Rolling Out Your Inventions: An Interview With Roger Brown
Roger Brown is nothing short of incredible.
When it comes to inventions, he's prolific with a capital P, and I don't know any free-lancer with a successful licensing approach like his. With six inventions licensed, another six about to be licensed, and 247 inventions in his Power Point file on call at all times, I think he might be on to something. ...Read and Learn!
Myra: Roger, you've been a contributor to InventorSpot.com for some time, writing advice columns and interacting with the folks in our Forum . I've been wanting to interview you because I think you're a great inspiration to inventors. You have numerous inventions on the market and support yourself almost totally with royalties from those inventions. That's every inventor's dream!
First, would you tell our readers, how you got into inventing products?
Roger: Inventing is really an extension of my writing for comic books and radio hosts. With comics you are given a problem like ‘write a story that will begin and end in 22 pages.' You know the comic book's characters, but you have to create the story. I also wrote jokes for the local radio station DJ's morning show. He would call in the afternoon and want 20 jokes by the next morning about the mayor or some subject in the news. I had to be creative quickly.
I trained for this by picking a different topic every day and writing down as many things about it as I could about it on a pocket notepad. Whenever my mind got restless from doing other work, I would make up lines about a "bicycle" or "sneakers" or whatever I had chosen that day. Not everything I thought of was a gem, but it still helped train my brain to look for every aspect of a topic to find an answer.
Inventing is even better than writing comics because no one is limiting you to one field. You are always searching to solve a problem. Can you make something that is better, faster, or easier than the customary method or product? I love trying to solve those problems. Getting paid to do it is really icing on the cake.
Myra: Hmm. Nice cake! That's an interesting connection you make between creating stories and jokes and inventing products. Also, I'm fascinated by your ability to juggle your writing, your inventions, and the community projects you are involved in. When I am working on an invention, I tend to become very focused on that to the exclusion of everything else. How do you juggle it all?
Roger: I have found that I can multi-task with the best of them. My mind works on a solution to a problem while I am completely involved in something else. All a sudden I will get the solution and say "Hey! That's it!" Then I write it down carefully, since I have memory retention of about 30 seconds, and go back to the other project.
I will wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that I have to write down; otherwise I may forget it. Sometimes when I really focus on a solution, nothing happens. But then when I'm relaxed and thinking about something else, I get the solution. Some days I write down 70 jokes, and the next day nothing comes to me. I know I don't always have control of the creative flow, so I have just learned to go with whatever comes.
Myra: You are indeed a multi-tasker, but how do you keep all of your ideas accessible? You must have an intricate filing system!
Roger: I have a FileMaker Pro database with over 400 contacts in the inventing and writing fields that I have accumulated over the years. I use it to decide who I want to approach with a invention or story proposal. I like FileMaker because of its ease of sorting and tracking items.
I have a PowerPoint presentation with over 240 concepts already drawn up and ready to submit to the tool, toy, office, lawn and garden, and promotional fields. That software comes in very handy for sorting and updating any descriptions of text. I pick the concepts I need and save them as jpegs so I can email them easily. If a company calls me today to say it needs toy ideas in the outdoor sector, I can sign their non-disclosure agreement that morning, email it back to them, send my concepts via email, and be done the same day. I have learned that it pays to be prepared, because you are working on their time frame not yours, and you never know when opportunity will knock.
Myra: Roger! You are SO prolific. Well, your hard work is paying off. What was your first invention that went to market and made you some money? When was that? And how did you get the idea for it?
Roger: The first invention that made me money was the "Super Sleever." I worked for Westinghouse at a government nuclear facility that produced weapons grade material. One of the by-products of this material was radioactive waste and dust. We had to put plastic tubular sleeving, similar to a six inch wide, 200 foot long trash bag, over the electrical cords and breathing air hoses to protect them from the radioactive dust so they could be re-used.
The problem was that it took two people 45 minutes to wrap up one 200 foot hose in the tubular sleeve. During a shutdown period we would sleeve equipment for two days to prepare for our next job -- not a very cost effective use of our time. Finally, management decided to scrap the sleeving program and to bury the contaminated hoses and cords instead of buying new ones for each job.
I came up with a method of using a tube within a tube, with the sleeving on the outer shell of the inner tube, allowing one person to do the task of two people in about a minute. This invention saved both labor costs and burial costs of around $4 million a year for the company, plus it prevented considerable pollution. I won the Department of Energy (DOE) National Pollution Prevention award for the device. Westinghouse licensed the product to Bartlett Nuclear Services who in turn sells it to most of the nuclear facilities in the DOE complex nationwide. Westinghouse and I share the royalties from the sales.
Myra: I cringed when you said that Westinghouse was going to bury all that waste material. We all benefit from the Super Sleever invention. Well done, Roger! What year was that invention? How long after that did you create your next successful product?
Roger: They were burying 1.7 million cubic feet of hoses a year. They projected that my invention would lower burial by 82%.
The Super Sleever was licensed in 2001. My next invention came out about seven months later. It is called the Ball Valve Extractor.
Removing the internal parts of a ball valve can damage the body of the valve and gouge the steel ball. This damage lessens the life of the internal parts and increases the maintenance required for the valve. My solution not only prevents damage to the parts but lessens the time required to remove the parts from the ball to about 15 seconds. Without my invention, it took a mechanic approximately 20 minutes to remove the ball from the valve.
The Appalachian Tool Company had the license for the Ball Valve Extractor until a couple of months ago, when it went out of business. Another company is negotiating for the license at this time.
Myra: Were you still working for Westinghouse when you invented the Ball Valve Extractor?
Roger: The Ball Valve Extractor was the last invention I did while employed by Westinghouse.
Myra: When did you become a full-time entrepreneur and what was your rationale? The first question on most of our minds is "How will I support myself and my family?"
Roger: Westinghouse had a "reduction in force" which is a politically correct way of saying "layoff." No matter what you call it... "downsizing," "reallocating resources..." you are still unemployed. Giving it another name doesn't make you feel any better.
I guess you could say I was forced to look for additional income. Since I already had connections in the writing industry, I started calling everyone I knew to get more work writing.
Then I started ramping up my invention submissions to companies that were receptive to ideas from outside inventors. Now, I am getting "wish lists' from companies so I can concentrate on the areas they want to pursue. Being able to direct them to my website to see products has been very helpful in opening new doors.
The problem many inventors have, starting out, is that no company wants to be the first one to take a chance on you. That's like the old saying, "You can't get a job without experience and you can't get experience without a job." Being able to say you have a product that is currently on the market is impressive to new companies.
Once you license a few things, you need to keep coming up with new ideas and trying to license them. Most licensing checks are written quarterly based on sales of the prior quarter. They won't be the same amount every quarter, so to keep your livelihood going you have to have multiple items on the market. Also, every product has a lifespan and once it runs its course, you will lose income from it.
Myra: It's great that you were able to overcome your disappointment about your layoff and turn it into a new, successful career for yourself. That is very difficult to do.
I know you've had a lot of writing assignments for comic books, but lately you've been experiencing a surge of success with your inventions. Tell us about what's been happening with your most recent inventions.
Roger: My latest invention, the Quick Clip , was released last month, and sales have been great. It's produced by Degree of Shade. They supply items to over 10,000 retail locations. Then just last week I received a contract from Wham-O Toys for a toy my son David and I developed. This was especially exciting to me since I played with Wham-O toys growing up.
I have a toy in development with a second toy company and three items with a promotional company that look like they will go to a license contract. Currently, I am working on several projects that I hope to be sending out for review within the next week. I don't let the dust settle before I start working on something new.
Myra: What about patent protection for all your ideas? You must have a patent attorney or searcher working full-time on just your ideas. What kind of research do you conduct before you submit an idea to a company?
Roger: I research the patent office database online, and check to see if I find anything close to what I have in mind before submitting ideas to companies. This takes time, but you can do it yourself instead of paying someone else hundreds of dollars to do it. (See Be Like Sherlock In Your Patent Search) Once I feel confident that the idea is not patented, I search for companies that are receptive to ideas from inventors in that field. I wander a lot of stores gathering contact info on various companies from the items on the store shelves.
I approach companies that don't require a patent before they look at your submission. I use either my nondisclosure form or the company's for protection of my invention. Once all that paperwork is signed by both parties I proceed with the submission.
So far I have not had to pay for patenting my ideas. The licensees have picked up those costs to protect their investments. I could not afford to cover the cost of patenting all my ideas since at last count I have 247 separate concepts drawn up ready to submit to companies in the toy, tool, eyewear, office and promotional fields. I would go broke just filing a provisional patent on each.
I have found my method to be cost effective and fast in getting items to market. Most inventors are so consumed with getting a patent that they don't take advantage of the opportunity to get their invention in front of an interested company. By the time one of their patents is issued, I will have three items licensed and working on more. Plus, instead of spending thousands of dollars patenting one product, I will have spent less than $100 on each item.
Myra: I like your style, Roger. You mentioned that you use the non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, to protect your idea. This can be tricky for new inventors. What must and must not be included in the non-disclosure?
Roger: You have to be very careful when reading a non-disclosure agreement, as no two companies seem to use the same form. One company may have a one-sheet and the next will be seven pages.
Each party should get a copy of the NDA signed by both parties for their files. I have seen several inventors make the mistake of signing and returning one copy to a company and the company keeps the copy, the inventor never getting a copy signed by the company. You should always sign two copies of the (any) agreement, send both to the company, and receive one back from the company signed by the authorized person, before submitting any of your material to that company.
It's funny. A non-disclosure is supposed to be where both parties agree to hold each other's information confidential. Yet, I have received non-disclosures from companies that basically say, ‘You keep our information private, and we'll do what we want with your information.' Who would want to sign that? I leave those companies alone.
I have been very fortunate that the companies I have dealt with honor our non-disclosure agreements and have treated me respectfully. If I did have a dispute with a company, filing suit against it would be very costly, as most NDA's require the inventor to abide by the laws of the company's state, as well as to file any legal claims in their state.
Myra: Good points: Read the NDA carefully and make sure your rights are protected.
You have generously shared your successful invention and licensing strategies with our readers, Roger. What personality traits do you think may have propelled your success? Is there something that we can all try to improve in ourselves to help us succeed in our inventions?
Roger: I think there are a couple of characteristics that every inventor needs to succeed. The first is being persistent without being a pest in getting your idea to market. Some inventors will harass a prospective company about their ideas until that company is no longer interested. You need to give the company time to conduct its own evaluation process.
The second is being able to take criticism. If you can't stand to hear that your idea is not the solution the company has been searching for, try another profession. You might hear a lot of "No's" before you hear a "Yes." I know a number people that quit inventing because they just couldn't take the rejections.
If I get a "No," I don't like it any better than the next person. But then, I re-examine my idea and try to find out why it was turned down. Was it the idea itself, my sales pitch, or was it that my product isn't in their target market? Sometimes the company will add a few comments to the rejection letter that helps you understand its decision; but most of the time it is a form letter that leaves you in the dark, so you must figure the reason out for yourself.
Finally, I would say that an inventor needs patience. Inventing is a hurry-up and wait ordeal. Once you send it off your idea, you wait for a response. If they decide they like it you will get a contract and wait for the first samples to be made. Once it goes to final production you wait for it to come out on the market. Once it is on the market you wait for the first quarter to end so you can get your first royalty check. So, from your first submission to your first check may be a wait of eight months to a year. That is why I work on other projects while I am waiting. If you get enough projects going, you will have something happening all the time to keep your mind off the waiting.