From the November 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

Some inventors readily come up with one idea after another, but then get bogged down trying to market too many at a time. Not surprisingly, ideas from entrepreneurs who lack focus often languish in the conception stage and never make it to market.

Luckily, that has not been the case for Randice-Lisa Altschul, an inventor who, at 42, has invented thousands of products and licensed more than 200 games, toys and other products, including board games for Miami Vice, The Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Turbo Fist and Racing Fist action toys. With her company, Dieceland Technologies Corp. in Cliffside Park, New York, Altschul is launching her biggest product yet, the Phone-Card-Phone. GE is set to handle North American distribution.

So how do you successfully turn your ideas into moneymakers? A great idea is only part of the process. You've also got to know in your gut when a concept has real potential to become something tangible and hit it big. You'll also need perseverance and ingenuity, as well as a willingness to let your idea evolve until it's ready for sale.

Making It Happen
Before explaining Altschul's formula for success, let's see how one seemingly simple idea was able to catch the attention of GE and earn 2002 Product of the Year recognition from Frost and Sullivan, a leading publisher of market analysis and statistics.

The Phone-Card-Phone is a disposable cell phone with a certain number of minutes that can be used for both outgoing and incoming calls. (Altschul prefers to refer to her product as "an enhanced phone card.") Prices are expected to start at $10 for 60 minutes of local calls, and $16 to $18 for an hour of all other calls. The product was designed to replace phone cards, making it, as Altschul says, "much easier for people to make a call. After all, they don't have to find a phone." Her target customers are not cell phone users, who expect tons of product features. Rather, Altschul will be targeting "kids who need to call their parents and people who want protection in case of an emergency." After developing the product, Altschul also discovered that an enormous market also exists for credit-challenged individuals who are unable to qualify for annual contracts with cell phone service providers.

How did Altschul come up with the idea? "In 1996, I was driving and having trouble with my phone; I wanted to throw it out the window. The phone cost too much to do that, but it gave me the inspiration that a disposable cellular phone would be a great idea."

Convinced this was her "grand-slam idea," she decided to risk it all. Rather than license the concept, she decided to develop the product herself. She funded development with her savings of more than $1 million, plus $300,000 in credit cards. All went well until late 1999, when she ran out of money.

Fortunately for Altschul, at that time, a nearly full-page story on the Phone-Card-Phone ran in The New York Times. A media blitz followed, eventually leading to additional investors as well as the distribution contract with GE. Today, the product is in the testing phase at numerous facilities, including the FCC. Assuming she gets FCC approval, Altschul expects to be in production 75 days later. In preparation, Altschul has already recruited several GE contacts to help run her company, and her management team's plans for a national rollout have been put in place.

WANTED: YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS

Ron Perlstein, a 20-year veteran in the direct response TV industry, is looking for ideas to sell through his company, Infoworx.

Specifically, Perlstein is looking for consumer-oriented products in the following categories: automotive accessories, fitness, health, kitchen, household items, pet care and sports. Perlstein is willing to work with new products in a variety of ways, such as through a joint venture or a royalty arrangement or on a fee basis. And for a commission, Infoworx will even represent products with the potential to sell well on a home-shopping network.

A simple form gets you started; the company will work with you to develop and produce the product. If all you have is a concept with merit, Infoworx will team up with Invent-Tech to develop the prototypes and product models, with Infoworx handling the marketing.

Tricks of the Trade

Here's a closer look at some of the characteristics you'll need to turn your ideas into big-time moneymakers:

  • Great, wacky ideas: A few years ago, when licensing was slow, Altschul considered going "inside" and working directly for a corporation. When she approached Michael Myers, then head of R&D at one of the Hasbro companies, what he said changed her mind: "Going inside will destroy you. You have the ability to come up with the unexpected. You'll lose that inside." In other words, anyone can come up with variations of existing products, but that's not what companies look to inventors for. They want a totally new concept like the Phone-Card-Phone. It's wacky to even consider making a disposable phone for little more than the price of a phone card. Most corporations wouldn't take on that kind of product development challenge. It's just, well, too wacky.
  • Willingness to trust your gut: Altschul looks for one reaction when choosing a product. "I've got to say 'That's right; that's so cool,'" she says. "You just know in your gut that it's right." These days, if she doesn't have that reaction, she doesn't move ahead. In fact, this is what has driven her on all her ideas. Altschul's motto is "Conceive it, believe it, achieve it." She'll tell you she doesn't believe inventors will have the perseverance or the passion they need to sell their ideas unless they're convinced in their guts that their ideas are right.
  • Ability to convert an idea into something tangible: When Altschul comes up with an idea, she's able to visualize it in her head. If she thinks the concept has merit, she hires an artist to produce a drawing. One problem inventors run into is that they see an idea clearly in their minds, but no one else can. Altschul accepts this drawback as a fact of life. To counter it, she works to put her concepts into forms others can understand.
  • Plenty of perseverance and ingenuity: Altschul considers inventing to be "a lesson in perseverance." She remembers her first success, the Miami Vice board game, which she created at age 25 when the show was a big hit. "The licensing company, MCA, wouldn't release the rights for games for anyone or even consider games from big companies," she remembers. "So I tracked down the show's producer, Michael Mann. He told me to meet with his right-hand man, Don Kurt, who was in Miami. I flew down to show Don the game. He and Michael Mann approved it and then got MCA to approve the game."
  • Willingness to let an idea evolve: As with her other concepts, Altschul allowed the Phone-Card-Phone to evolve as she learned more about the market and her target customers. As she points out, the product "started as a replacement for a cell phone and ended up being an enhanced phone card." Inventors whose first instinct is to stick with their original ideas would benefit more from such flexibility. You should also step away from your ideas for a while; doing so will always provide you with a better perspective.
  • A team approach: As Altschul has learned from personal experience, "People who think they can do everything themselves are nuts. You need a real team with the right people to get the job done." Although Altschul made good progress developing her idea on her own, its true potential wasn't realized until she teamed up with GE.

Great concepts by themselves are not enough. Learning how to take smart ideas to the next level should be what drives you. Sure, Altschul's record of success is hard to top. But if you look beyond the glamourous life of any successful inventor, you'll find the same perseverance and savvy that Altschul has. These tools of the trade will help you turn your big (and possibly wacky) ideas into real market winners.

MAKING YOUR TRADEMARK
Nolo Press is known for publishing some of the best-known licensing books available, including Patent It Yourself by David Pressman and Nolo's Patents for Beginners by Pressman and Richard Stim. The company also has a legal encyclopedia on its site, which offers plenty of helpful advice ranging from how to qualify for the rights to your creation to what legal action you can take if someone violates your trademark. The site is particularly good for cash-strapped inventors, as it discusses how to get a copyright without an attorney and the easiest way to obtain patent-pending status. For more information, log on to www.nolopress.com and enter "patents" in the search window.

Don Debelak is author of Think Big: Make Millions From Your Ideas. Contact him at dondebelak34@msn.com.

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