From the March 2003 issue of Startups

What do Abbey Fleck, Chris Haas and Rich Stachowski all have in common? These three successful inventors have all enjoyed nationwide success. Their secret? It all starts with the idea.

Most inventions are created to solve a common, everyday problem. Fleck, Haas and Stachowski all noticed obstacles and thought of products to overcome them. When Fleck, now 19, was 8 years old and helping her dad make breakfast one Saturday morning, she noticed how unappetizing microwave-cooked bacon looked. "When [my dad] took it out of the microwave, we were out of paper towels to soak up the grease," she recalls. "So he was just holding it up and the fat was dripping off of it." That's where Fleck got the idea for Makin Bacon, a contraption in which the bacon cooks hanging up so that the fat will drip onto a tray below.

Next Step
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As an elementary school student, Haas, now 18 and an avid sports fan, noticed many of his classmates were holding basketballs incorrectly and, therefore, not shooting very well. After a lot of thought and a little poster paint, Hands-On Basketball, a ball with handprints showing the correct positions, was born.

Stachowski, meanwhile, wanted to talk to his father underwater while snorkeling in Hawaii a few years back. He couldn't, so after the trip, he went home, did his research and came up with Water Talkies, starting a company called Short Stack to manufacture various underwater products. Soon to follow were products such as Bin-Aqua-Lars (underwater binoculars) and the Aqua Scope.

Selling Points
Once these teens perfected their inventions, it was time for the hard sell. Haas and Stachowski hired professionals to help them market their products, which worked like a charm. Haas found a manufacturer, and Hands-On Basketball soon began showing up in K-Mart, other retailers and catalogs.

Stachowski's water toys were a big hit at stores like Toys "R" Us and Target, and, after only three years in business, he was approached by Wild Planet Toys in San Francisco, which wanted to buy his company. Stachowski agreed, giving Wild Planet first rights to all his future pool/water inventions and receiving "a good price" in return.

Fleck and her father, however, used the do-it-yourself approach, contacting retailers like Wal-Mart and K-Mart, which initially turned them down. It was only when the Flecks went to the Armor Co., makers of Armor brand bacon, that they found success. Armor agreed to place an ad for Fleck's invention on the back of their products--customers could send in cash and a UPC from the package and receive the product in the mail. Wal-Mart eventually reconsidered, and the Flecks now have a distribution agreement with a national chain store.

Tips From the Pros
They may be young, but these three inventors have all pulled in big profits from their products. What's their advice to other inventors?

Seek publicity. Let's face it--the media loves stories of young people who create things or start their own businesses, so you may as well use that to your advantage. Create press packets--including a press release, your picture a sample of the product (if possible) and anything else you think might help--and send them to local newspapers, TV stations and radio stations. Press coverage tends to snowball, and, like Fleck and Stachowski, you may just find yourself appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman. Fleck credits the press coverage with getting Wal-Mart's attention.

Think big. Whether you hire someone to help market your product or you do it yourself, go after what you want. Fleck wanted a distribution agreement with a national chain, so she approached places like Wal-Mart and K-Mart. A professional-looking sales package is vital and should include a typewritten cover letter with contact information and a description of yourself and your invention, along with an information page about your invention with pictures of it (or, better yet, a sample). If you have them, also include a public opinion survey, endorsements and marketing information.

Don't give up. Your product may not be an instant hit, but don't let rejection get you down. "We sent letters to a bunch of companies," Haas remembers. "Twelve out of 13 rejected the idea."

Invent solutions. Fleck encountered many rejections before she thought of a creative solution to market her product and contacted Armor. The deal, says her father, "was brilliant because we received the money before we shipped the product."