From the May 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

Where is the next million-dollar idea hiding, just waiting to be discovered? In many cases, it could be right under your nose--at your place of work, or perhaps as part of your favorite hobby. Inventors who work ideas gathered from jobs or activities they're familiar with are most likely to find success, for a variety of reasons: For one thing, the inventor really understands what target customers want because he or she is also part of the group. Second, because the inventor is already familiar with the products currently on the market, he or she can usually introduce a product that doesn't have much competition. And finally, when selling the product to customers, potential buyers perceive the inventor not as a salesperson, but rather as "one of us." It's a powerful situation that doesn't necessarily guarantee success, but it's definitely as good as it gets.

On-the-Job Training

When you know a particular industry inside and out, you have the opportunity to innovate solutions to major problems. Case in point: Dan Tribastone, 37, who started out with an aerial photography business. After realizing he'd need to supplement this income, Tribastone went to work as a paramedic, and eventually he ended up working as a registered nurse (RN) in an orthopedic operating room.

Back in 1994, Tribastone found that opportunity and entrepreneurship collided in those operating rooms. It was there that he realized the serious shortcoming he eventually fixed. Specifically, during orthopedic surgery, the body part undergoing reconstruction is constantly flushed with water. As Tribastone describes it, "The spent fluid was collected in small containers. An operation could produce 75 to 100 liters of fluid, [which required 25 to 35 canisters]. Nurses were constantly having to disconnect and reconnect containers." The containers were connected to two lines--one to the hospital's vacuum line, and the other to the drainage tube from the operating table. Nurses typically had to make 150 to 200 new connections to the waste fluid connectors during every single procedure.

Tribastone thought the problem could be fixed by purchasing larger containers. But after scouring RN trade magazines, he realized such a container didn't exist. So he requested samples from container manufacturers he located in a resource book called the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers. "I got dozens of samples, most of which collapsed from the vacuum pressure," he explains. "But finally, I was able to find a steel container that held up. I added two connection ports and started to use them at work."

The containers were a big hit in the operating room, cutting the number of changes required to a fifth of what it had been, so in 1995, Tribastone decided to place a small ad in the Operating Room Nursing Journal. When he got $1,000 in orders, Tribastone was convinced he had a winner. But long days in operating rooms and nights spent in his basement workshop took their toll. "One day, one of the doctors told me I looked terrible and asked me if I was all right," he remembers. "I explained what I was doing at nights, and the doctor thought I had a wonderful idea." That same week, the doctor set Tribastone up with an investor, and by 1997, Tribastone started selling the product--a disposable 3.5 gallon Omni Jug canister priced at $25. The next year, his company, Waterstone Medical in Falls Church, Virginia, sneaked into the black. In 2001, sales approached the $5 million mark.

One of Tribastone's biggest advantages was that he truly understood how customers would use the product. "Sales were a lot easier when customers realized that I came from the operating room trenches," he says. According to Tribastone, that experience also paid off at trade shows such as the one held by AORN (Association of Operating Room Nurses): "Nurses immediately recognized I wasn't a smooth-talking salesman, but instead was really just one of them."

Meet your maker
If you don't have the resources to manufacture your new product, look into the services offered by a job shop. Job shops manufacture products for outside businesses and often specialize in prototypes or small production runs, which usually occur during a product's early stages.For more information on job shops as well as a listing of those in your area, log on to Job Shop Technology. The site has a listing of job shops organized by location, and it also lets users search for manufacturers by type. Perhaps the best feature for inventors is that the site has magazine articles that explain various manufacturing methods and discuss what might be best for your product. Also included is information on sources of virtual and actual prototypes.

 

You Need a Hobby

Tribastone discovered his innovation among the struggles of his work. Vinu Malik had an even more strenuous trial as his inspiration. By 1998, Malik, now 34, had been competing in triathlons for eight years. He had become completely fed up with the large water bottles he needed to carry to stay hydrated. According to Neil Malik, Vinu's business partner and brother, "The bottles were cumbersome and could easily start bumping against the runner."

Vinu decided he could develop a better water system. In his mind, the solution would feature multiple small bottles, so the weight of the water could be spread out around the runner's waist. He went with four flat bottles that attached to a belt. Then, as an extra touch, Vinu curved the bottle spouts in one direction so they would face away from the runner's body.

When Vinu recruited his brother Neil, they sunk $5,000 into their Cambridge, Massachusetts, venture, Fuel Belt Inc., and started selling the product on the Web. They ran a little ad in Triathlete magazine and sold $25,000 worth of products in the first three months. According to Neil, 32, "We weren't sure how much the ads helped, because in a small [and] connected community like triathletes, word travels fast."

In 1999, the brothers kept selling on the Web while continuing to hold full-time jobs. Before long, they enlisted a few stores to carry the product--and sales quickly grew to exceed $50,000. In 2000, the brothers started getting serious about the business, so they gave up their jobs and worked on obtaining patents, improving production arrangements, incorporating and setting up their business structure.

The turning point came in 2001, when the brothers approached the official board of the Ironman Triathlon in order to license the Ironman name for their product. They succeeded in obtaining a license, not only to use the Ironman name, but also to state that the Fuel Belt is the "official worldwide Hydration Belt of Ironman." At the time of the agreement, they had 15 retailers selling their product. By year-end 2001, they had signed on 350 stores, and by early 2002 their product was in more than 500 running stores in the United States and 1,000 worldwide. The Fuel Belt, which retails for $31.95, pushed the company's sales to about $500,000 in 2001, and the brothers expect to hit $1 million this year.

The secret to their success, according to Neil, was that "Vinu knew what triathletes wanted. Once he started using the belt, many of the top runners started using it, too. That made selling our concept to Ironman a snap. And once we were the official hydration belt of Ironman, stores were happy to carry the product." In other words, the brothers knew exactly how to successfully promote the product, because they understood the market firsthand.

If you're hoping to find a money-making idea of your own, start by looking at your own job or hobby. If you're observant, you'll begin to notice where improvements should be made--and that's your first step to success.

Open auditions
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Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant and author of Think Big: Make Millions From Your Ideas. Send him your questions at dondebelak34@msn.com.