Lessons in Invention Development – Part 1

Inventing is a precarious process, to say the least, but it can also be an educational experience of a lifetime. For me, the invention development process began with a problem and the thought that its solution lay with one tool design. I had had no previous experience with inventing and was blind to the realities of the journey that awaited me. Thirty-five tool, flange, and valve designs later, I had learned about casting processes, machining, heat treating, plating, and the ritual intricacies of the legal realm – more than I ever thought I wanted to know. Thirty designs failed to gain acceptance. Five succeeded.

I had been in the heating trade for 17 years, the last 10 as a less-than-satisfied contractor. I often installed hot water circulator flanges, but this extremely simple flange design was ridiculously difficult to install (the picture on the front page exemplifies a heating system that utilizes many of these flanges). One day while installing a multi-zone system that required 20 of these troublesome flanges, a novel idea sprang into my head, uncoiling no doubt from the considerable tension I was under. I recalled a recent experience watching another contractor install a flange. He inserted two screwdrivers through as many bolt holes in the flange, and, positioning the handle end of a hammer between them, rotated them clockwise. Lacking the leverage that it required for him to tighten the flange, the force he exerted caused his hand to slip and be sliced open by an adjacent electrical enclosure. We were both used to this sort of environment and its hazards, but it was the memory of his method, and his blood, that stuck in my mind. While attempting to assemble the 20 flanges to copper adapters with a pipe wrench and adjustable wrench-the traditional method-it occurred to me how easily a simple tool could be fashioned that would incorporate elements similar to his screwdriver and hammer method. Only my design would prove to be safer, more effective, and more efficient.

The next morning I looked in the yellow pages for a patent lawyer. We scheduled a consultation at which time I disclosed my idea. He suggested I seek the assistance of a pattern maker to begin the process of making a sand casting prototype. “What’s a pattern maker?” I asked. The lawyer explained, and I remembered that my musician friend, David, whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years, was a pattern maker. Luckily, I was able to track him down.

I called David and his first words to me were, “I’m amazed you’re calling me. Just ten minutes ago I thought of you for no obvious reason.” How mysterious, but I believed it was a good omen. Soon we met and explored a couple of design options. With surprising efficiency he scratched out drawings almost as fast as I conveyed my ideas to him. In only a week, I had a finished bronze prototype for just $75. Because we were friends David was willing to accommodate my request for a rushed prototype even though he was in the midst of designing all of the door handles (250) for Bill Gates’ new house.

To make certain that I was the first to invent this new device, I paid for a prior art search of previously issued patents. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has issued over 6 million patents, so focusing the search on a category of low-tech hand tools relevant to mine seemed formidable. Luckily the search produced no similar designs, so I applied for a utility patent and the trademark, “Flange-TiteÒ.”

Installing flanges epitomized my frustration with the trade, in general, in a way that challenged me to make a change. I needed a change, as I feared I might soon lose the ability to get out of the rut I was in, and like most naive inventors, I dreamed that riches were inevitable from my invention. I began to contemplate that inventing might be my new calling, so I justified spending an ever-increasing amount of time on the tool project and less and less on the heating business.

Excitedly, I began generating the interest of others in the trade. I soon learned that many tradesmen shared my view of the need to make flange installations easier. Some had created makeshift tools, but none were like mine. Most of the opinions of those who saw the invention were encouraging, but some were not. In retrospect, I seemed to give more weight to the positive comments and too quickly dismissed the negative ones. “How could they possibly know more about this than I?” I thought whenever I encountered a nay-sayer. As time went by I would eventually come to realize how important others’ opinions were in the development process, and the need to heed all opinions is essential.

The reaction to the innovative tool design by the president of a local supply house was very encouraging; he liked it enough to offer free booth space at tradeshows. I thought if the head of a major wholesaler approved of this design then it had to be a winner, and I took tremendous risk investing more money than I had by running up credit cards. I rationalized funding the first production run with borrowed money: It takes money to make money, I thought. And I would have enough product to fill all the orders I would receive at the tradeshows. As it turned out I didn’t sell a single tool set (3 integral components) at the first showing, but sold seven at the second one. The kit wasn’t getting the consistent reception I had hoped it would, and I needed to know why. I prepared a questionnaire to determine what customers thought of the product, and other aspects relating to their role in the trade. To justify their participation, I offered a free T-shirt in exchange for a completed questionnaire. The information I received was insightful and ample enough to bolster my creativity. In short, the tool kit needed reworking. A few weeks later, and with David’s help, the first versa-turn® ratchet system prototypes were created. I was pleased with the expediency with which this new design had come together. It was a real boon to the project that David and I worked so well together. It would come to pass that prototypes were always designed and built very quickly and efficiently.

Caught up in the velocity of the moment, I risked the last of the money available to me on another production run. Like a gambler, I justified my compulsion with the affirmation that, surely, the payoff would come soon. But I was developing a high quality product that I was certain would be irresistible. There seemed to be no time for heating contracting-it became a distraction- so I gave up the business, officially. Nothing in heating had challenged me like this new endeavor, therefore I was committed to staying the course with inventing, I willingly admit, in an unbridled fashion.

I garnered the interest of a Manufacturers’ Representatives (Rep) agency that specialized in the sales of tools and was given table space on the upcoming regional tradeshow circuit. I became so focused on demonstrating the tools, show after show, that I failed to see the Rep’s reaction to the lackluster sales. I concentrated more on suggestions for improvements, and I assumed we both knew it would take time before the product caught on. However, because of continued dismal showings I lost my first Rep and gained a bruised ego.

I remember being scared that I was out of money and had no heating work. Ironically, the mother of my college physics professor called me to service the heating system in a house she was trying to sell. Naturally, I took the work. Having completed the service call, conversation turned to the goings-on in our lives. She asked what I had been up to, and not wanting to forgo an opportunity to show her my inventions, I said, “I’ll show you!” I demonstrated the tools I had in my truck, and she accused me of being “a genius!” Her enthusiasm resonated through her words. She asked me when I was going public, and I told her “I was going private.” “How much do you need?” she asked. I said I would get back to her if she were really interested. She was. A few days later I called and told her I needed $15,000. “Alright”, she said. “Come over, I’ll have the check ready for you.”

As excited as a miner who discovers a new vein of gold, I anxiously made the trip across town to cash in on my find. But when I saw the amount of the check, $25,000, I thought she had made an error. “You’ll need more than fifteen”, she said. “I know how these things are; they always cost more than you’d expect.” There’s a name for people like Mary-Angel Investor. I could hardly believe my good fortune. In retrospect, it’s a good thing (for me) that we didn’t know how much money we would come to spend. Had we known, surely she never would have written that first check, and my inventing days would have ended then.

Mary’s great, great, great grandfather had started the Wiss Shears Company in 1842, which stayed in the family until 1988. Jacob Wiss, a Swiss watchmaker by trade, started making shears with a German Shepherd. Yes, a dog. As the dog walked along in a treadmill, like you’ve seen in hamster cages only much larger, a connecting drive belt turned a polishing stone. Jacob used this method for a year then doubled production by adding a second dog. Perhaps he dangled a steak in front of the dogs as an incentive. Probably not. My newly formed business reminded Mary of her ancestor’s early beginnings; she saw potential in my creations and thought I would ultimately succeed. For her, funding my project was a fitting tribute to Jacob.

I considered my luck. I had found an Angel without even looking. It seemed to make sense that this inventing business was my calling. Everything just fell into place at the crucial moments.

With my recent cash infusion I was able to integrate suggestions for new designs. I made radical changes to the tools and developed several for new applications. Going off on a tangent is so typical of inventors, a pattern I was unaware of then. I suppose I used the shotgun approach to inventing hoping to “hit” something.

I scurried from design table to Rep agency and tradeshows. Only now I had a set of “universal” ratchet wrenches and attachments. A pattern maker, Andrew J. Cutney, helped design these unique tools. I also began to establish important contacts with some wealthy and influential players in the industry who offered their opinions and support. Some talked of investing money, mostly through innuendo, but at the last minute reneged. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. They all seemed to think I was doing the right thing for the trade, so I continued to work diligently to come up with what seemed like sellable products. Many were profound and useful. A litany of people made money from them-pattern makers, machinists, foundries, heat-treating companies…a list of 42 different individuals and businesses. The list wouldn’t be complete, though, without including the lawyers.

By now I had two intellectual property lawyers and had gone through a number of business lawyers before finding one that showed a little mercy while tallying his billable hours. I had spent the equivalent of a year’s salary paying all their fees. Everyone was making money except my investor and me. I tried to be positive about it – at least I was getting the hang of product development, and surely something would come of it.

Interestingly enough, I knew little about the resources available to inventors. I did contact the Inventors Assistance Program at Franklin Pierce Law Center-the top intellectual property school in the country-but my phone calls were never returned. It’s an ironic coincidence that I lived only four blocks from the Law Center, the monthly meeting place of New Hampshire Inventors Association, and 3 blocks from the Academy of Applied Science. I was oblivious to their presence and that they were so close by. The Academy’s mission is to create a greater awareness for ‘invention, innovation and science’ and its founder, Dr. Robert Rines, also the cofounder of the Law Center, is married to the publisher of Inventor’s Digest magazine, a publication I had never seen. In a sense, I was inventing my invention development process as I went along. I assumed that I had to learn this business on my own, not knowing there was help out there.

The fact that I wasn’t aware of the local groups comes as no surprise to me now. Independent inventor organizations rarely advertise as a means of creating awareness for their existence-they’re simply under-funded, as I’ve come to learn. I did create a website, hoping the internet would facilitate sales of the tools, but never considered to search for inventor organizations that could offer help with the development process, online. Since then I’ve learned that the internet is a great source of information for inventors, and a basic search of the web can produce invaluable information that will make an inventors development process much easier. It makes for sad commentary that independent inventors are more likely to be exposed to advertising by scam companies than by legitimate organizations. Shady “invention marketing firms” are defrauding independent inventors to the sum of over a hundred million dollars a year, preying on their naivety and emotions, thus contributing to the 98 percentile that fail to achieve significant success. Government agencies such as the Small Business Administration, and the Small Business Development Centers, lack funding enough to deal with starry-eyed inventors. Given the available public and private resources, inventing is, basically, a series of lessons that each inventor must discover then master on his/her own.

My inventing may have been on-the-job-training for me, but having a lot of the right contacts helped me churn out new prototypes rather quickly-one took only a day from first thought to machined casting. Actually, the inventing part was the easiest, and the most fun. I suppose my investor began to look at it differently, though. She was beginning to wonder when the inventory would be sold and the cash would flow in our direction.

Just when our sales situation seemed insurmountable we were given cause for renewed hope when the tools appealed to a Rep with a major presence in the industry. They bought 110 Flange-Tite®, FT II flange tools. Securing representation in the largest territory in the country, the Northeast, was a milestone for us. It seemed as though our investment would begin to pay off after all. Too bad that belief was short lived. A few months after the initial sale to the Rep I got a call from them saying it would take more time to create the demand for our tools than they were willing to invest – end of story.

I began to see the light regarding distribution. A product may be a good one in many respects but if it fails to answer the questions surrounding the four “Ps” of marketing (product, price, place and promotion) it won’t attain a profitable position in the marketplace. The “P” we were not yet in control of was price. First, our tools were too costly to produce is a bird flying in the house good luck, then distribution costs also had to be factored in making the retail price greater than the end-user was willing to pay. Also, Reps don’t want products that take a lot of effort to establish a profitable market share, especially if sales are expected to peak only briefly, then drop off sharply and remain low-my tools fell into this category, unbeknownst to me. My inventions were too task specific and cheaper alternatives were readily available. Reps do want commodities that sell easily and have ongoing sales potential-products that “sell themselves.” They sell tools only if there is an established demand for them, as with pipe wrenches and cutters. Even then, the profit margins on tools of that nature are slim.

I was now faced with the choice to do the sales work myself or give up. So I tried a grassroots approach. I literally knocked on the doors of contractors with a salesman from the local supply house. I sold every tool the supply house had purchased from me in this way, but at a reduced price so they wouldn’t have the burdensome task of selling them and I wouldn’t have to return them to inventory. I also attempted to sell tools at supply house “counter-day” promotions, often to many of my competitors in the trade – talk about barriers to entry. These sales methods are designed to contribute, in part, to two more “Ps,” promotion and place, but alone do not guarantee success for the product.

So I gave up on the drudgery of going door-to-door and months later teamed up with Rep number three with an all new ratcheting flange driver. Primarily a manufacturer, this firm was new at promoting others’ products, they liked mine but they took a cautious approach toward investing their limited time on them. So I did all of the necessary work at the next tradeshows with them until they, too, decided the tools didn’t fit their niche. Really, the tools just weren’t selling well. As it turned out this would be my last opportunity for representation. Had I come all this way, learning so much, just to fail drastically? I had spent well over $100,000, therefore lack of funding wasn’t my problem. What, then, had gone wrong? I had become a very good coordinator of people who had the skills to create what I thought I needed to succeed. I had so many ideas that I just couldn’t believe none of them would end up in the marketplace. But I wasn’t finished; I had a lot more to learn.

John Rocheleau, known to many of his customers as “The HVAC Guru”, has had a broad and diverse career in the Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration industry (HVACR). He now consults on HVACR issues and serves as Expert Witness in civil Court matters, as well as offers HVAC design service and hands-on service and installations in the New England area.