and entrepreneurs can also face the danger of having their creativity paralyzed by the fear of failure.  Maybe you got burnt going in the wrong direction for too long.  Maybe you miscalculated the cost of trying a new direction.  Or maybe you made a bad decision that you now regret.  Whatever the reason, you can get back on the horse.  Keep in mind that you have reaped something potentially valuable - the knowledge, expertise and wisdom you gained from the failure.  Also remember that if you are in very good company; some of the best inventions and inventors you know have a long trail of failures preceding their success. 

Having lived on both sides of the fence of product development and marketing, I have noticed something common to both worlds with regards to the success of either developing or marketing a new product or innovation.  Imagine that you are in a long hallway with doors lining up and down both walls.  Some or even most of these doors are locked.  Others open, but lead to nowhere.  However, you know that least one of these doors will either take you to where you want to go, or to somewhere you needed to go that you didn't know you needed.  How do you find out which one is the right door for you?  You have to try all the doorknobs.  You may even have to walk through several doorways to find out if it is the right one or not.  If it's not the right door, you'll have walk back out and start over, trying more doorknobs.  This can be frustrating and usually requires a lot of patience.  But for those willing to persevere, the results can be highly rewarding. 

Are You An "Island Inventor"?

March 31st, 2010
No man is an island”, is especially true for the independent inventor

English writer John Donne penned the now famous quote “no man is an island entire of itself” in 1624.  Basically, it means that human beings necessarily depend on one another, or that you can’t manage everything all by yourself.  While this may be true in many areas of life, it certainly rings no truer than with the independent inventor.  The idea that people are not isolated from one another - that we have a need to be interconnected, can be an important truth for the success of an inventor.  Many times it can make the difference between success and total failure. 

The independent inventor so many times works in isolation.  After all, most of us came up with our idea all by ourselves, so it’s a natural thing to think that we can work all by ourselves, without the help of support of anyone else that we could bring in on our project.  Why?  Part of it may be fear, founded or unfounded, of someone stealing your idea.  Sometimes you may even feel that if you bring someone else in, you’ll be giving away part of what began as your own idea, an idea that may still feel, to you, like a part of yourself.   Some of it may be that you feel like no one could ever understand what you are trying to accomplish but you.  Others still may just like to work alone.  Whatever the case may be, most successful inventors know that networking, partnering, connecting with and learning from other people is paramount.  Below are some ways that an inventor needs to be connected to people: 

You need people with different skill sets that can help and/or partner with you. 

Everybody is typically really good at one or more things, but we all have our limitations.  What you are really good at, your core competencies, are contrasted by what you may not have a natural talent for, don’t like or don’t have the time, energy initiative to learn.  These – let’s call them gaps - in your toolbox of core competencies are what you have to identify, face and deal with when you are climbing the ladder of the invention process.  And if you’re missing some rungs in that ladder, it may keep you from making it to the top.  But there is good news: there are actual, real human beings out there who are really good at the things that you’re not!  And a lot of times, these people are not really good and need help with something that you are really good at. 

You need people who you can learn from.

We always seem to focus on the negative side of the wisdom that says, “if someone hangs around bad habits, they have a good chance of picking up those bad habits”.  But we totally miss the positive aspect of that same advice.  It’s pretty straightforward: if you want to become knowledgeable about a certain subject or skill set, you need to spend time with those who know that subject or have that skill.  If you want to be successful, hang around people who are successful. There is great quote relating to this that I heard years ago that goes something like this: “Every person knows at least one thing that I do not.  I must therefore search and find out what those things are.  Hence, every man (person) is my teacher.”  You also need people that can learn from you.  Good knowledge and the wisdom that comes from it should not only be obtained by connecting with those that have it, but also by “paying it forward”.  Passing on such things has an amazing multiplier effect not only for the recipient but also the provider as well. 

You need people that you can network with. 

Someone once said that the difference between a live wire and a dead is connections.  Sometimes in working through your invention process, you are at “A” but need to find “E”.  You meet people who you think might be “E”, but are “B”.  But, B leads you to C who leads you to D who leads you to your much desired “E”.  And along with way you find that B, C and D may have been just as important for you as well.  Such is the way of networking.  Sure, it’s random and sometimes you hit dead ends, but if you don’t try and go down any streets, you’re absolutely sure to never get anywhere. 

There is another, even more dangerous pitfall that an isolated inventor can fall into.  Living in a vacuum devoid of good information, people and resources, where you feel like it’s just you and your invention against the world, is where we see many victims fall prey to invention scams companies.  These companies are very skilled at using fear, greed and your lack of knowing what to do next to take your hard earned cash and provide you with papers, documents and so-called services that are basically worth nothing.  It is so unfortunate that we still see so many good and talented independent inventors come to see us here at the CKIC, only after they have been taken for what many times winds up being upwards of as much as $10,000.  These companies are sneaky advertisers, can have a very professional look, and appeal to an inventor with ploys like telling them their invention is great (whether it is or not), telling inventors that they’ll take care of everything, and all that you have to do is just keep sending them more money.  This is what I call management by abdication, where you blindly send money and just expect them to make everything work out OK. What typically happens in the end is that the inventor will keep sending money until their resources are exhausted, usually winding up with some printed something that may look good if framed and put on a wall, but is essentially worthless in the real world of inventing and business. This is another form of being an “island inventor”, and it turns out that you are stranded on the island with a scam artist!

Learning, connecting and working with other inventors is what independent inventor organizations like the CKIC is all about.  Here we try and teach you the truths that successful inventors know and use.  You can connect with a variety of professional inventors, entrepreneurs and others with skill sets that compliment your own.  And you never know where a chance meeting with the right person will take you. 

The 7 Words Inventors Need to Hear & Have to Answer:

February 17th, 2010          
"Can You Show Me How It Works?"

OK, so you’ve been seized by a grand idea and have worked it out in your head into what you are sure will be the next great invention.  You can’t stop thinking about it, either; you’ve drawn it out first on a napkin at the restaurant, then on some scrap paper when you got home, then onto some notebook paper, then hopefully detailed into a bound notebook (the kind you can’t tear the pages out from), witnessed, signed and dated, as good inventors need to do.  And hopefully, each time you’ve re-drawn and subsequently made more notes into your notebook, you’ve made changes in the form of improvements, adding to your invention’s value, uniqueness and probability for success.  Unfortunately, this is where many inventors get the idea in their head that they are all done.  They’ll think, “wow, now all I have to do is take these notes to someone, and they’ll give me a million dollars!”.  Sure, it could happen, but you could also win the lottery, inherit money from a long lost relative or find a suitcase full of money on the street.  And I’m sorry to break the news to you, but if you’re only selling an idea on a napkin, most times your chances are about the same, at this point. 

The story is told of the inventor who could not get a meeting with a buyer, so he flew on his own expense overseas to the company and sat in the lobby all day with his prototype.  He showed everyone who walked into the office how it worked and gave demonstration after demonstration to anyone waiting in the company’s lobby.  Finally, the buyer came out of his office and told the inventor, “you have 30 seconds”.  The inventor simply turned on the prototype and the buyer was hooked.  The moral to this story is that you not only have to be persistent and aggressive, but you need to be able to show how your invention works. 

Most of the time the phrase, “imagine, if you will…” just doesn’t cut it.  I do have to say that what the guy did in the story was gutsy.  Was there a risk of the buyer seeing the prototype and saying, “thanks but no thanks” or worse yet, “get out of my lobby”? Sure, but you can bet the risk of hearing that was a whole lot higher if he only had a drawing, or worse yet, just tried to tell him about it.  As we say many times here at the CKIC, the further along you are with your invention in the process of taking it from an idea to actual product selling in the market, the greater your chances of selling it to someone to license or distribute.  So it makes a lot of sense if you can correctly answer the question that you will most certainly be asked from a potential buyer or licensee: “Can you show me how it works?”

So if you are at the “I’ve got it all written down right here” phase, and are doing all the other things we teach here at the CKIC such as finding out if it’s original, if there is a big enough market for it, etc., then it’s time to look at building a prototype.  There are many ways to go about making a prototype.  You can build one own your own, and if you’re good at that sort of thing, or feel you could be, go for it.  It’s probably the least risky as far as cost is concerned (if you can keep your material costs low), and if it doesn’t work out, you can always look at other options, such as having one made for you.  And in the invention process, you always have to anticipate a plan B, and sometimes a C, D, E or even F.  But that is how most of us progress forward.  When Thomas Edison was perfecting the light bulb, it is told that his prototypes failed more than 1,000 times.  When asked about it, he is to have said, “ I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways that will not work”. 

A single prototype isn’t always an end-all unto itself, either.  Remember how you made changes and improvements every time you re-drew or wrote it all down on paper?  That can and many times will most certainly happen in your prototype process.  You may even think that it is just perfect, until you get other people (and I don’t mean family, friends or neighbors) to critique it.  Your market may even want you to change something that you don’t like, or that you would personally hate as a change to your invention.  But remember, if you are the only one buying your invention, that’s just fine, leave it like it is, just the way you like it best.  But if you want everyone else to buy it and they want it different than what you want, then you have to make the change that will make it sellable to other people. 

So what’s the value of a prototype?  From a legal standpoint, a prototype or “working model” is usually strong evidence to demonstrate an actual “reduction to practice”, a legal term meaning the embodiment of the concept of your invention, which can help you when you get to the patenting phase.  From a marketing standpoint, the simple act of making a prototype could transform your invention’s potential. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a prototype is worth a thousand pictures. 

Are You A "Finish Line" Inventor?

January 28th, 2010                    
What is Holding You Back? 

As a lot of serial inventors/entrepreneurs do, I am always juggling two or more projects at a time.  One of these projects, an invention that has so far shown great promise, is in beta testing.  Beta testing is where you are giving your “baby” to other people to try.  Of course, these people aren’t going to love your baby like you do.  Nobody is going to love her like you do; it is your baby, your idea that you gave birth to and now, at least in your mind, she is a beautiful toddler that can do no wrong.  And if you’re a seasoned inventor and this isn’t your first barbeque, you know that.  You keep telling yourself that you know that, but you still can’t help but feel the twinge of “I hope they don’t treat her badly or tell me she’s ugly” somewhere deep in your heart of hearts.  So you go forward, making sure that everything is just perfect before you hand her over for some strangers to kick the tires.  And kick they do.  In this my current incarnation of this scenario, the beta testers have come back with multiple suggestions, comments that usually start out like: “You know, it’s nice but it would really be a lot easier to work with if it had this”, or “I would buy one if it did that”.  And again, if you’ve been to this dance before, you know what happens next.  You go back to the workshop and work on the improvements.  That is where this particular invention is at right now, and that’s bad for me, because this is where I know I can easily get stuck. 

An inventor can get “stuck” in so many different places in the invention process, for the simple reason that there are so many different types of things an inventor has to do to be successful.  Without the guidance, support, education and wisdom to know how to tackle each of these steps, many an inventor can suddenly feel like they are in way over their head, get stuck and many times, just stay stuck.  One can imagine that all over the country you could find countless notebooks, patent filings, prototypes, and even small manufacturing run inventories that have ended up just sitting somewhere, gathering dust, because an inventor hit a stumbling block, didn’t know what to do about it or what to do next, and then just stopped, frozen in their timeline from idea to market. 

If you are an inventor and feel like your invention is frozen in time, don’t despair.  First off, remember that it’s human nature to stay where we feel the most comfortable.  Maybe you are an idea person, and you love to come up with ideas.  Perhaps you even have some sketched out on paper.  Maybe you’re good at documentation, and have notes, drawings and files galore of your ideas.  Maybe you are a “tinkerer” inventor, and you love to create and build.  And you have a garage or basement of both finished and unfinished prototypes to prove it.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with those things, as long as doing those things is what you want as your end result.  If you want your invention to make money, however, you have to move to the next step, and the one after that, and so on, until you reach the finish line. 

It’s only natural to get stuck and feel intimidated by not knowing what to do next.  We feel good in our own comfort zone where we know what we know and don’t have to worry about what we don’t know.  When we’re confronted by the fear of the unknown, say, not knowing what to do after we’ve made a prototype, many times we just shut down.  Here lies the crossroads of success and failure.  Here is where it is so easy to become disenchanted with our original idea, and start on a new one.  After all, there are usually so many new projects to choose from in the fertile, creative minds of inventors.  And starting a new project will make us still feel like we’re moving forward, but still staying in our comfort zone, not having to push the limits, face any unknown or potentially hard terrain, or learn anything new.  This is also where we can end up with a mountain of great invention projects, all unfinished, never seeing their true potential.  How do we break free from this cycle?  This is where information becomes power.  It’s not easy, but you can learn what you need to do next.  It’s not quick either, as the saying goes, we don’t use microwaves here; we use crock-pots.  True successful inventing is a process, one you have to learn, apply to your situation and work on with the passion and intensity that you see in and learn from other successful inventors. 

You could also be at a point where you feel like you’ve made a mistake and think it’s “game over”.  This may not necessarily be true.  Sure, there are many times when you find out that you should walk away (the earlier you find this out the cheaper and better), but maybe you’ve just fell down and haven’t gotten back up yet.  Maybe you’ve gotten out there and found out that inventing is not always as glamorous, easy and fun as you thought it ought to be.  As any successful inventor will tell you, it’s not always rainbows and sunshine.  It can many times be hard work.  But you can never learn a new skill or accomplish anything without it. 

Maybe you feel like you have hit a dead-end, a roadblock where you are stopped by some element such as cost, skill or time.  This is where successful inventors use their secret weapon: their ingenuity.  By using the very talent that so many inventors posses in abundance, you may be able to find another route around the roadblock, one that puts you back on the road and sometimes, even ahead of the pack.

Sometimes inventors feel they need to do it all themselves, and don’t want to let anyone else in.  When these inventors hit a hurtle that they cannot clear by themselves, they get stuck and feel they can’t reach out for help.  For most of us, at some point of the process we will need help in some area.  This is where networking with others can be so crucial.   

Whatever may be holding you back from making the finish line, just remember that others who have run this race have made it, and so can you. 


Invent Like a Marine

December 24th, 2009       
Improvise, Adapt and Overcome 

As I’m writing this during the holidays, I am 3-fold reminded of what I found written on a fire department t-shirt a few weeks ago.  I was later reminded that the quote “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome” is actually an unofficial mantra of the Marine Corps, based on the fact that the Corps was used to receiving Army hand-me-downs and traditionally the troops were poorly equipped.  In spite of this perceived disadvantage, the Marine Corps has been successful mostly because of the creativity of it’s people and their success-based attitude.  I believe this amazing capacity for creative thinking stems from a Marine’s utter drive and dedication towards accomplishing the mission, even when faced with what appear to be impossible odds. 

I mentioned that this reminder was 3-fold.  After seeing this on the t-shirt, I remembered that the motto was made famous by Clint Eastwood in the movie “Heartbreak Ridge” (though it’s been around since well before the movie).  Now that it’s the holidays, the thoughts of many of us are directed toward those serving our country in the all the branches of the armed forces around the globe, some in remote and hostile areas far away from their families.  This convergence of reminders has got me to thinking about how we as inventors can take a cue from these military innovators, those that have a lot more on the line as they are thinking literally on their feet. 

Like the marines, inventors and entrepreneurs have a mission, a battle plan that hits the ground on an ever-changing landscape.  For instance, this year we have watched a major change in the economic landscape.  And as I have said before in other blogs and in meetings over the last year, this is not the time to go hide and stick our heads in the sand.  Many have been forced to do more with less, while some of us have had limited resources to work with from the get-go.  Marines, likewise, have historically had to do without.  They are the smallest branch of the service and get an even smaller share of the DOD budget.  But this has forced them to actually achieve more with less.  It is so strongly infused into their being that they just expect to get short changed and still come out on top.  They just develop an attitude of never letting a little adversity get in their way. 

Perhaps one or more fronts of your invention landscape has changed.  Perhaps it’s your market: the people who would buy your invention now would not or wouldn’t buy for the same reasons they would last year.  Perhaps it’s your resources and you have to find another way to get your prototype developed.  Or perhaps you now have to find a new and different way to protect your IP (Intellectual Property).  This is the part where you need to improvise.  It may not be as pretty a route as you originally imagined, but sometimes it doesn’t matter how you got there, just that you did. 

When things look impossible, the marines get more creative.  This is also a mantra we hear a lot here at the CKIC.  Inventors are the innovators, and we are the people everyone looks to for creativity.  While we nearly have this creativity in our blood, we sometimes get so focused on being creative on the front inventing end, we fail to realize that we can “adapt” this creativity to other areas of the inventing process.  When faced with a shortage of materials, information or even time, what do you do?  Do you give up? Just sit there and let everything come to a standstill?  Or do you try to get more information and attempt to come up with a viable solution? 

Maybe the most important part of this mantra is to Overcome.  This is part that describes our actions when we surmount an unexpected obstacle.  The marines call this “accomplishing the mission”.  This is that tenacity I see in inventors, many who have diminished resources, who become successful; and this is what I see missing in the inventors who have more resources that end up being unsuccessful.  If there was one secret ingredient to successful inventing, this may be it. 

So when faced with a changing situation or one that seems nearly too big to tackle, just remember that you have a weapon at your disposal that many do not: your creativity. 

Here’s hoping you have a Merry Christmas and an innovative, prosperous 2010! 


The Audacious Inventor

November 23rd, 2009 
Why You Can’t Invent Something Unless It Will Work  

“I can’t change the laws of physics, Captain.” – Scotty to Captain Kirk, Star Trek.  Unfortunately, we as inventors can't either. 

Every once and awhile, we here at the CKIC hear from inventors that have come up with something that is what you could call “over the top”.  Something that, if it could be done, would be bigger than big.  But herein lies the question that many who bring the next great world-changing, earth-shattering whatever to the table at the Inventors Workshop have yet to answer: Can you make it work?  Or better yet: Have you made one and can you prove that it works?  They say the proof is in the pudding, and in the world of inventing for not just fun but money, you’d better know how to cook.  Or at least know the recipe and have someone ready who can and will cook it.  In other words, if you are claiming you have an invention that will re-write the textbooks, you’d better have a working model that you can demonstrate.  In legal terms, this is called reducing your invention to practice.  In layman’s terms, this is called showing them you can do it. 

One thing you will hear repeated at the Inventors Workshop, where members can come and discuss their invention in a closed, protected format, is that if you say that you have invented a time machine, you need to bring it in and prove it.  And while we’ve not gotten anyone who’ve come in to claim that distinction, some inventors have come in with what one would call “audacious” ideas.  Not that there’s anything wrong with aiming high with your ideas and subsequent inventions.  But you do have to have the ability to prove it. 

Now I’m not saying that every inventor needs to have a working model to bring in to the Inventors Workshop.  In fact, we encourage inventors at every stage of his or her invention to come and share, ask questions and receive valuable input.  This means it could be as advanced as a prototype, or as simple as a drawing or just an idea.  What I am saying is that if you claim you can levitate, time-travel, or transmit matter over the telephone, you are going to need something more than just claiming you can do it. 

Enter physicist Ronald Mallett.  A professor at the University of Connecticut, this brave innovator says he is developing a way to create the world’s first time machine (for subatomic particles).  The proposed technology is based on a ring laser’s properties within the context of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. So Mallett’s plan is to use a laser to create a kink in the fabric of space and form a time loop. Mallett’s experiment would require a “ring laser” – a device reflected through a series of mirrors until it eventually hits itself.  The space inside the ring laser would be dragged around, much like coffee being stirred by a spoon.  According to Mallett, what would then occur is the formation of a “time loop: that would enable the sending of information to an earlier point in time.  While we’ve only heard about Professor Mallett through the media, and while many people may have serious objections with his theories, you have to admit that he has certainly aimed high.  But you have to note that he is on the right track as far as one point he makes: “the only way we’ll ever know is to conduct the experiment”, he says.

Audacious? Yes, but my hat’s off to him anyway.  While this may be the wildest idea I’ve ever heard from a university professor, he is going in the right direction in knowing that while you can theorize, you have to prove it, especially if you want someone to take you seriously. 

So remember, while you may not be able to break the laws of physics, sometimes, if you’re very, very clever, you may just find a way to bend them.  Just be ready to prove it.

So How’s Your Security System?

November 1st, 2009

The Kind of “Obstacles” You May Need

We’ve had a lot of really great programs at our annual Inventors Conference over the last 5 years, so I’m probably a little biased when I say that this year’s program was one of the best ever.  But it sure felt like it was!  If you missed our big annual event this month, you missed a lot: We learned about the great resources available right here in Lexington KY: Research on products, markets, etc. at the Central Public Library, business assistance from the KY Small Business Development Center, and of course all the things we do here at the CKIC!  Sandwiched between this great information and the plethora of inventors, inventions, and service providers in the exhibits afterwards, we heard from a special keynote speaker: Louis Foreman.  Louis is the publisher of Inventors Digest, executive producer of the Emmy award-winning PBS show Everyday Edisons, and author of the new book, “The Independent Inventor’s Handbook”.  Louis gave a great presentation on the subject of inventing and inventors.  Among the many great points that he made during his presentation, one of the subjects that he touched on during his time talking with us that really stuck with me was when he mentioned the value of patent protection.  To paraphrase, he said that while patenting isn’t a foolproof way to protect your product from being copied, and that while even some inventions and their subsequent products are not good candidates for a patenting strategy, in many cases one should “put as many obstacles in the way of competitors that makes economic sense” to protect yourself in the market.  I really liked the word “obstacles” that he used. 

I would liken this line of thinking to another analogy, one where you would picture your invention as a valuable piece of property that you are keeping in your home.  You already know there are people out there that would like nothing more than to break into your house, find those valuables, and take them from you.  This is why we lock our doors at night.  The more you want to protect your valuables, the more you work and/or spend on keeping your home secure.  The person who props a chair up under the doorknob of his home is going to have a different level of protection than the person who springs for the high-tech security system.  But in any case, it stands to reason that the more deterrents you can put in someone’s way to get to your valuables, the less likely they’ll take the time, patience and energy to overcome those obstacles and get to your stuff.

You may feel OK with just a good solid deadbolt on your outside doors that you install yourself.  Or you may be the kind of person that does not feel safe unless you have a professional come in and install deadbolts along with several chain latches everywhere.  Everyone is different with respect to the amount of work they’re willing to do themselves, what they’re willing to pay for and their safety comfort zone verses the level of risk they’re willing to take.  Typically, an inventor will weigh factors such as cost, risk, and the resources they posses that range from skill, education, experience, and money to find their own personal sweet spot and make the wisest decision possible. 

And by the way, if all you have is an idea right now, it may not be as valuable as you think it is in its current form.  This value, whether perceived or otherwise, is when you are making and selling your invention.  This is when the market has sat up, taken notice and is responding.  Unfortunately, so has the competition. This is where the true market value of your invention has increased and you have the greater potential of people wanting to copy your invention. 

So learn all you can, weigh all of your particular options and make the wisest choice you can with respect to your own intellectual property’s “security system”. 

The Pain of Serendipity

October 6th, 2009
Finding the Best Opportunities Can Sometimes Be Painful

While nitrous oxide was discovered in 1772, for decades the gas was considered as no more than a party toy.  People knew that inhaling a little of it would make you laugh (hence the name “laughing gas”), and that inhaling a little more of it would knock you unconscious.  But it had not occurred to anyone that a gas with such properties might be useful in, say, surgical operations.  Enter dentist Horace Wells (no relation to H.G.).  In 1844, 72 years after it’s discovery, Horace witnessed a mishap at one of those “nitrous” parties that gave him an idea.  High on the gas, a friend of Wells fell and suffered a deep gash in his leg, but didn’t feel a thing.  In fact, he didn’t know he’d been seriously injured until someone pointed out the blood pooling at his feet.  

To test his theory, Wells arranged an experiment with himself as the guinea pig.  He knocked himself out by inhaling a large dose of nitrous oxide, and then had a dentist extract a rotten tooth from his mouth.  When Wells came to, his tooth had been pulled painlessly.  

Of course you don’t have to pull teeth to make good discoveries, although it sometimes may feel like it.  As inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs, our best discoveries and most fruitful ideas can come from accidental and sometimes even painful experiences.  For instance, many an economic downturn can make true innovators pay attention to a new idea that they would not have before.  Perhaps even now, you are seeing something you would have never seen in good times.  If you are seeing this, and it has given you a new idea on how you could turn it into something good, and something that could make money, then that’s a good thing, even if it came with some pain.  

Pain is like that.  Someone said recently that pain can actually be helpful and instructive.  It shows us where we’ve gone off track and points us back in the right direction.  And that’s always a good thing.  So don’t be afraid of pain.  Face it.  Deal with it.  See what it’s showing you.  Find the answers to the problems it’s highlighting.  This gives you the opportunity to clean up the messes the pain is uncovering.   Because that’s what we do as inventors – we solve problems.  

The economy won’t be bad forever.  Make this the year you do something with the opportunities that are set before you!

Do I Cut the Red Wire or the Blue Wire?

August 28th, 2009

Deciding Which Way to Go in the Invention Process

You’ve probably watched this scene a thousand times on TV and at the Movies. They’ve found the bad guy’s “device”, the clock is ticking, and now all they have to do is disarm it. They open some panel, and there they are: the red and the blue wires. Of course, they also just so happen to conveniently have a pair of wire cutters, but now the tension rises as they are posed with the question everyone in the audience already knows. “Do I cut the red wire or the blue wire?” One of these wires, if cut, will spell disaster. The other will save the day. But how to know which is the right one?

In Hollywood, the scenario usually always plays out the same way. The hero will have several tense moments, followed by almost cutting the wrong wire and then at the last second, just before all is lost, cuts the right wire. This is usually followed by a happy, emotional scene and the rolling of the credits. So much for Hollywood.

In the world of inventing, we are often faced with a “do I cut the red wire or the blue wire” dilemma. Do I have my invention/product manufactured and sell them myself or license it to someone? Do I sell direct to the end-user or through distributors? How sophisticated should I make my prototype? How much should I spend on patent protection? How much of the work should I do myself and how much should I hire to have done? The questions go on and on. And that countdown clock is ticking, too. The one that makes you worry that someone is going to scoop you and you’ll wake up some morning and see the product you thought of on TV (this is happened to many of us). Another one, ticking very loudly for many of us, is the countdown between the time we file a provisional patent and the 12 month deadline to file our non-provisional. While all this can seem almost as dramatic as the Hollywood scene described above, it’s a good bit different, especially when it’s real life, it’s you and it’s your money and time.

We see a lot of these questions and a lot people faced with these same dilemmas at here at the CKIC. And unlike the red wire or the blue wire, the answers may depend on a number of different factors such as your industry, your situation and your invention itself. The best place to try and wrestle with these questions, I think, is our Inventors Workshop. The benefit of the Workshop (one of them, anyway) is that you don’t just talk with one person and get one person’s opinion, but you get a broad variety of information, viewpoints and expertise from a wide cross-section of people, professions and experience.

There is another “red or blue wire” question that is also posed to many inventors, especially to those of us that are considered prolific inventors. And that is what project to work on next. Many seasoned inventors have ideas come to them all the time, to the point many of us have more ideas than we know we’ll ever have time to work on. So we have to pick and choose, which makes for another hard decision. Personally, I like to try and keep my ear to the ground, and find out what’s going on out there. For instance, in this current economic downturn, some inventions that were good opportunities may not be so much now, as others that were not good opportunities before could now be hot commodities.

At any rate, when trying to find what the right thing to do is, I like to go back to an old proverb: “In a multitude of counselors there is safety”. Get the information you need to comfortably make a decision, and before the clock ticks down to zero, cut the right wire!

"Invent, Baby, Invent!"


August 1st, 2009
Why We are in a Climate of Opportunity

If you really want to make yourself fearful, depressed, or otherwise just upset, all you have to do nowadays is just turn to one of the “talking head” channels and listen long enough. This has not been more true than it has in over the last year, with all the bad economic news to fuel the fire. I heard someone comment recently on a mantra of the news media being “if it bleeds, it leads”. Paul Harvey even once said about his profession that too many times “we become garbage-men, hauling out the trash”. The unfortunate truth is that you see way too many stories in the media about problems and way too little about those who are truly creating solutions to those problems.

Yes, we are in a down economic climate right now, and if you follow the news-lemmings of the world, you will most likely go hide in your cave and try to “ride it out”, waiting for someone else to do something to change the economic climate and make everything all better. As inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs, I think this is where we could make a really stupid mistake.

Thomas Friedman made a statement a few months ago saying that instead of chanting “drill, baby, drill”, we should be saying “invent, baby, invent”. I should also mention that in the context of his statement, Friedman also maintained that he did believe we should drill here and drill now, trying to take his statement out of the political partisan rhetoric realm (I would hope) and rather emphasize an issue that is above divisive politics, and an absolute imperative of United States right now: inventing and innovation.

To further paraphrase Friedman, (if you’ve not read his book, “The World is Flat”, I highly recommend it) history is full of examples where recessions have been a time when new companies, innovations and inventions are born. These inventions become successful by distinctly separating themselves from their competition. When times are tight, people look for new, less expensive ways to do old things. This necessity breeds invention. We won’t stimulate ourselves into prosperity; we have to invent our way there. There has of late been way too much talk of minting dollars and way too little about minting the next Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jerry Yang and Bill Joy.

Jeff Immelt, the chief of General Electric, said in a speech a few weeks ago that this moment is “an opportunity to turn financial adversity into national advantage, to launch innovations of lasting value to our country.”

I am validated and more than a little heartened to hear people like Friedman and Immelt echo both what we have been thinking here in our little corner of the inventing world all this year, and to the point where we have made it our theme for this year’s Inventors Conference.

The theme for our annual Inventors Conference this year, in case you’ve not heard yet, is “A Climate of Opportunity”, and aptly named, I think, for inventors in this year of 2009. This year, both at our Inventors Conference and overall, opportunities don’t just exist, they abound.

So if you are an inventor, this is not a time for you to hang your head down thinking now that times are bad, your opportunity has passed you by. This IS your opportunity. Don’t miss it!

Bernie Madoff Has Nothing On These Guys

July 1st, 2009 

When Invention Scam Companies Attack

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few days, you’ve heard about Bernie Madoff, the self-confessed author of the biggest financial swindle in history. He was sentenced this week to the maximum 150 years behind bars for what his judge called an "extraordinarily evil" fraud that shook the nation's faith in its financial and legal systems and took "a staggering toll" on rich and poor alike. In court, nine of his victims confronted Mr. Madoff in court, calling him a “monster” and a “low life”.

When we think of these kinds of scams, we tend to think of Wall Street and investors with large portfolios. But scams that can take you for your hard-earned money can be a little closer to home. Actually, they can be a lot closer to home. Let me give you the example that was the inspiration for this blog: A couple of meetings ago, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with an inventor that was visiting us for the first time. In the course of our conversation, this young man shared his story of contacting one of those “invention promotion firms” that advertise on late night TV and radio. Not to get into any details, his story was so typical of so many inventors we’ve seen here at the CKIC, tragically all too late: they took several thousand dollars from him and basically did little to nothing for it.

According to the USPTO, invention promotion scams cost inventors $200 million annually, conning about 25,000 inventors in the process. “The problem is”, according to Richard Maulsby, director of public affairs for the USPTO, “is companies that prey on inventors and would-be entrepreneurs, collecting thousands of dollars from them up-front for all sorts of inflated -- sometimes impossible -- promises. Typically, inventors spend between $10,000 and $20,000 on such services, only to wind up with disappointing results.”

Unfortunately, for inventors, “Bernie” is still out there. He’s on TV, radio and the internet, trying to get you to call or email in for your “free information”. He’s emailing you, trying to look like one of us, trying to win your trust and get you to send him your money. He’ll tell you anything and everything you want to hear about your invention – how it’s great, how they’ve got buyers lined up ready to buy your invention, and how the only thing holding the deal up is for you to just send another $200, $500 or $1,000.

Now with that said, on the other hand don’t let paranoia take over and start thinking everyone is out to cheat you over your invention. There are a lot of good, no, great resources out there that can really help inventors. Ones that can realistically tell you the truth (good, bad and ugly) about your invention’s chances and the real work (yes, you need to work to make it happen) it will take. You just have to keep your eyes open and know what to look out for. As we’ve said so many times before, don’t manage by abdication. You have to take control, not leaving someone else to do everything. So many invention scam companies tout themselves as a company where you can just let them do it all for you.

Of course, a great way to find reliable resources is to educate yourself and network with other good inventors at places like right here at the CKIC. If you know what you really need to do, and are hanging around successful inventors and watching what they are doing, you’ll be able to spot Bernie a lot better, sometimes from a long way off.

May 28th, 2009

Dead Reckoning

Finding where you are, where you want to be, and how to get there.

At this month’s open meeting at the CKIC, we talked about the steps that an inventor needs to know in order to increase his or her chances of being successful at inventing. And nearly everyone is at different stages in their invention journey. Many inventors are just starting out, and everything can be new and exciting, plus scary and intimidating all at the same time. Many of you have been around the invention block a few times. Yet still many others of you out there in inventorland have taken a few steps up the ladder and have come back down – part scared, part worried, and part not knowing what to do next.

A good friend of mine, and CKIC alumnus Rob Voorhees (inventor of the SureStay and the 10 Dimensions of Wealth) tells in his money-management seminars that in order to be successful, you need to “know where you are, where you want to be, and how you’re going to get there”. Not too long after hearing that proverbial gold nugget, I stumbled across a somewhat obscure term called “Dead Reckoning”. The term dates back from the 17th century, as seafaring navigators estimated their positions of their ships based solely on speed, direction of travel and time elapsed since their last known position. I am told it is still used some today by both sailors and aviators. As inventors, many times we need to do a little “dead reckoning” in our invention process. This brings me to the first part of Rob’s quote, to “know where you are”. Where are you in the process of bringing your idea to a marketable invention? The best way to start is to look at the steps like the ones we outlined this month and see what step you are on. Then find our what your next step needs to be. Now comes the hard part: to begin working on where you need to be, that next step.

Now let’s say that you find that you aren’t skilled or just don’t like the work involved in the next step. You may want to research, quote and pay a reputable someone (with good references) to do the work of that next step for you. Personally, I hate painting. I would rather have someone hit me with the broad side of a shovel as have to paint. And I’m not really very good at it. Whenever I did have the misfortune to try and paint myself, I would usually get more paint on every other object (including myself) than whatever it was I was suppose to paint. So when I need painting done, I call a professional painter. But here’s the important point to this: when I call the painter, I’d better know who I want, what I want, how I want it done and what a fair price would be, that is if I don’t want to risk ending up paying way too much for a shoddy job that in the end I’ll greatly regret. This could not be stressed as of any less importance for the process of inventing. The painter is also going to ask me questions: What rooms do I want painted? What color? Flat or high gloss? Latex or enamel? Roller or brush? So learn all you can learn about what your next step needs to be and do your homework. Learn it and know well enough so you can confidently talk to people about it. Then you can do the “how you’re going to get there” part with a much reduced risk of failure, getting ripped off or both.

Our seafaring friends of the 17th century also knew that they were embarking on a long journey, not just a short trip. Likewise, inventing is not a get-rich-quick proposition: we don’t use microwave ovens here, we use crock-pots. The steps that an inventor needs to take to be truly successful are not quick and many times not easy, but the results can be very rewarding on a number of levels.

Avoiding the Inventor’s “Powerball” Trap

May 1st, 2009

The Dangers of a “Lottery” Mindset When Inventing

You’ve seen these people. You may even actually know some of them. Those people whose only hope in life for financial security it seems is going by the convenience store on a Friday and playing the Powerball. Those that think that without much effort, they will be set for life if they can just have that winning combination of numbers. “If I keep buying tickets then eventually I must win”, they think.

It is said that the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot is about 1 in 195 million. Yet millions of people continue to pay more and more money chasing one dream, living on nothing more than hope that they will be that one in 195 million. Even though you may know of someone who did actually win in the lottery, my personal philosophy remains that while it’s not impossible to win, it’s really, really close! Whatever your opinion on the lottery, I believe that there are some parallels and an important lesson we can learn, one that can keep us from the trap of what I call the “Powerball” mentality when it comes to inventing.

So you’ve done it; you’ve invented the next great whatever. This is your baby, an idea that you gave birth to that is actually taking a form and shape! What an exciting adventure you are on! And because of all this, you are pouring your heart and soul into it. Mind you, these things are not bad within themselves. In fact they are very good things, and most times part of the necessary elements that can lead to success. But there is a pitfall to watch out for. While you need dedication, passion and drive among many other things that are necessary to bring your idea to fruition (many of which we’ll be talking about in our May meeting), don’t fall victim to the idea that this is the one and only ticket you will ever have to fame and fortune. And by the way, if you’re looking for a get-rich-quick route for inventing, you’re in the wrong place. We don’t sell microwave ovens here; we sell crock-pots. Successful inventors are in it for the long haul. And while you have to keep that thought in the back of your mind that while you are on this journey, there may be some turns in the road. Your current vision for your invention may not be what it actually turns out to need to be in the real world. Or (perish the thought!) you may even end up finding that your original idea was merely a step to something much bigger and better. Your current idea or invention may lead you to something completely different that may lead you to something else that may lead you to another thing that may lead you to the best invention you never knew you’d think of.

Most successful inventors have had more than one idea. If you’re a seasoned inventor, you know what I mean. One idea seems to beget another, until after a while they start reproducing like rabbits! I’ve got a file I call my “idea bin” that keeps getting thicker and thicker with ideas for projects and inventions, many of which I know I will never be able to get to in my lifetime. The good part of this, though, is I always have a lot of ideas to choose from when it’s time to look at a new project.

Don’t get me wrong, you don’t want to be moving from one idea to the next every other week. I’m not saying that. You need to be focused on what you’re doing in order to succeed. What I am saying is that you have to be open to new opportunities as they present themselves to you. There is a balance that has to be maintained between focus and openness: On the one hand you don’t want to “invention-hop”, as it will never give you enough focus to spend the needed energy to bring life to any one idea. On the other, however, you don’t want to wind up like those people in the lottery line, either, hanging on to that one idea even when logic dictates that it may be time to look to a more promising project.

Regardless of whether your first idea is a smashing success or just doesn’t work out at all, it doesn’t mean that you should stop there. The more times you work through the invention process, the more you learn and the sharper your skills become. Unlike the lottery, the more you play at this game, the better you get as more of the risk is spread out. In inventing, one idea doesn’t have to be your only chance for success.

What Speed Is Your Invention Traveling At?

March 31st, 2009

As you may have noticed, we have had a lot of new and exciting things happening just lately at the CKIC. Last month, we were selected for a beta test program that offered free training and submission in the new USA National Innovation Marketplace from Planet Eureka. This coming Saturday (April 4th) a new business accelerator, Awesome, Inc., is holding a “Startup Saturday – Inventions in a Day” where our inventors are invited to an event where engineers, idea people, and tinkerers of all types will try to go from idea to prototype in a day, learning and networking in the process. Then at our following monthly Open Meeting on Tuesday, April 7th, Ron Reardon, President of the United Inventors Association is traveling to Lexington to speak to us.

While all of this is yet going on, there are even other new programs, initiatives and opportunities for inventors in the works that we’re already hearing and talking to people about. It seems as if everything is happening all at once at the speed of light in the world of inventing and innovation. And for all the gloom and doom you hear from the talking heads in the media these days, I have never seen so much in the way of movement, new programs, initiatives and opportunities for inventors than I have in just the last few months. Come to think of it, there are more tools to give the independent inventor a leg up now than there ever was 20, 10 or even 5 years ago.

This climate of opportunity for inventors notwithstanding, when things start happening all at once it can be hard just to keep up with all the new information. If all this seems a bit overwhelming to you, it certainly does to me. But business, inventing – and life – seems to do that so many times. The old adage is true, “when it rains, it pours” or “feast or famine”, take your pick. Seldom do we have a steady pace with which to keep up. This is ever so true for the inventor working through the invention process. We move along at that fast-paced, adventurous clip that is overwhelming, exciting and intimidating all at the same time. Then we hit the dry spell, the desert, that place where we feel “stuck” at and just can’t seem to make any progress at all. It is at these times when we feel like we are going nowhere with our invention, and the place where many people give up, not knowing that the rain is just over the horizon. I can identify with both of these emotions, particularly in light of my current invention project, now in the beta test phase. If you had asked me several months ago, I would have told you about how I was stuck with one critical component and could not find the simple answer I was looking for. Just before I was about to trash my uncompleted prototype and start over from scratch, an idea struck me of “one last place” that I had not looked for this component. And as providence would have it, I found not only the right component that would complete my prototype, but one that worked even better than if I had designed it for just that particular purpose.

As I was reminded by one of our inventor members just this week, it’s easy to feel like it’s just taking too long to get any traction with the progress of your invention. But good inventions sometimes take time – and patience – to move forward through the slow phases. But with that patience, work, networking and learning process, it doesn’t take too long before it feels like time itself had sped up and you’re to the point where you think you can’t keep up. And that in itself is an exciting, yet daunting, place to be.

How Do I Know If I Have a Good Idea?

February 24th, 2009

This is probably one of the most frequently asked questions that are posed by inventors: to themselves, to colleagues, and to our group.

There are a couple of quotations; one of which is mentioned all too frequently by inventors, and another that is mentioned far too few times. The overused and often misinterpreted one goes:

“If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your doorstep!”

The one that is not used enough but bears repeating, is by Thomas Edison:

“Invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.

I think Edison had it right. And if you’re trying to find out if your invention is truly a good idea, it involves just that – perspiration! I’m talking about the kind of perspiration that involves hours of study, learning, research, phone calls, and long roads that lead to dead ends, making you start all over again down another uncertain road. It basically involves long, boring hard work. The kind of work that involves patience and discipline, as it can be not much fun much of the time. Of course there are good parts: the rewards can be exciting, and sometimes the invention process road can be sort of an adventure. But it’s those boring parts that usually trip us up along the way and get us stuck. Think of it this way – the idea is, well, just an idea. The record of it is a blueprint, but the building is not built until all the other work and construction is completed.

So learn what you need to know and then do what you need to do. You can start the learning, connecting and idea feedback from our meetings and workshops, respectively. Impartial research and feedback are so important when you are trying to find out if your idea will fly in the real world. And there are a lot of resources out there. If you’ve not been to a CKIC Inventors Workshop, it’s also a great way to get honest feedback on your idea and what directions you can go with it.

Many people think of their idea as their baby. Even when we try not to do it, we sometimes just can’t help it. And nobody likes to be told that their baby is ugly. But if we truly want to get honest opinions about the validity of our ideas, we need to go where we know they will tell us if our baby is ugly. This is so important for the value of our time and money, as we don’t want to miss the right road of a good idea by continuing down the wrong one.

This Is Our Shining Moment

January 27th, 2009

I have an old book I keep around that was written sometime in the early 80’s, I think. The title goes something like, “The Coming Great Depression of the 1989”. In spite of whatever the book actually talks about, I’ve been keeping this book with the panic-stricken title around as a reminder of something I think is now becoming fairly current.

I remember the early 80’s. For me, it was a very rough time indeed. From that vantage point, the book with the depressing title looked every bit like it had the possibility of coming true. But it didn’t.

To hear all of the naysayers out there, it’s easy to think that now, like 1980, everything is bad, there is no opportunity and there is nothing we can do about it. One thing is true: we are facing troubled economic times. There are a lot of problems out there in a lot of areas. But this is where we can become short-sighted.

Creativity and innovation does not dry up in an economic downturn. You most likely got up this morning with the same amount of ideas (most of us with even more) than you had before all the talking heads told us the sky was falling (see the blog about the “Chicken Little Virus”). If anything, this truly is our shining moment. We, as inventors and innovators, are natural problem-solvers. This means that the more problems there are to solve, the more opportunities await us. This is our call to action. These problems – I like to call them challenges – are what we are built to overcome. It’s like the building is on fire, the alarm is sounding and we are the firemen (or women)!

So with that, I want to challenge you. Instead of going along with the crowd and falling into a emotional depression ahead of the proposed economic one, look for those problems, seek them out, snatch them out of the air and do what you do best: find the solutions. Because it will be those people who do exactly that – and people will – who will be leading the charge to their own personal economic recovery.

It’s Alive! Building the “Frankentype”

January 3rd, 2009

So there you were, in your garage, tinkering with this and that and then, eureka! You may have even had a vision from the old Frankenstein movie where the doctor exclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”. So many of us have been there.

The Frankentype. You may have built one already and don’t even know it. This is the prototype that was built from a spare part here and loose nut there, all put together with bailing wire, sweat, spit, a little glue and that idea that struck you in the middle of the night. It may not be pretty. It may not even work out to be sellable, but it’s your baby. You thought it up, you built it and you made it actually work.

I’m talking about the prototype that was built without the cushy funding that provides the normally expensive custom design, mold, milling or tooling that a lot of products get, a purely raw, by-the-seat-of-your-pants working-without-a-net prototype where you’ve literally gone out to the “graveyard” of other products, components and industries and snuck back in the dark of night like the Igor of Dr. Frankenstein fame, and cobbled together, at least in your eyes, your beautiful masterpiece, cheating a death by funding and patting yourself on the back for your own ingenuity.

Of course, sometimes this works and sometimes it just doesn’t.

There are several incarnations of the Frankentype. The first one is always the ugliest, the one only an inventor could love. The 2nd one may only impress your closest (or kindest) friends and family. But then there’s that 3rd version, the beta that will have to survive the brutally honest, very real world. Like I said, sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Depending on your invention, this may be the point where you have to decide if it’s worth your while to start spending the money needed to make it survive the calloused eye of the consumer.

Or you could get lucky. For instance, a recent project of mine involved parts from the hardware, fluid power, HVAC, automotive and container packaging industries. The ironic thing is that the application for this product isn’t in any of these markets.

Fortunately, this was a product where we could find the right, functional, off-the-shelf components that gave our finished product a “finished” look, without having to make anything from scratch. So far, at least, this has passed the “real world” test.

This also takes a tremendous amount of patience. As in marketing and many other parts of the inventing process, you sometimes have to try all the doorknobs to find out which one will open. One very simple component took months to find just the right one and had a lot of “there’s just not anything out there” moments.

A Frankentype will help do 2 things. First, there won’t be a large cash outlay if the product flops (and they can always flop). Second, and related to the first, production can be scaleable without large swings in per-product costs or long turn-around times.

The important thing about a Frankentype, at whatever stage you can use one, is that it can reduce both your risk and ultimate costs, especially in that critical period before you need to decide to go forward with the project or if it’s time to move on to the next innovation.

Are You Inoculated Against the New "Bird Flu"?

November 28th, 2008

It’s been a little while since my last blog, but I think I have a good excuse. For those of you who didn’t hear, I was at a meeting in Pittsburgh in late September, which for me is the start of a very busy time of year with a lot of important annual meetings, including our Inventors Conference, which was then just around the corner. So there I was, getting ready to leave my hotel room and go help set up for an exhibit booth, when something just “popped” in my back, causing severe pain and losing the use of my foot. By the time I got home from the conference, realizing that there was something seriously wrong, I went to the doctor and the next thing I knew I was being wheeled into an operating room (the last time for me was getting my tonsils out at 6) for spinal surgery. Foregone was all my meetings, plans and schedule for the next several months, and of course not making the Inventors Conference that I had worked on and was so looking forward to. From what I’ve been told, I missed the best conference we’ve turned out yet.

Being stranded flat on my back, from a hotel room in Pittsburgh and later, weeks after surgery at home, I was witness to a slow, blow-by-blow, talking head marathon starting with Hurricane Ike and ending with the economic meltdown on Wall Street, all via the wonders of 24-hour news television. This was not the uplifting kind of programming one would want to watch during a long recovery after major surgery.

Not to belittle what’s happening in the economy. I heard someone say it best recently: we’ve all witnessed the largest bankruptcy in history, the stock market dropping like a rock, and all the talking heads on TV freaking out like it’s the end of the world. But in spite of all the bad news, I’m here to say don’t freak out, it really isn’t the end of the world. Take a chill pill. The worst thing an inventor, entrepreneur, or anyone else for that matter can do in any time of crisis is let the winds of panic carry them off. Don’t succumb to the worst kind of bird flu of all: The Chicken Little Virus.

Things are changing, and many of them are not pleasant. Many products and the businesses that sell them will definitely suffer. Many, but not all; and don’t think for a minute that there aren’t many products and companies that are and will do very well in a down economy. This is not the time for us, as inventors and entrepreneurs, to tuck our tail between our legs and go limping home. While much of the rest of the world is hitting the panic button, this is our call to action.

So, how do you protect yourself from the Chicken Little Virus? First, know that this can be an opportunity. People are looking for solutions to new problems that are facing them, and we just so happen to be in the problem-solving business! Now this may mean that the project you are currently working on may have changed from a hot commodity to a cold one. This simply means the market has changed. A while back I started collecting an “Idea Bin”, and every time I thought of a new one, I’d put it there. It may be time to start looking through our “Idea Bins” for that one that will now fit our current economic climate. Remember, opportunities don’t just exist in a bad economy, they abound! We just have to find out what they are and adapt, shifting our focus and energy on what works in a changed environment.

Can You Believe It?

August 26th, 2008

The Inventors Conference is Now Only 6 Weeks Away!


You can always start to feel it around this time of year. While summer is still upon us, our eye catches just a few glimpses here and there that hints of a change of seasons: a few fallen leaves where there was none before, school buses rolling down the road as school starts, and every so often a break from the “dog days” heat that seems to have just the slightest touch of cool in the air. It’s these hints for me to know that what I term as my “hectic time of year” is not far around the corner, and in many ways already gearing up. For me this is a time of trade shows, meetings, and of course our annual Inventors Conference, which we have actually been planning and working on since the spring.

Believe it or not, Kentucky’s 4th annual Inventors Conference is now only 6 weeks away, and we’re already starting to get pretty excited around here as we see things start to take shape for the conference. This year, along with our speakers and presenters, we’re working with some members of the Lexington Venture Club and other business leaders to do an “Elevator Pitch” segment. Selected inventor applicants will have the opportunity to give a 3 minute presentation before a panel of experts in the business and venture capital arenas. The panel will then have 2 minutes to give recommendations and coaching. The Lexington Small Business Development Center is also offering help and coaching for preparation prior to the conference. One or more presenters may even have the chance to go on to a Lexington Venture Club meeting and present. Time is short and space is limited, so if you’re interested in becoming involved, go to the news page ( and download the application forms.

In addition to the Elevator Pitch, the Student Technology Leadership Program (STLP) of the Kentucky Department of Education is getting involved this year. Some of the top STLP entrepreneurial projects from the 2008 State Championship will be joining our exhibits, as well as inventor and business-friendly service provider companies.

Of course, as we try and achieve new heights at this year’s conference, we need people who are willing to help us pull all of this off. We still need volunteers to help in various areas of the conference. If you are planning to be an exhibitor or even would like to present in the Elevator Pitch, remember that time and space are limited so send us your applications ASAP. And thanks in advance for helping us to make this another great conference!

Juggling and the Business of Inventing

July 29th, 2008  

For some time now, I have been in the search for the perfect (for me) activity/exercise: something that’s quick, fun, lightweight and travels well. After a search of several different activities, including going as far as asking for advice from one of our members who is a retired recreational therapist, I finally settled on something that so far seems to stick: juggling. This is certainly something that is not for everybody and probably even something that sounds kind of odd to most people, but hey, we inventors do seem to run upstream with most everything. So far I’m just getting the hang of the beginners level of juggling scarves (plus it’s more aerobic than balls), but while I am still learning, and might not ever be good enough to be seen juggling in public, in the process of learning this new pastime I found myself drawing some comparisons to this time-honored art and the worlds of inventing and business. Here are some comparisons I observed:

Juggling is Not About Catching, It is About Throwing:
I noticed early on that if you want to be successful, you have to concentrate more on the throwing than the catching. Watch a juggler and notice how they always seem to be looking up, not down. The same can be said for the world of inventing. You have to be proactive, concentrating on your throw, on what you’re doing or going to do, rather than focusing on trying to catch that bad throw. Wild throws equals wild catches, and subsequent drops. So keep your eyes on where you’re throwing, not where you’re catching. You are catching enough bad things that happen by themselves in the invention-to-market process without adding the results of unfocused actions you could make on your own.

You’re Going to Drop Some Balls
It’s going to happen. And it’s going to happen more in the beginning, when you’re just trying to get the hang of things. This is also the time when you are the most vulnerable to get discouraged and quit. OK, so you dropped one, or two, or a hundred and three. After a while, you’ll find your rhythm. Until then, don’t give up. Rome wasn’t built in a day – if needed, take baby steps until you get the hang of it. I learned recently that the famous vacuum inventor James Dyson had over 1,000 prototypes to fail before he perfected what is now his famously successful invention with over $1 Billion in sales worldwide.

Juggling is a Learned Skill
And so is the business of inventing. You’ll basically learn from three areas:
1. You’ll learn from experts. Learn all you can from those that have gone before you.
2. You’ll learn by practice. The more you practice, the better you get a catching those “stray balls”.
3. You’ll learn from mistakes. You can turn mistakes from reasons to quit to valuable information on how to move forward.

Don’t Make Things More Difficult Than They Have To Be
When learning to juggle, one of the first things they tell you is to practice in front of a chair or a bed. Why? Because they know that in the beginning, you’re going to drop a lot of balls. Use all the tools at your disposal. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help when you need it. There are more tools out there now for the independent inventor and entrepreneur than has ever been available before, so take advantage of every possible tool that will give you all the edge that you can take hold of.

Juggling is About Risk
Yes, you can drop a ball. Remember what you’re risking: your money, time, talent, your ideas, your invention itself. It’s safer if you don’t throw anything into the air, but then you wouldn’t be doing anything at all. You want to be wise and very aware as to what you are risking and what the risks are. Anyone telling you the truth will tell you that inventing is a high-risk venture. Many inventors are willing to take these risks, but the wise ones know what they are getting into and take calculated risks based on their individual situation. If you’re not successful, you could have made more money delivering pizzas. For me, however, this is a lot more rewarding than saying, “That will be $11.95” on a number of levels.

Be Prepared to Sweat
It always looks so easy when you see the performer (or successful inventor) up there from the comfort of the spectator seats. Once you’re throwing, catching, and trying to keep rhythm all at the same time, however, you find out quickly it’s a lot of hard work. I think probably the most fun I have with inventing is that “light bulb” eureka moment, when you are creating that great idea in your head. But that’s just the 1% inspiration, compared to the 99% perspiration that Edison spoke of. And you have to really put your whole body into it; half-hearted throws just don’t work very well. But if you can practice, pace yourself when you tire, and move from that “I don’t fell like doing this today” phase to the “I feel like I can’t stop” phase, you will have moved closer to the guy you saw from your spectator seat.

Are You Thinking Like a Tapper or a Listener?

June 25th, 2008

(Is the Message of Your Invention Really Getting Across to Others?)

Charles “Tremendous” Jones once said that you will basically be the same person 5 years from now that you are today except for the books you read and the people you meet. So in an effort to try and broaden my own horizon, given a lot of extended time traveling lately, I try to listen to a lot of audio books. Many have been pretty good reads lately, but one in particular may very well become my pick for “best book I’ve read all year”. This book is called “Made to Stick”, written by two brothers, Chip and Dan Heath. The book’s introduction starts out with a common urban legend that has been circulating around the internet for years, one that you’d most likely recognize from your own spam inbox. After relaying the story, the authors ask you to contrast the story with a passage drawn from a paper distributed by a non-profit organization. It starts out: “Comprehensive community building naturally lends itself to a return-on-investment rationale that can be modeled, drawing on existing practice..". They then ask you to imagine that you closed the book right then and took and hourlong break, followed by calling a friend and trying to retell that passage without rereading it. Good luck. The point they were trying to make here is that some messages are naturally “sticky”, while others are not. So how do you design your idea so it sticks? While I can’t go into all the details of the book, in short the book lays out six principles to make an idea sticky:

1. Simplicity
2. Unexpectedness
3. Concreteness
4. Credibility
5. Emotions
6. Stories

While I do recommend reading the whole book, one particular passage definitely bears illumination and I think helps to give perspective on why we as inventors many times have a very difficult time getting the true idea of our invention across to others.

Tappers and Listeners:
In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game where she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners”. Tappers received a list of 25 well-known songs such as “Happy Birthday” and “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener by knocking or tapping on the table. The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. Over the course of the experiment , listeners only guessed 2.5% of the songs, or 3 out of 120. But here’s the most interesting point to the experiment. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, the tappers were asked to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted the odds at 50%.

I think this is noteworthy. You see, when the tapper taps, he or she is hearing the song in their head. Go ahead and try it for yourself. It’s impossible to avoid hearing it in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune in your head, only a bizarre kind of Morse Code. In the experiment, tappers were flabbergasted at how hard it was for the listeners to try and pick up the tune. The tapper’s expressions were priceless: “Isn’t the song obvious? How could you be so stupid?”

It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem with tappers is that they have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to not posses that knowledge. The brothers Heath call this “the curse of knowledge”, and I think it is core to the problem many inventors have when trying to get the idea of their message across to others. Once we know something, we find it extremely hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily think like the listeners. When an inventor shares their idea with others, telling all the technical features in what seems to us as wonderfully explicit detail, there is a tune playing in our head that the product developer, marketer or potential buyer or licensee can’t hear. And trying to reverse the process is like trying to un-ring a bell. Once you know something, you can’t un-know it. This leaves you with 2 options:

Don’t learn anything. (The unfortunate choice of many, but that’s another story)

Transform the telling of your idea to make it an idea that sticks.

This is not a super-easy task, as I am finding out as I try to apply the principles laid out in Made to Stick to my own ideas and projects. But I’m finding out it is not super-hard, either. You don’t have to be a rocket-scientist (although no doubt in this business of inventing some really are), but you do have to apply yourself. Someone once said that gravity can be a curse or a blessing, depending if you can make it work for you or not. I say take the “curse” of knowledge one step further, learn the principles of making your message sticky so that both the listeners and the tappers can hear that song in your head. Your song. The song of your invention!

Football, Orange Groves and the Business of Inventing

April 28th, 2008 
My Dad used to tell me this story of when he played football at a high school in a small eastern Kentucky town in the 1950's. But first some background:

My Dad had become something of a football legend in his hometown. Once returning for a reunion decades later, one elderly gentleman told him that the most exciting football he had ever watched, professional, college and otherwise, was when he watched my Dad on the field in high school. My Dad had made Kentucky All-Star, and had earned nicknames such as "greased lightning". But such was not always so.

When he first made the team, he spent most of his first season on the bench. The coach, as well as many other observers, thought he was just didn't have the natural build and bulk to be competitive on the field. "Those other boys will break your legs", was the kind of jaunts he would hear. However, during the summer months, he would implement a plan that would change things dramatically. You see my Grandfather owned orange groves down in Florida, and would take the family down there each summer, tending to the groves. During those summers in a 1950's Florida, you would have found my Dad in those orange groves, and it would have been a peculiar sight. What he would do is run directly at an orange tree, then just before making contact he would cut and change direction, moving to the left or the right of the tree. He practiced this over and over and over again, until he was able to develop the skill of actually accelerating on the cut. In telling me this story, he said that he got to the point where he could feel the edges of the leaves on the trees brushing the sides of his arms on the cut. The next fall arrived, and with it the start of football season. The day finally arrived that my Dad was put onto the field and subsequently intercepted a pass, taking the ball and heading toward the goal posts. What happened next became football history for that high school. He would run directly at the opposing team players, boys of mammoth stature and frame compared to my Dad, all meaning to mow him down in short order. To their utter shock and surprise he would come right at them, then would cut away, accelerating on the cut. Just as in the orange groves, he could feel the edges of their fingers brushing his arms as they reached out for him. He did this again and again, rushing his way to the goal and making a winning touchdown.

He did not possess the size and strength of those he was going toe-to-toe with. So what was it gave him the ability to win over those literally crushing odds? First, he was creative. Spending those summers in Florida, he could have just worried about the next season, or become despondent and just quit. He could have tried to play by the same "rules" as everyone else, done all the same things as his opponents (and teammates), tried to compete as is and would have most likely failed. Instead he got to thinking about what he had or could do that they did not. What he came up with was something no one else was doing, something that he could do, and something that would even the playing field. The other thing he did was practice. He was not born with this talent.  If he had only thought about doing it, he would have failed.  If he had only practiced when he felt like it, or not had practiced enough, he would have also failed.  But he did practice, again and again and then again.  He practiced until he could feel the edges of the leaves just barely brushing the edges of his upper arms knowing, and correctly so, that the same would be true with the enormous linebackers coming at him out on the field. 

As inventors, I think we can learn a lesson from this story of a young high school football player all those years ago.  As independent inventors, we sometimes face crushing odds in the marketplace.  Competitors, like those mammoth linebackers, are coming at us, and they are a lot bigger than we are.  We don’t have their resources.  We don’t have a lot of things that they have.  But we can get creative.  We can think as creatively (and many times even more so) than those big guys.  And once we figure out how to even that playing field and give ourselves that needed edge over the competition, we need to practice. Even if we are to farm this work out to another, we need to be so intimately familiar with it that we can communicate, implement and work with others in a way that fosters a successful venture, not to “manage by abdication”, which generally leads to certain failure.  If there is a skill we’re lacking in any of the steps necessary to become a successful inventor, we need to find out what that is, how to do it and then practice it over and over and over and over again. And then we need to practice some more.  This practice can be empowering.  Once you become savvy or skilled at a new core competency, you own it.  You also no longer fear it.  Uncertainty, fear and confusion are rendered null and void.  Those big boys coming at you can’t break your legs if they reach out and can only brush your upper arms with the edges of their fingers.  And you can’t fear them if you know that. 

So get creative and practice!  And practice until you can feel the edges of those leaves brushing the sides of your arms. 

My Dad once told me that he could take all that he gained by playing football, add a dollar and it would buy him a cup of coffee.  I beg to differ. 

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