MY WORK­ING LIFE

Amer­i­can Stephen Key is an ad­vo­cate of easy-to-ex­plain ideas that you can li­cense to big­ger com­pa­nies – and let them work out how to take it to mar­ket. His first cre­ation net­ted him $100,000

Friday - - Editor’s Letter -

Stephen Key is a suc­cess­ful in­ven­tor. And the key to his mega suc­cess? Create what people want.

How did you get into in­vent­ing, Stephen? I wasn’t cre­ative as a child and I didn’t have any dreams about be­ing in busi­ness or want­ing to be an in­ven­tor. School was not easy for me, and my at­ti­tude when I left was that I was go­ing to create my own job. No one has asked me for a CV since.

What were your first steps into in­vent­ing? I had to find a way to pay the rent. My girl­friend at the time was mak­ing these lit­tle stuffed an­i­mals out of women’s ny­lons and they were kind of cute. I thought, ‘I bet I could sell those.’ I made a cou­ple and I took them to an art fair and tried to sell them.

How did it go? My dad was wor­ried about me, so he came to the street fair and asked how it went. I said it went great. He said, ‘Well, how many did you sell?’ and I said, ‘None!’ He looked at me funny, but I knew that I’d en­joyed do­ing it. I knew that I liked people and I knew I would fig­ure out what to make that people would want. So I have been on that jour­ney deal­ing with big com­pa­nies with the same phi­los­o­phy ever since: Make things that people want.

What was your first in­ven­tion? This whole ‘in­ven­tor’ ti­tle is a re­ally big, heavy thing to put on people: I’m not re­ally an in­ven­tor, though I’m pretty in­ven­tive. I con­sider my­self more as a prod­uct artist: I create things that I think people want and the first thing I came up with was called the Michael Jor­dan Wall Ball. I loved play­ing bas­ket­ball and the mini ones you could buy tended to have a plas­tic square back­board be­hind them. What I did was to stick a poster of Michael Jor­dan on the back­board and called up a toy com­pany. Then I took a pic­ture of what I’d made and sent it in.

What hap­pened? Within three days I had a li­cense and they paid me a roy­alty on it for 10 years. I called it Hoop Hoop Hur­ray – that’s how ter­ri­ble I was with the nam­ing of it – but they called it the Michael Jor­dan Wall Ball, and in the first year the roy­al­ties were about $100,000 [Dh367,000]. So as you see, it wasn’t re­ally an in­ven­tion, but it’s a prod­uct that the mar­ket wanted, and people bought it. I didn’t have patent pro­tec­tion, I didn’t file for in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and com­pa­nies will still pay you for your ideas re­gard­less of that.

So you’re do­ing what people who are struck by ran­dom prod­uct ideas dream of. I had to fig­ure this out real quick, but I knew a cou­ple of things: That I didn’t want to work for any­one else and that com­pa­nies need ideas. A lot of times they say no, so it was al­ways go­ing to be a num­bers game. But the old method, which even uni­ver­si­ties teach, which says, ‘you’re go­ing to build a pro­to­type, file a patent, start a com­pany and maybe in five years see if any­one wants it,’, that wasn’t go­ing to work for me. I found a dif­fer­ent way of do­ing it. I flipped it. Why work on some­thing if people don’t want it?

What other prod­ucts have you thought up? One of the first prod­ucts I li­censed was a plas­tic ar­row with a suc­tion cup which I named Sweet Darts. The darts had lit­tle mes­sages in­scribed on them like, ‘I’m stuck on you’. They paid me $10,000 for that idea, which was just a one-line de­scrip­tion! I came up with fast-food pup­pets made to look like fries and hot dogs; I li­censed that from just a sketch. I li­censed a ro­tat­ing plas­tic cup, which sold in Dis­ney theme parks for about five years. I also found a way to take ro­tat­ing la­bel tech­nol­ogy to mar­ket – some­thing some­one had in­vented 70 years ear­lier. Over 500 mil­lion of them were sold over 20 years.

You’ve now been coach­ing people to do this for them­selves for the past 16 years – how’s that go­ing? I set up a com­pany called In­ven­tRight and there are now 35 of us in the US with stu­dents in 40 dif­fer­ent coun­tries. The suc­cess rate is high, be­cause we’re a hand­hold­ing com­pany, but the process is easy. We have stu­dents as young as 12 and as old as 80 do­ing it, and we see a new li­cens­ing agree­ment once a week. It works – and it sur­prises people – but com­pa­nies need ideas.

What are your top tips for some­one with an idea rat­tling around in their head? Ev­ery­one’s go­ing to tell you you’d better patent it or some­one will steal it but don’t let that cloud your judg­ment – ed­u­cate your­self first. Then find a way to show your ideas to com­pa­nies to see what they think. A one-page sell-sheet is a good way to do that. Learn about how to file a pro­vi­sional patent ap­pli­ca­tion. You can file it for un­der $100. It gives you a year to show that sell-sheet to com­pa­nies, and now you’re in the game.

Any good ex­am­ples of a ran­dom idea that made a for­tune? Zip-It is a piece of plas­tic, about 40cm long, with lit­tle plas­tic barbs on it. It’s for pulling hair out of a clogged-up drain. The guy who came up with it is a mil­lion­aire on that. It’s been sell­ing for 12 years and even though it’s only $2.99 they sell tens of mil­lions of them. You don’t need to rein­vent the wheel.

What do you think is the best in­ven­tion? The in­ter­net. It shocks me. I didn’t see it com­ing and I didn’t re­alise what a great tool it would be, but it’s the largest li­brary in the world and it al­lows me to be a de­tec­tive and do re­search; it al­lows me to form re­la­tion­ships; and it al­lows me to run a com­pany with em­ploy­ees in dif­fer­ent states. It ex­panded my world.

Com­pa­nies need ideas, so if you have a good one – like Stephen’s best­selling Michael Jor­dan Wall Ball – fig­ure out how to get it seen

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