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
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