Funny how drastic changes often sprout from a single thought. For Anthony Korba, the distance between his past and his future equaled the distance from Orange County, California, up the coast to San Jose. One day in 1991, Korba was flying his small plane to visit his son in college. By the time he landed, he had an idea that would consume the next four years of his life.
"I put the plane on autopilot and just sat back and watched the [navigational] stations come up every 30 or 40 miles," says Korba. "After the third or fourth one, I, having a love of golf, started thinking, this could be the third hole, the fourth hole, the fifth hole. And I wondered, if you could measure the distance [between navigational aids] from an airplane, why couldn't you measure the distance on a golf course?"
While most people ponder such ideas for just a moment before discarding them, as soon as he landed Korba grabbed a napkin and scribbled design plans for his hand-held electronic distance-measuring device for golfers.
The mind of an inventor ticks slightly differently from that of your typical human being. While most people go through life barely aware of the events whirling around them, inventors note the potential in every situation. Inventors don't look at the way things are; rather, they ponder the way things should be. Practicing what is arguably the purest form of entrepreneurship, they are a breed unto themselves.
So what separates the Bill Gateses from the Joe Schmoes? Obviously, being a successful innovator as opposed to an eternal dreamer takes more than just an excellent idea. "A lot of people have good ideas and may even get a patent, but that won't get them to the profit level," says Barry Rein, a partner at Pennie & Edmonds, an intellectual property law firm in New York City. "Inventors have to be willing to go down the difficult and rocky road to the marketplace."
"A lot of inventors sit on ideas for years, only to discover that someone else brought them to the market first," says Laura Flax, an inventor and invention consultant in Canoga Park, California. "These people think 'I could have been rich,' but that's not true."
Flax believes the downfall of some inventors is their "arrogance about their first invention. They think their idea is good enough in itself and that if they make a working prototype, they've done most of the work. But that's actually 10 to 20 percent of the work. I might come up with 100 ideas, flesh out 10, get one to the prototype stage, and then try to get it to market. And it's getting to market that's really the hard part."