Some people have a head for business. Todd Greene turned his head into a business.
In the mid 1990s, the then-20-something Greene – a digital animator – was losing his hair. So he began shaving his head. The problem? Razors built for shaving faces or legs weren't designed to navigate the curves of his skull, especially on the side opposite to his dominant hand.
Then one day Greene had a revelation: What if there was a razor that fit on your fingers like a joy buzzer, so you could shave your skull as easily as rubbing it? Excitedly, he began building a prototype out of clay.
From those humble beginnings sprang the HeadBlade, which has turned into a complete line of head-care products available in thousands of drug stores nationwide. Since that first 'aha' moment, Greene's invention also found its way into Time magazine's “Ten Best Designs of 2000” and New York's Museum of Modern Art. Over 1 million headblades have been sold and the company is worth over $5 million.
But Greene had several close shaves with failure along the way. And his story is by far the exception. The vast majority of inventions never leave the drawing board, and even those that do rarely succeed. According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, 30,000 new consumer products are introduced each year, and 95 percent of them fail.
Want to be one of the fortunate five percent? You'll need to follow these steps.
Step one: Do your homework
After the aha moment has passed, you'll want to find out just how original your idea really is. These days you can do a simple search using Google's Patent Search engine or the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Web site.
Once you're convinced your idea is unique, you need to find out if there's a market for it. Greene's market research consisted of driving around the streets of LA and noticing all the other guys who looked just like him. But most of the time it entails scouring stores, catalogs and Web sites that sell products like yours, says Gary Kellmann, managing partner with KDK Technology Ltd, a contract manufacturer of home solutions and electronics.
“Find out what solutions are on the market now, who's selling them, and how much they're selling for,” he says. “Who are the major players? Shop every store and take notes.”
You'll also need to define who's likely to to buy your product and how it's unique, adds Louis Foreman, CEO of Edison Nation, which helps inventors license their ideas to manufacturers.
“Is it better designed, more efficient, cheaper?” he asks. “Too many times people come up with a great idea that solves a big problem for them, but it's not such a big problem for anyone else.”
Step two: Buy a glue gun
Building a working model – or likely, several generations of working models – will let you know if that nuclear powered potato peeler is truly feasible.
“Go to a crafts store, buy a $10 glue gun and start bringing your million-dollar idea to fruition,” advises Kellmann. “This is only to bring the idea from your mind into reality so you can touch it and see if it's truly functional. It does not have to be beautiful. But you will be amazed by how much your initial concept will change and improve by doing this.”
Greene started by building a model out of clay and an off-the-shelf razor blade. Then he hired a Hollywood prop man he knew to build some working prototypes he could test. By the time he was ready to go to market, Greene had added multiple contact points and a car-like suspension system to his original concept.
Step three: Protect your idea
The primary fear of all inventors is that someone will steal their idea or come out with a product just like it before they do.
“This is when paranoia sets in,” Greene admits. “You don't want to show your spouse, you don't want to tell your neighbors. I went to bed every night worrying that everyone is going to drop everything they're doing so they can beat me to the market. You don't realize that most people just don't care.”
Still, once you're convinced your idea is unique, feasible, and marketable, the next step is to talk to an attorney on how to protect it.
Filing for a patent can cost from $5,000 to $15,000 or more in attorneys fees plus another $400 to $1600 in filing costs, says Corey Donaldson, an intellectual property attorney with Koppel, Patrick, Heybl & Philpott in Los Angeles. But you can file a provisional patent application, which protects your idea for up to a year, for significantly less. That can give you time to hone the concept and decide how committed you are to it.
While you can complete a provisional patent application yourself, getting an attorney's help is a good idea, says Donaldson. An improperly written patent application can be useless, and a skilled IP attorney can guide you past other pitfalls you may be unaware of.
“Under the newly instituted American Invent Act, for example, certain types of activity can bar you from ever obtaining a patent, such as a public use or sale of the product,” Donaldson says. “My advice is to always speak to an intellectual property attorney first.”
Donaldson says many IP law firms will do an initial consultation for free. If you decide to forgo a patent, you can still gain some protection by requiring potential partners or manufacturers to sign a nondisclosure agreement before showing them your idea.
Step four: Make the leap
Then comes the big decision: Do you try to cash out by selling your idea to an established company? License it to others, taking a percentage of the sales? Or build your own business around it?
The answer depends on a number of factors, including your commitment, experience, and access to funding, says Jason Zickerman, CEO of The Alternative Board (TAB), an international member organization that provides peer advisory services and coaching to privately held small and medium-size business owners.
“Launching your own business is a great idea if you have the means and experience to do it, but it's not for everybody,” he says. “You need time, money, talent, and to be comfortable with that level of risk. ”
Another option is to enlist a third-party firm like Edison Nation. If Edison Nation likes your idea, it will commercialize the idea, license it to a manufacturer, then split the revenues – typically 3 to 7 percent of the wholesale price – with the inventor, says Foreman.
If you go that route, just be careful who you partner with, warns Zickerman.
“There are several companies that do that, some are good and some are shady,” he says. “In those relationships it's always the fine print that matters. Is the help they provide worth giving up a significant percentage of the business or royalty? If you've invented something and you know that realistically it's just going to sit there and that you'll only be a genius among yourself and your friends, then it may well be worth looking into this kind of relationship.”
How to get ahead in business
After patenting the HeadBlade, Greene first tried to sell it to Gillette and Schick, which ignored him and politely rejected it, respectively. That's when Greene decided to build it on his own.
Using his own money and investments from family and friends, he spent $150,000 building the business and manufacturing the HeadBlade. The first day they went on sale, at a booth on LA's busy Venice Beach boardwalk, he sold exactly eight of them. But still Greene didn't give up.
“No one will ever care as much as you do about your idea or try as hard,” he says. “You have to be committed for the long haul. I did not want to be that guy who did not do HeadBlade, then go to the store one day and see a razor to shave your head and say Damn! That was my idea.”