Great Minds

It takes more than just brain power to make it as an inventor.
Magazine Contributor
13 min read

This story appears in the January 1996 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Funny how drastic changes often sprout from a single thought. For Anthony Korba, the distance between his past and his future equaled the distance from Orange County, California, up the coast to San Jose. One day in 1991, Korba was flying his small plane to visit his son in college. By the time he landed, he had an idea that would consume the next four years of his life.

"I put the plane on autopilot and just sat back and watched the [navigational] stations come up every 30 or 40 miles," says Korba. "After the third or fourth one, I, having a love of golf, started thinking, this could be the third hole, the fourth hole, the fifth hole. And I wondered, if you could measure the distance [between navigational aids] from an airplane, why couldn't you measure the distance on a golf course?"

While most people ponder such ideas for just a moment before discarding them, as soon as he landed Korba grabbed a napkin and scribbled design plans for his hand-held electronic distance-measuring device for golfers.

The mind of an inventor ticks slightly differently from that of your typical human being. While most people go through life barely aware of the events whirling around them, inventors note the potential in every situation. Inventors don't look at the way things are; rather, they ponder the way things should be. Practicing what is arguably the purest form of entrepreneurship, they are a breed unto themselves.

So what separates the Bill Gateses from the Joe Schmoes? Obviously, being a successful innovator as opposed to an eternal dreamer takes more than just an excellent idea. "A lot of people have good ideas and may even get a patent, but that won't get them to the profit level," says Barry Rein, a partner at Pennie & Edmonds, an intellectual property law firm in New York City. "Inventors have to be willing to go down the difficult and rocky road to the marketplace."

"A lot of inventors sit on ideas for years, only to discover that someone else brought them to the market first," says Laura Flax, an inventor and invention consultant in Canoga Park, California. "These people think 'I could have been rich,' but that's not true."

Flax believes the downfall of some inventors is their "arrogance about their first invention. They think their idea is good enough in itself and that if they make a working prototype, they've done most of the work. But that's actually 10 to 20 percent of the work. I might come up with 100 ideas, flesh out 10, get one to the prototype stage, and then try to get it to market. And it's getting to market that's really the hard part."

Try, Try Again

The reality of life as an inventor has less to do with the light bulb flicking on than with plain old perseverance. According to Korba, instant success is rare. "I have enough of an entrepreneurial background to know if an idea is good or bad," he says. "But you still have to go through all the stages: research and development, marketing, production, sales. It requires a lot of 15- to 20-hour workdays. You can fail at any one of those steps and take yourself out of the marketplace."

Larry Hayslett and Ed Hirzel are fully aware of the specter of failure-an awareness top inventors use to propel rather than paralyze them. Sometimes that fear of failure is so strong, inventors can't shake it until they see their products on the shelves.

After investing several years and more than half a million dollars in Priority Start, a device that protects car batteries from dying, that day of relief isn't quite here for Hayslett and Hirzel's Granada Hills, California-based company, Baton Labs Inc. "We have families, children, house payments, car payments," says Hayslett. "We've got emotional and physical stress. All we have [to go on] is faith in the product."

Financing has been the major obstacle. "It's difficult for any start-up company to find investors," Hayslett says. "You can't depend on other people and large companies. We've learned to do things ourselves."

Yet the partners haven't given up their quest for an investor and are willing to forfeit some control if that's what it takes. "We're trying to persevere and to not be too possessive," Hayslett says. "We don't want to have a death grip-we're too close to having a successful product."

Likewise, even though Korba made all the right moves-taking on three partners; starting DME/Golf Inc. in Costa Mesa, California; and collaborating with top research companies and NASA-he kept hitting that proverbial brick wall. "These were all capable, sophisticated companies with 90 to 95 percent project success rates," says Korba. "But we were trying to miniaturize an aviation tool that was the size of three or four garages. The technology barriers were immense. We spent a tremendous amount of time and a ridiculous amount of money and came up completely dry." By the end of 1992, Korba says, "we were ready to give up."

For the first time facing the prospect that their product might be dead in the water, the partners decided to take a breather for 30 days. Still, Korba remained committed to the idea, and, finally, his big break came. "By chance, a friend who knew of my project informed me of an inventor whose work in this area was being declassified [by the government]," Korba says.

The inventor turned out to be one of the original collaborators on laser range-finding technology in the '70s. Within 24 hours of meeting, he and Korba had struck a deal; six months later, Korba had his prototype. "There were a lot of trials and tribulations. We failed literally three times with [research and development companies] that were well-recognized in the industry," says Korba.

As daunting as the process was, Korba doesn't believe his struggle is unique. "If you contacted a large number of successful American companies, you'd probably find every company has gone through this phase," he says. "It doesn't matter if it's a $100 company or a $100 million company-at some point, an idea probably didn't fly. [Success] requires the ability to go beyond that point, to let persistence and determination take hold. Even when they're facing defeat, successful inventors will find a way to make it happen. Our attitude [when facing obstacles] was to go right, go left, go up, go down-to take that extra step, always looking for a way to solve the problems."

Invention Protection

Unfortunately for inventors, the problems to solve are many. Ironically, the answer to an inventor's most urgent question (How do I protect my idea?) happens to be one of the most tedious aspects of inventing (Patent it). Dealing with patent searches and intellectual property attorneys isn't exactly the most glamorous leg of the journey.

"Many inventors haven't been through the process yet," says Rein. "It's their first time, and they have an understandable fear of the system. But venture capitalists and funding providers want to know what kind of protection you have. That's why patents are so important-they build a wall around [your invention]."

As if the process weren't complicated enough, Rein points out that all patent searches are not created equal. "The search is usually dollar-limited," says Rein. "If you spent a few thousand more dollars-or a few tens of thousands more dollars-in a search, there's a chance you'd find out something you wouldn't otherwise know."

It all comes back to that classic Catch-22 scenario: It takes money to make money. "There's an initial difficulty new inventors have-they're looking at the protection problem at a time when they have zero money," Rein admits. "To some extent, you can share your idea with potential funders in confidence, but you have to have enough money to seek adequate protection before you go out and really raise money. That's the tightrope inventors have to walk."

Besides taking care of patent legalities, revealing your idea to associates or investors requires a healthy dose of discretion. "The feedback I've gotten has been so valuable in improving my products, I've always considered [disclosure] a risk worth taking," says Flax. "But you always have to be aware of who you're talking to. Do your homework before you disclose information to anyone.

"If you want to show your invention to a large company, find out its reputation, whether it's interested in ideas from outsiders, and whether it has pending lawsuits against it. Of course, when there's an opportunity for you to benefit from someone's input, by all means share your idea."

However, because of the volatile nature of personal relationships, Rein advises taking precautions with even your closest friends and family-you never know when an informal collaboration could turn into a legal nightmare. Experienced venture capitalists will be on the lookout for loopholes created by partnerships based on "the honor system." Says Rein, "Getting the proper recognition of ownership on paper upfront is extremely important for inventors."

The Race Is On

Protecting your idea is one thing; obsessing about it is another. While it's healthy to believe in your idea, many inventors become insanely overprotective.

"Inventors become convinced that they have the best solution and become unreceptive to outside input," says Flax. "I've known a lot of inventors who get very defensive about feedback. Their products usually do not get to market. You have to be receptive to what potential users and marketing people tell you. Don't be afraid to rebuild your product."

Actually, the possibility of you taking someone else's idea is just as likely as someone taking yours. "Four and a half years ago, we thought we were the original inventor of the idea [for golf distance-measuring equipment]," says Korba. "But every time you have what you think is an original idea, you can bet 10 other people have already thought of it."

So the race goes not to the inventor who comes up with the idea but to the one who makes it to market first. But ironically, being overprotective of your invention can end up dooming it to oblivion. Flax has seen several of her ideas upstaged by others. The first was a hand-held vacuum, the Bug Sucker, which Flax designed in graduate school to, well, pick up bugs. Soon after she marketed her prototype, a similar product came out-produced by Remington Products and, she says, mysteriously dubbed the Bug Sucker.

Flax also designed a call-waiting simulator that faked the sound of call waiting so people could squirm out of undesirable phone conversations-and then read about a similar product in an airline magazine.

Recently, Flax saw a TV news segment about an orthopedic surgeon marketing another idea of hers-women's shoes with interchangeable heels. "If you have an idea in response to a need, it's not uncommon for someone else to be working on the same thing," says Flax. "That doesn't necessarily mean they stole it. The point is, you have to move quickly. Often inventors want to perfect something before they show it to others because they're afraid it's going to be stolen. I encourage them to do their homework before disclosing it to anyone. But if you don't take risks, you won't succeed."

If someone beats you to market, Flax says, it should only inspire you to do more. "There is a tremendous initial disappointment," she acknowledges. "But I use [those experiences] to light a fire under myself and to pledge that next time, I'll move faster."

Then there's the attitude that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Placing second or even third in the race to retail is perfectly respectable, not to mention extremely profitable, says Flax, "as long as you're improving on [a product] or introducing it to a new market, rather than infringing on a patent or stealing an idea."

For example, when an innocuous little hairstyling device called the Topsy Tail turned into the über invention of the '90s, numerous aspiring innovators dreamed of tapping the trend. One person aiming to reinvent the Topsy Tail is Michelle Johnson, whose Style-a-Braid hopes to do for French braids what its predecessor did for pony tails.

"I read about [Tomima Edmark, the inventor of the Topsy Tail], and my first thought was to come up with a hair-braiding device," says Johnson, a hairstylist in Westchester, Illinois. Currently selling thousands of Style-a-Braids through mail order, Johnson recently won an award at an invention convention and plans to produce an infomercial.

Eyes On The Prize

For inventors, passion and perseverance coalesce to form a tangible product. "We failed 80 percent of the time, but we always found a way around the problem," says Korba. "We were so enamored with our vision, we believed it would work."

And it did. DME/Golf has established a relationship with the U.S. Golf Association, which is using DME technology for a study on putting. Motorola recently authorized DME to use its name on the product, and DME received national TV exposure during the U.S. Open. "All of a sudden, other companies [such as golf courses] are lining up to sign contracts with us," says Korba. "It's an affirmation that the crazy idea we had four years ago has wings and can fly on its own."

In fact, the success of DME/Golf has launched not just a new product but an entire industry. "This is an embryonic field that has just now found acceptance in the world of golf," says Korba. "We helped pioneer an industry that is going to evolve over the next five years."

Yet that won't mean the end of the journey for Korba, who is already considering applying his technology to products for archery and the military. In fact, one of the greatest discoveries for inventors is that, as devoted as they are to each individual invention, their passion for the process transcends any one product.

"It's a mind-set I've had for a long time," says Flax. "I want to take an idea from A to Z, walk into a store or open a catalog and see my product-something I am responsible for. I've always wanted to invent something, to make some sort of contribution . . . to create something that makes people say, 'I'm glad we have this.' "

What's The Big Idea?

You don't have to be Alexander Graham Bell or Henry Ford to make your mark with an innovation. Mouse pads, paper clips, Mylar balloons, bottle openers-practically everything, no matter how inconsequential, was once an inventor's "baby."

How can you come up with such ideas? Sure, you can track the trends, do demographic studies and arrange focus groups, but invention consultant Laura Flax says inspiration more often strikes on a personal level.

"More than 90 percent of the time, you come up with things that are relevant to your own life," Flax says. "People say, 'They should come up with something that does such and such.' But who is They?"

In fact, Flax says, there's probably an inventor lurking in everyone. "People say they can't invent because they're not creative. That's not true," she asserts. "All you have to do is pay attention to what you do in your life for one day and keep a list of things that bother you. You'd be surprised what you come up with."

Contact Sources

Baton Labs Inc., 17939 Chatsworth Ave., #521, Granada Hills, CA 91344, (818) 363-5390;

DME/Golf Inc., 3180 Redhill, Costa Mesa, CA 92626, (800) 711-GOLF, (714) 432-7100;

Laura Flax, P.O. Box 2683, Winnetka, CA 91396;

Pennie & Edmonds, 1155 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10036, (212) 790-6546;

Style-A-Braid Inc., (800) 827-2432, fax: (708) 562-2726.


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