Q&A: American Inventor Judge Doug Hall

Begrudging Respect Among the Judges

Entrepreneur.com:So what is it like to work with the other judges since you guys are so different, personality-wise and in terms of what you're looking for in an invention? What is it like when you disagree on an invention and have to come to a decision?

Hall: Well, I'll tell you that off the set, we are... civilized to each other. And in a bizarre way, [we] are becoming friends. We wouldn't normally be, but because we're in this together we are becoming friends. But when we get behind that table, the frustration and anger you see--there is no acting. None of us has the ability to do any acting; that's totally clear. It's very real frustration and very real anger that goes back and forth because we all have very firm views as to what matters. I mean, Mary Lou believes the engineering is totally irrelevant, and I believe the person's sob story is totally a waste of our time. And this is a black-and-white difference. Now I respect where she's coming from, I just think she's misguided, and she thinks I'm just an amazing twit. So it works.

Entrepreneur.com:Well, speaking of the sob stories, were there any inventors who actually had inventions that played close to your heart or did you just kind of disregard their stories and focus on the products?

Hall: I'm human, so needless to say, some of the stories are incredibly emotional. I mean, they're intensely emotional. They're incredible stories. And that's nice entertainment, but my job is to be the judge and to find the greatest American inventor, and I don't think [sob stories are] part of that judgment. Having a great bleeding-heart story is not on the judging [list of] criteria--nowhere does it say the inventor has a bleeding heart. So in wanting to make sure [that I] tell the truth [with my vote], I must disregard their stories because that's not on the criteria.

Entrepreneur.com:Were there any inventions that appeared on the show that stand out in your mind as immediately having the elements that make a good invention?

Hall: The three that I picked to coach all immediately have it: the circle car seat that Januszhas, Sharon'sRestroom Door Clip, and Joe and Jenny'sFlushpure toilet seat. All three of them solve real problems. Some of them are problems that are small but frequent--as in Sharon's--and some of them are big problems that happen infrequently, as in Janusz's car seat. But all three of them solve real problems and I think they're all awesome. I think they're the absolute best of the bunch, and that's why I picked them.

Entrepreneur.com:You had a few inventors who were cut because they presented what you thought weren't actually inventions, but gimmicks. What separates an invention from a gimmick?

Hall: The scope of the problem it solves. Gimmicks are amusements, but they don't solve a meaningful problem.

Entrepreneur.com:How many invention auditions did you actually have to sit through?

Hall: We looked at 400. And there was thousands more that, fortunately, we didn't have to look through.

Entrepreneur.com:How much faith do you have in the American public to choose the invention you see most fit to win?

Hall: I'm actually more confident than I thought I would be. I was at a middle school [recently] and I gave the kids a number of different sets of [inventions], and I was surprised by their judgment. So on the teens' vote, I'm very confident. Now their parents I'm not sure about. But the youth appeared to be able to see past the smoke and mirrors to the real idea.

Entrepreneur.com:What has the show taught you about American inventors today?

Hall: The people are awesome. While I laugh [at them on the show] sometimes, I'm laughing with them, because in my mind these are people with the guts to get up, get out and do something. My concern and my frustration are with the people who sit there and say "I got an idea" but don't do anything with it. I mean those are the sluggards who I ridicule. I will not ridicule the people [on the show]. I can get frustrated and angry, but it's very different from really ridiculing them. I've tried very hard to never be mean to them.

Now that said, as Simon [Cowell, one of the show's executive producers] told me early on [when] I said, 'Simon, I don't want to be mean. I love these people--they're my people," and he's like, "Doug, you don't understand it. When you say no, you're going to be seen as mean no matter how you say it. A no is a no, and that's the way it is." And I respect that. People get mad at me when I say certain things. But you know, I could say no now, or I can say yes and then they could just get killed later.

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