Father Of Invention

An Early Start

Like most inventors, Mason showed talent at an early age. When he was 7 years old, his dad refused to give him 15 cents to buy minnows for fishing bait. His mother suggested he make an artificial minnow and gave him a wooden clothespin. A few prototypes later, Mason had a bass-catching minnow. Within days, he had neighborhood kids paying him 26 cents each for the minnows, which he could make in 15 minutes.

He learned four important lessons from his minnow-making venture. First, create a product that people want. Second, products that can be demonstrated are easier to sell. Third, find a market that will be anxious to buy the product. And fourth, always think of how you can modify the product to create a line of related items.

Mason has since amassed an impressive inventing record. He holds more than 60 U.S. patents, many of which protect ideas currently in commercial use. Having worked with more than 40 corporate clients, Mason has developed insights into how to be an effective inventor of pint-sized products, which he shares in his new book, Inventing Small Products: For Big Profits, Quickly (Crisp Publications).

Mason believes many inventors create problems for themselves by inventing products before having the slightest idea of who might buy them. To discover where there's a need for a new product, take weekly trips to grocery, drug and hardware stores to study the categories of products for sale. Mason has even gone so far as to buy a sample of all the products in a category so he could recreate a store shelf to see how his product would look in a realistic retail environment.

If your objective is to sell or license your idea to another company, Mason has some strong opinions about how this should be done. He has discovered that the leading company in an industry is usually the least interested in new inventions. Mason recommends seeking out companies that are trying to become industry leaders.

Large companies also prefer to make lump-sum payments to buy inventions, rather than pay annual royalties. So Mason feels it's important to know how much money you want for your idea before meeting with one of these companies. And never go to a meeting alone; always have someone with you to act as a witness and to take detailed notes of what transpired. But Mason warns against bringing your lawyer to a meeting. This can ruin a deal by making the other side nervous. Bring your accountant instead, since he or she has probably already calculated the anticipated costs of bringing your idea to market and can help you negotiate.

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This article was originally published in the August 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Father Of Invention.

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