From Bartender to Inventor: How to Turn Your Day Job Into Passive Income
Late one night in 2010, at a drinking hole in his Michigan hometown, Lansing, David Fedewa remembers, he was staring at the bartender filling up pitchers of beer when the thought dawned on him: He's doing that all wrong.
Why didn't the pitcher have a slat down its side? Fedewa recalls wondering. Wouldn't that prevent foam and free the bartender from having to hold the pitcher at an angle while he was filling it? Popular bars, after all, tap dozens of kegs a night. They'd be making a lot more money if their staff didn't have to stand there, Fedewa reasoned.
At the time, this Michigander -- a former student of mine -- was himself a bartender, but one with a different spin. He'd always had ideas for products -- which, until that moment, he hadn't taken action on. What did he know about bringing a product to market? Still, the idea of spending the rest of his life bartending filled him with dread.
For the next couple of months, Fedewa kept thinking about his idea but failed to do anything about it. He assumed he would need to build a prototype first, which he didn't know how to do.
"I thought I needed to pick up a set of new skills to bring my idea to life, like CAD and 3D printing," Fedewa told me. "In fact, I really did not." That's how Fedewa became my student -- to fill in those information gaps. And that's how I came to advise him how to create a rough prototype, by making use of existing materials.
So, as a test, he inserted into a pitcher a cheap plastic folder that you can purchase at any office supply store -- and filled the pitcher. The test was enough to validate his initial concept. His theory proved true: A pitcher with a slanted wall does not foam when filled.
But when Fedewa, sell sheet in hand, began showing his concept to companies, he failed to get a single response.
"I thought it was so obvious: This is a beer pitcher that doesn't foam!" Fedewa said. Yet, there was a problem: When he showed his sell sheet to a friend, the friend replied, "What is this?" Clearly, the inventor needed to convey the benefit of his concept much more clearly. These days, the solution is often video: Many of my students use videos to license their ideas for new products. So, Fedewa used his cell phone to film a soundless grainy video that compared a regular pitcher being filled with one being filled his way. And sure enough, that's what did the trick.
"To be honest, the quality was crap, but it conveyed the point and got people excited. That was the biggest turning point," Fedewa said. The very next day, he let the companies he had previously contacted know he had improved his product and asked them to please take another look.
This time around, six of the 10 companies he emailed sent a positive reply within 24 hours.
Having so many companies get back to him in a single day was hugely reassuring. Now I get it, he thought. Not that his work was done -- far from it. Sure, he had interest. But at the time, he didn't know how to use it to secure a deal. (Fedewa has since licensed five other products and negotiated countless licensing agreements on behalf of InventRight students.)
What he learned
"Inventors tend to put blinders on and see things one way," Fedewa told me of his experience. "The truth is, if you know the right questions to ask, you can break a discussion loose and get it moving again."
Eventually, Fedewa got his pitcher idea in front of the food service industry products manufacturer San Jamar, which loved it. Together, the company and Fedewa developed several iterations of the product, and in August 2014, signed a deal. This past spring, Fedewa was delighted to receive his first royalty check. His invention exists in restaurants and bars throughout the country today.
"We loved David's idea right away because the advantages it offers are easily measurable and apparent," explained Jeff Lee, an associate product manager. "Use this product, save money. It is simple, but its simplicity is what draws users to it in terms of innovation."
Because San Jamar focuses on helping operations maximize profitability and efficiency, and the Perfect Pitcher does both, it was a "seamless fit," Lee said.
And Fedewa? The fact that he can go on vacation and still be earning income thrills this inventor, who now has his own YouTube channel about product development and licensing. "It's made me less worried about my finances," he's admitted. "The passive aspect in particular... I just love it. And the fact that there's no ceiling to how much I can earn: That's the really exciting part."
Tips for the would-be inventors out there
Maybe you're working a job you hate, or maybe it's just that you want to use your creativity more. Either way, opportunities to innovate abound, Fedewa insists.
"Put your arms out and spin! There are so many different products being used on a daily basis that are not friendly or efficient," he told me. In his own words, he recommended the following steps to begin turning your day job into passive income:
1. Get started today. This is the first step to breaking through the barrier of actually doing something about your ideas. If you decide you are going to do something, take action now . . . because if you keep thinking tomorrow, that day will never actually come. Buy a book, call a company, obtain supplies for the prototype you've been dreaming about in your head -- just start.
2. Find someone who has brought a product to market before to help you and show you the path. This will save you years of frustration and thousands of dollars. There is a road map for everything, including proposing and licensing your ideas.
3. Commit to a small action every day. Product development takes time, but, like everything else, you must take it a step at a time. The more you do, the more you will learn. The good news is, you do not have to take on a lot of risk to bring your ideas to market. You also don't need to be an expert in engineering or design.