Notions in Motion

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.

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 and enter "patents" in the search window.

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

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This article was originally published in the November 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Notions in Motion.

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