If you have ever had the chance to explore an old farm you probably saw some of the greatest inventions the world has never seen with gadgets and doohickeys scattered around that served a purpose only the farmer knows. By the time my grandfather passed away at the age of 93 he could be described as many things, but inventor would probably not be on the list, despite the many original products he made to serve a purpose and solve a problem. For him, it was just doing what was needed at the time to keep working, and without a lot of money or a Home Depot on every corner, he had to use what was available. A few pieces of this combined with a few pieces of that made his tractor run. I once heard an older man say that his generation were the best recyclers because “they had to be.”
We have all heard the expression that “necessity is the mother of invention” and for the entrepreneur, no statement can be truer. Almost all successful products have been the brainstorm of someone who realized the need for something that solves a problem either they dealt with or one they saw others dealing with.
According to Leonard Schlesinger, author of “Action Trumps Everything,” and president of entrepreneurial-focused school Babson College, “Entrepreneurial activity starts from desire, someone wants to do something and there is nothing more powerful than someone who wants to solve their own problem.”
Consider the story of 13-year-old Chester Greenwood, who in 1873 used a piece of wire and some padding to protect his ears while ice-skating. At first his friends laughed at him, but when he was able to stay out in the cold longer than everyone else they stopped laughing and started wanting “ear-muffs.” At 17, Chester applied for a patent and for the next 60 years made earmuffs and earmuffs made him a very rich man.
More than 100 years ago at Yale University, flinging 10″ pie plates from the Frisbie Pie Company in a game of catch was a popular activity. Students would mockingly yell “Frisbie” before throwing, but while a campus full of Ivy League students flung pie plates at each other, a simple pie man saw the marketable and sellable aspect of it and the world has been throwing his name around ever since.
Inspiration for a good product idea might come through an endless struggle with an issue that leads to solving the problem once and for all or it can come in a flash when seeing an opportunity or need. I recently heard the story about the man who invented pool noodle connectors after watching his kids trying to build a raft out of the foam “noodles.”One brainstorm, successful product-launch and a few million dollars later he has all the time in the world to relax poolside.
A recent USA Today article told the story of Becca Brown, inventor of Solemates brand cap, a product that keeps high heels from sinking into the ground. Soulmates is a business that was inspired a decade earlier when Brown’s prom heels sunk into her front yard during a picture taking session. “Why isn’t there anything that stops heels from sinking into the ground?” she remembers asking herself. The more she thought of it the more she realized the need for the solution to the problem. Since taking the action to start her company she has sold more than 100,000 pairs and Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine calls the concept “ingenious.”
At a time when it seems all things have been created, some aspiring entrepreneurs try and force a creation based on something they think is unique or creative, but in actuality might not serve a universal function that creates a consumer demand. Such products may ultimately be successful, but when a product is created as the solution to a problem that many people experience, there is an instant recognition of a good idea often followed by the statement, “It’s about time. Why didn’t I think of that?”
As I have stated before in this column and reiterated by Schlesinger in the U.S.A. Today column, it takes time, energy and a lot of ambition to follow up on an idea.
My advice is to create some form of a prototype and put it to its intended use. Needed revisions will quickly become clear and after you have tweaked it as best you can give it to friends and family and let them experience it. However, understand feedback from your “warm market” is biased, but can still be helpful in the early stage of product development. If after the product has been tested and still proves to have merit, it is time to take small steps toward further developing the product, with the first step being to create an action plan.
Schlesinger says it well in his comment that “those who don’t act could rob themselves of making a small difference in their lives, or perhaps a big difference on the world. The worst that will happen is that they’ll learn it’s not such a good idea.”
Reflecting on that statement, it will never be known if any of my grandfather’s inventive ideas could have changed the world, but I can say with certainty that when he took the action to create something to solve his problem, he made a difference in his life at that moment in time, making the product priceless for a hard-working farmer.