From the April 2005 issue of Entrepreneur

The entrepreneur: Todd Basche, 50-year-old winner of Staples' 2004 Invention Quest contest

Product description: The WordLock is a combination lock that uses letters instead of numbers. Instead of the numbers 2468, for example, the lock could spell "lawn." The benefit to users is that words are much easier to remember. The lock can be used in many applications--as a padlock, a lock on a briefcase or laptop, or even a door lock.

Startup: $35,000, which Basche spent on patents, prototypes and licensing efforts prior to winning the Staples contest. Basche came up with his idea in 1998, applied for a patent in 1999, and was awarded a patent in 2003.

Sales: This month, Staples will be introducing the WordLock at all 1,200 of its stores and on its website for a suggested retail price of $5.99.

The challenge: Positioning your product so it has a good chance of winning a company-sponsored invention contest that has thousands of entries

Winning a contest is a great way to achieve the kind of success many inventors only dream about. Sponsored by major companies like Staples and Procter & Gamble, these invention contests offer entrepreneurs major market introduction opportunities. Of course, you can't win if you don't enter. Check out the websites for the United Inventors Association and Inventors' Digest magazine for information on contests currently underway. Entering Staples' 2004 Invention Quest contest really paid off for Todd Basche, an inventor in Los Altos, California: He was awarded the $25,000 grand prize, plus a license from Staples, which will market Basche's WordLock under the Staples brand name.

Steps to Success

1. Know your product's main benefit. Basche first conceived his idea when he had padlocks on the gates to his backyard. "I was always struggling to remember the numbers, and I thought, Wouldn't it be easier to remember a word?" he says. "I asked some friends what they thought, and everyone agreed that numbers were hard to remember."

2. Have a prototype. According to Jevin Eagle, senior vice president of Staples brands, "We don't require that an idea be completely finished, but the further along an inventor is, the better chance he has. We aren't looking for general ideas, but specific ideas that are developed to the point where we can see the product's advantages and why it's better than products currently on the market."

Basche, who had developed a prototype in 2003, prior to entering the contest, is firm in his belief that "people don't understand a new product until they can hold it in their hands."

3. Increase your odds with intellectual property protection. While Staples doesn't require intellectual property protection, Eagle says Staples' final criterion is "that products have the potential for some proprietary protection."

4. Be prepared to make a strong presentation. Basche feels that delivering a strong presentation can make all the difference in a contest. "My presentation featured market research, including price points, market size and vertical markets," he says. "This was a similar presentation to what I gave when I was trying to license the product. The WordLock is a product with very broad market potential."

5. Bring in a lawyer to negotiate the agreement. Once Basche won the contest, Staples offered him a licensing agreement along with the $25,000 prize. "Once I realized that Staples was serious about negotiating an agreement, I hired a lawyer. Staples was fair, but I really needed my own attorney. It took a few months to finalize the agreement, but it was one with which both parties were happy."

Lessons Learned

1. Don't worry so much about production costs. Big companies like Staples know about sourcing and understand how to redesign products so they can have lower manufacturing costs. Concentrate instead on demonstrating the features that will provide big benefits to customers.

2. Present to decision-makers. Basche tried to license his product for almost two years before the Staples contest. He had trouble, though, getting in front of the right people--those who could say yes. He kept getting shuffled around without much progress. During the contest, Basche had a chance to present to people who were going to choose at least one product to license.

3. Understand the contest promoter's motivation. Staples' target customers are home-office users and small-business owners. Staples searches for products that make their target customers' lives easier. Small-business owners have so many passwords to remember that they appreciate any product that makes remembering passwords easier. WordLock won because it fit Staples' product line strategy.

4.include promotional materials. All contests have a preliminary screening process to winnow out the top performers. In the Staples contest, more than 8,000 submissions were cut down to the top 100. Because initial evaluations are fairly brief, you need to do everything you can to sell your idea. Focus your promotional activities on your product's main benefit--it will get lost if you try to list too many features.

Winner's Circle

You don't have to win an invention contest to benefit from entering.

In fact, Staples ended up licensing ideas from three other Invention Quest contest entrants besides Todd Basche, inventor of the WordLock:

  • Adrian Chernoff: Royal Oak, Michigan, inventor of Rubber Bandits, rubber bands that have labels already attached so objects banded together can be easily identified
  • Nancy Garner: New Bern, North Carolina, inventor of the Handy Strap Stapler, a stapler that makes stapling on walls easier
  • Neil Grimwood: Venice, California, inventor of TackDots, nickel-sized foam dots with an adhesive backing that, when put on a wall, act as a mini bulletin board

It's worth noting that Staples accepts ideas from inventors as potential licensing candidates even when an Invention Quest contest is not in progress. For details, visit Staples' website, go to the section marked "vendors," and click on "product submissions." Information for the 2005 contest can also be found on the site.


Don Debelak is author of Entrepreneur magazine's Start-Up Guide #1813, Bringing Your Product to Market(www.smallbizbooks.com), and host of inventor-help website www.dondebelak.com.