Do You Feel Like Your Invention/Startup is Living in a Bill Murray Movie?
Do you ever feel like you’re just living the same day over and over?
“Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
Do you ever get up in the morning and just feel like it’s an exact repeat of the lousy day you had before?
Worse yet, do you feel that way especially when you look at the progress of your idea, invention or startup?
If you’re one of those inventor/entrepreneurs that feels like you’re just a “hamster on a wheel”, I’ve got some good news for you: You really don’t have to feel like you’re trapped in a Bill Murray movie.
But in order to do that, you have to make a choice in your life and the life of your invention or business. On the wall of my office I have a sign that says, “If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got.” That sign could never be more true as it is for inventors & entrepreneurs.
Because I’ve seen way too many people who get “stuck” in one certain place in their journey. For some it’s a never-ending process of building the “perfect” prototype, for others it’s the paralyzing fear of someone stealing their idea; the list of reasons are as endless as the circles you’ll end up trapped in.
But you, and no one else but you have to decide to take the exit ramp off that never-ending beltway and move on to the next place you need to go.
Let us help you take that first step off the hamster wheel by joining us at the Inventors Council in either Louisville or Lexington for our Free Open Meetings, Workshops and more. Check out all the details at http://KYInventors.org .
Is Your Invention/Startup Trapped in Schrodinger’s Box?
Your invention, startup or product could be stuck inside one and you may not even know it. And there’s only one way out of this box.
“No business plan ever survives first contact with customers.” – Steve Blank
Right about now you may be asking, “just who is Schrodinger and why would MY startup or invention be stuck in a box?” OK, so for those of you who don’t know about Schrodinger, his cat, and what a box has to do with it, here’s a little background:
Schrodinger’s cat is a thought experiment, a paradox devised by physicist Erwin Schrodinger. Not to get too lost in the technical weeds, he describes (fictionally, for those of you who are worried about actual cats) a cat in a sealed box with a vial of poison and a device that has a random 50/50 chance of opening the vial and killing the cat. In the world of quantum mechanics, he implies that until you open the box to check, the cat is both alive and dead, at the same time. And according to people that understand this level of physics, this is because you don’t know until you open the box. To the average person, this may sound a little crazy, but this paradox has been the fodder for a lot of nerdy conversations, and equally nerdy sci-fi shows, jokes and t-shirts.
So what does this physicist’s theory have to do with inventions, startups and entrepreneurs? Actually quite a bit, if you think about it.
This is because I have met way too many inventors and entrepreneurs who keep their invention or startup in their own version of Schrodinger’s box. Inside this box they may have their idea written on a napkin or even drawn up on paper. They may have a prototype built. They may have filed for a provisional or even a non-provisional patent. Some may have built a website, done research, or come up with a really cool name for their product. But the one thing they really haven’t done yet is to interact with enough real potential customers. “Real potential customers” are, by the way, not defined as your neighbors, friends, relatives, spouse or anyone else who may be afraid to hurt your feelings and tell you the unvarnished truth. I’m talking about the kinds of people that might actually pull out their wallets and say, “Hey, I’d like to buy one of these”. Or ones that might say, “You know, I would really want to buy one of those if it just did this one other thing”. Or even ones that might say, “Sorry, but I would never buy one of those in a million years”.
That last one really hurts to think about, doesn’t it? But that is exactly my point. Not unlike Schrodinger’s box, there is a, “I wouldn’t buy one in a million years” vial of poison in that box. And you will never know whether opening the box will reveal the needed truth of either: 1. Release the poison to kill your idea, 2. Cause you to change something significant, or 3. Enable you to go forward with confidence, until you open the box and find out. And by opening the box I mean interacting with customers. Steve Blank says that entrepreneurs need to “get out of the building” because “there are no facts inside”. This couldn’t be more true for inventors and entrepreneurs.
If you find yourself with your invention or startup stuck in Schrodinger’s Startup Box, I would urge you to closely examine the reasons why you may be keeping it in the box. For many it may be fear: you may be afraid that someone will steal your idea. If this is the case, there are many ways you can protect yourself, but at the end of the day after you have done the best you can with things like a provisional patent, you have to take the invention out of the box. This can be scary for a lot of inventors, but you have to realize that if you keep it in the box, you won’t have to worry about that vial of customer rejection poison, your invention or startup will eventually die on it’s own of neglect, starvation or old age.
For a lot of other Entre-Inventors, if they are honest with themselves, this fear of someone stealing their idea may be covering up something a lot of us don’t like to face: a real underlying fear of criticism or rejection of their invention, product or business. If you closely examine your reasons and find out that this is true for you, let me encourage you by saying that we’ve all been there – this is a natural tendency with inventors and you are not alone. But now that you’ve identified it, you need to overcome it. And one of the ways you can overcome it is by coming to terms with the fact that criticism and rejection from customers is not a bad thing. In reality it is an essential piece of information as you go forward.
Step back for a minute and put your eye on the end-goal: helping a lots and lots of people solve their problems, enough so that these people will reward you for it with “certificates of appreciation” called money. And you have to receive enough of these certificates of appreciation in order to make it worth your while for you (or a licensee) to turn it into a sustainable business. If you’re not solving enough of your potential customers’ problems in the way that they will ultimately want, they’re not going to buy your solution. So this information, i.e., criticism/rejection/etc., will become some of the most critically valuable information you need to modify, change your direction, or even stop and move on to your next idea. And if you can gain this wisdom early enough in the process, it can save you a lot of time, money and frustration.
Remember, you don’t want to define your invention or business as a Schrodinger’s Startup: because it will exist as both a success and failure until you open the box and interact with customers. And if you continue to want to keep it in the box, then you don’t have an invention or startup. You have a pet.
So open the box, get it out of the building, get that valuable intel you need to ultimately be a successful EntreInventor.
Football, Orange Groves, and the Business of Inventing
This story is a great Fathers Day tribute to my Dad, but also a great lesson for EntreInventors
My Dad used to tell me this story of when he played football at a high school in a small eastern Kentucky town in the 1950’s. But first some background:
My Dad had become something of a football legend in his hometown. Once returning for a reunion decades later, one elderly gentleman told him that the most exciting football he had ever watched, professional, college and otherwise, was when he watched my Dad on the field in high school. My Dad had made Kentucky All-Star, and had earned nicknames such as “greased lightning”. But such was not always so.
When he first made the team, he spent most of his first season on the bench. The coach, as well as many other observers, thought he was just didn’t have the natural build and bulk to be competitive on the field. “Those other boys will break your legs”, was the kind of jaunts he would hear. However, during the summer months, he would implement a plan that would change things dramatically. You see my Grandfather owned orange groves down in Florida, and would take the family down there each summer, tending to the groves. During those summers in a 1950’s Florida, you would have found my Dad in those orange groves, and it would have been a peculiar sight. What he would do is run directly at an orange tree, then just before making contact he would cut and change direction, moving to the left or the right of the tree. He practiced this over and over and over again, until he was able to develop the skill of actually accelerating on the cut. In telling me this story, he said that he got to the point where he could feel the edges of the leaves on the trees brushing the sides of his arms on the cut. The next fall arrived, and with it the start of football season. The day finally arrived that my Dad was put onto the field and subsequently intercepted a pass, taking the ball and heading toward the goal posts. What happened next became football history for that high school. He would run directly at the opposing team players, boys of mammoth stature and frame compared to my Dad, all meaning to mow him down in short order. To their utter shock and surprise he would come right at them, then would cut away, accelerating on the cut. Just as in the orange groves, he could feel the edges of their fingers brushing his arms as they reached out for him. He did this again and again, rushing his way to the goal and making a winning touchdown.
He did not possess the size and strength of those he was going toe-to-toe with. So what was it gave him the ability to win over those literally crushing odds? First, he was creative. Spending those summers in Florida, he could have just worried about the next season, or become despondent and just quit. He could have tried to play by the same “rules” as everyone else, done all the same things as his opponents (and teammates), tried to compete as is and would have most likely failed. Instead he got to thinking about what he had or could do that they did not. What he came up with was something no one else was doing, something that he could do, and something that would even the playing field. The other thing he did was practice. He was not born with this talent. If he had only thought about doing it, he would have failed. If he had only practiced when he felt like it, or not had practiced enough, he would have also failed. But he did practice, again and again and then again. He practiced until he could feel the edges of the leaves just barely brushing the edges of his upper arms knowing, and correctly so, that the same would be true with the enormous linebackers coming at him out on the field.
As inventors, I think we can learn a lesson from this story of a young high school football player all those years ago. As independent inventors, we sometimes face crushing odds in the marketplace. Competitors, like those mammoth linebackers, are coming at us, and they are a lot bigger than we are. We don’t have their resources. We don’t have a lot of things that they have. But we can get creative. We can think as creatively (and many times even more so) than those big guys. And once we figure out how to even that playing field and give ourselves that needed edge over the competition, we need to practice. Even if we are to farm this work out to another, we need to be so intimately familiar with it that we can communicate, implement and work with others in a way that fosters a successful venture, not to “manage by abdication”, which generally leads to certain failure. If there is a skill we’re lacking in any of the steps necessary to become a successful inventor, we need to find out what that is, how to do it and then practice it over and over and over and over again. And then we need to practice some more. This practice can be empowering. Once you become savvy or skilled at a new core competency, you own it. You also no longer fear it. Uncertainty, fear and confusion are rendered null and void. Those big boys coming at you can’t break your legs if they reach out and can only brush your upper arms with the edges of their fingers. And you can’t fear them if you know that.
So get creative and practice! And practice until you can feel the edges of those leaves brushing the sides of your arms.
My Dad once told me that he could take all that he gained by playing football, add a dollar and it would buy him a cup of coffee. I beg to differ.
Do I Cut the Red Wire or the Blue Wire?
Knowing Which Way to Go Next with Your Invention or Business
You’ve probably watched this scene a thousand times on TV and at the Movies. They’ve found the bad guy’s “device”, the clock is ticking, and now all they have to do is disarm it. They open some panel, and there they are: the red and the blue wires. Of course, they also just so happen to conveniently have a pair of wire cutters, but now the tension rises as they are posed with the question everyone in the audience already knows. “Do I cut the red wire or the blue wire?” One of these wires, if cut, will spell disaster. The other will save the day. But how to know which is the right one?
In a blockbuster movie, the scenario usually always plays out the same way. The hero will have several tense moments, followed by almost cutting the wrong wire and then at the last second, just before all is lost, cuts the right wire. This is usually followed by a happy, emotional scene and the rolling of the credits.
So much for Hollywood.
In the world of Entre-Inventing, we are often faced with a “do I cut the red wire or the blue wire” dilemma. Do I have my invention/product manufactured and sell them myself or license it to someone? Do I sell direct to the end-user or through distributors? How sophisticated should I make my prototype? How much should I spend on patent protection? How much of the work should I do myself and how much should I hire to have done? The questions go on and on. And that countdown clock is ticking, too. The one that makes you worry that someone is going to scoop you and you’ll wake up some morning and see the product you thought of on TV (this has really happened to me). Another one, ticking loudly for many of us, is the very real countdown between the time we file a provisional patent and the 12 month deadline to file our non-provisional. While all this can seem almost as dramatic as the Hollywood scene described above, it’s a good bit different, especially when it’s real life, it’s you and it’s your money and time.
I hear a lot of these questions and see a lot of people faced with these same dilemmas here at the Inventors Council. And unlike the uncertainty of the red or blue wire, the answers are going to depend on a number of different factors such as your industry, your situation, your invention, and you. One of the best places to try and wrestle with these questions, I think, is our Workshop for Inventors & Entrepreneurs. The benefit of the Workshop (one of them, anyway) is that you don’t just talk with one person and get one person’s opinion, but you get a broad variety of information, viewpoints and expertise from a wide cross-section of people, professions and experience.
There are basically 2 ways to acquire the wisdom necessary to make the right decisions. You can learn from your own mistakes and failures – which by the way are not only inevitable, but important to allow yourself because they will free you to take risks and ultimately discover what will succeed. But the other, equally important and much less painful one is to spend time around successful inventors and entrepreneurs that have already made a lot of mistakes, listening and learning from them. I see a lot of that at Inventors Council Open Meetings. It’s a great way to allow you to stand on the shoulders of others and can give you a great advantage when there’s a fork in the road and it’s time to choose a path to move forward.
Malcolm Gladwell tells the story about a firefighter in a burning house who was able to make a snap judgment to get all his men out moments before the floor they were standing on collapsed, saving their lives. How was he able to know to make the right decision at such a critical time? Because he spent hours upon hours not only working as a firefighter, but listening to stories of the experiences from other firefighters.
When trying to find what the right thing to do is, I like to go back to an old proverb: “In a multitude of counselors there is safety”. However you can, go out and obtain not just the knowledge but an understanding of what you need to comfortably make the right decision. Prepare yourself so before that clock ticks down to zero, you can cut the right wire!
Pick the Fruit You Can Reach
Why you need to take the baby-steps in order to take the giant ones
Inventors and entrepreneurs, by their very nature, are big idea people. When the rest of the world just asks why and wanders off, we ask why not, and then go find a solution. It is both part of the essence of who we are and part of the secret sauce of how we’re able to come up with what we do. But there’s a problem. Because when you get caught up in big dreams and aspirations, using the very creative talent that likely brought you to your great idea, you can fall into the trap of thinking so big that you forget about the little steps necessary to get you from the place you’re at now to the destination you envision.
A lot of people are just wired this way, and if you are – you know exactly what I’m talking about. You have 6 new ideas before breakfast, and by lunch you’re really excited about nearly if not all of them. When that creative wave hits you, it just hits you. Many of you are probably like me and try to write them down and save them to sort through later. Then later comes, and you are as perplexed as you were when you first thought of them. Which one do I work on first? Should I try and do them all at once? How do I know which one will be successful? These are questions that I hear a lot from inventors and entrepreneurs. And if I were to be honest, it is a question that I sometimes ask myself.
If you’re faced with this quandary, however, ask yourself this: Which one is your lowest-hanging fruit? Which idea is the easiest and fastest for you to prototype, ramp-up and get to license or market? Is it the one that will take $100 Million to build and sell? Or is it the one you can make and sell 100-1,000 of quickly, easily and cheaply to prove your market? If you pick the fast/cheap/easy one, it will do two things for you. First, it gives you a chance to make more money (& experience) with it in less time than the others. If you’re successful, it also gives you more resources which in turn gives you a longer reach to the next idea that was a little further up the tree. What if the idea turns out to not be successful? Then you will have spent less of your time and money, but will have gained more of the precious wisdom necessary to try and reach the next idea. If you’re going to fail (and we all do), fail fast and fail cheap.
How Tall is Your Ladder?
Picture a tall tree. And on that tree are all kinds of fruit, some high and near the top and some closer to the ground. These fruits represent your ideas, and their distance from the ground represent how much time, effort and money it will cost you to get each up and running. Now picture your ladder. This isn’t just any ladder; this is the ladder that represents your resources. It includes what you are able to put into your idea: your time, money, and wisdom (which includes how familiar you are with the product, the industry, the market, implementation, etc.). For some it may be a tall ladder that reaches high. For others, it may just be a short step ladder. The good news is that with fruit all over the tree from top to bottom, you can reach some with either.
The same goes for marketing your invention, product or business. As I mentioned, we naturally think big. But when you try and translate that into selling your invention or product, however, it may require you to stop and think more strategically. You have to ask yourself, “if I’m hitting a wall trying to get into the Walmarts of the world, where can I get in?” This is where the law of the low-hanging fruit comes in. I have both seen and experienced this for myself in a number of inventions and products.
When you think big business, think risk-adverse and slow-moving. The giants are a lot less likely to trust an unproven product than one that already has a track record. While you can (and should) do test marketing, there is something about the perception of actually already selling it in the market (with money changing hands and profit being made) that makes distributors sit up and listen like no other. Nobody wants to dance with the wallflowers. But once they see your product out there cutting the rug with their smaller and more nimble competitors and solving crucial problems for their customers, it makes them want to dance – with you.
So yes, do aim for the stars. You never know if you might actually grab one. But in the meantime don’t forget to first grab some of that low-hanging fruit that is currently within your reach. It may be just exactly what you need to keep you from going hungry on your way to the stars.
Don Skaggs is President of the Inventors Network KY
When Love Gets In the Way of Inventing
Is love keeping you from being successful at inventing? If it does, you may not even know it.
“I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success . . . Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.” – Nikola Tesla
Love can be a wonderful thing. It binds us to spouses, family, friends, and a lot of other good people and things. But there is a down side to love. If applied to the wrong thing or in the wrong way, the results can be disastrous. Take for instance your invention. Sometimes love can get in the way of taking your invention from just an idea, prototype, or even finished product to a successful spot in the marketplace. Now you might think I’m talking about love for another person or thing getting in the way of your passion for your invention, but you’d be wrong. What I’m talking about is when falling in love with your invention actually get’s in the way of your invention actually being successful.
Unfortunately this is a scenario I’ve seen over and over again way too many times.
There’s a natural tendency to want to fall in love with your invention. After all, it really does feel like you’ve given birth to something – your idea. You’ve nurtured that “baby” and watched it grow. You watched it take shape as you started to write down, draw or model what you had originally envisioned. Then you watched with excitement as it grew into an actual prototype and then, maybe even a successful test. It’s like you were watching it take its first steps out into the world. And whether or not you’ve had real children, your invention is starting to feel like one. You gave birth to it, nurtured it and helped it grow. But then what happens so many times is that we become emotionally attached to our invention in unhelpful ways we don’t even realize. After all, you’ve invested your time, energy and money to this project. And where you put your treasure (time, money, etc.), that’s where your heart is going to be. This truth applies to the inventor and the entrepreneur and how they relate to their invention, product or business just as much as it does anywhere else in life. But sometimes it’s hard to see how attached you’ve become when you’re so close to it.
Fortunately, there are warning signs that will help you recognize this, if you’ll take the time and effort to learn what they are and then actively watch for them. So what should you be looking for? Here are a few questions you should be asking yourself:
How Do You Treat Your Invention?
Like it’s your baby? Do you pull it close to you and defend it when anyone dares to criticize it? Do you get anxious or even sometimes a little angry if anyone tells you of a flaw in how it functions, what it does for customers, the size of your market, the price it will actually need to sell for, or anything else that might look to you like a negative? If you do – this should be a big red warning flag. The fact of the matter is this: If you treat your invention like it’s a baby, it will invariably always behave like a baby, constantly demanding your time, money and attention, with nothing in return. But when you start treating your invention like a product and it’s execution like a business, then they begin to behave like those things, and good products marketed well have the potential to make money.
Do You Treat Your Invention/Idea/Business as “Perfect”?
Do you feel like your invention is just right and can’t really be improved upon? Or do you notice that you bristle at outside criticism or advice on how to improve things? This can be a normal tendency in inventors, but you really don’t want to be a “normal” inventor. “Normal” inventing leads to failure. It’s a sad fact that so many inventors take the same path of treating their invention like it can’t be improved upon, won’t listen to good critical advice that will guide them in the right direction, and end up spending up all their money and resources in areas that don’t get them anywhere. Instead, decide that you aren’t going to be a part of the crowd of “normal” inventors all going in the wrong direction! Even successful inventors that have had a good track record can fall into this trap and get pulled into this “but it’s perfect just the way it is” mentality, but in order to succeed they have to resist it and be open to criticism and advice from competent outside sources. And this kind of criticism, advice and counsel can be more valuable than you could even realize. By practice and intentional purpose, you have to develop the mindset of thinking of it as if you were finding money on the street. Many times the wise advice and direction you receive can be worth far more than money.
How Do Your Treat Failures and Setbacks?
Do you yield to your feelings and just “break up” with your invention? Or do you look deeper and try to find the hidden signs pointing you in the right direction to success? When Andrew Carnegie was making steel for the railroads, his big setback was that the railroads became overbuilt and he lost his market for what he was making. But instead of adopting an “all is lost” attitude, he instead looked for the signs pointing him where to go from there. And he found it: He moved into building bridges and buildings and ended up making a fortune because of it. This strategy of turning what looks like the end of the road into a new beginning has been successfully used by so many inventors and entrepreneurs, and can be tapped into by you, too. Your invention or business can actually benefit from failures or setbacks, and the successful entrepreneur will develop the vision to see them not as reasons to give up and go quietly into the night, but as opportunities that by contract will make your original direction make you say “what was I thinking?!”. Make a practice of turning that failure or setback around in your head, and then look for the opportunities that won’t be readily visible on the surface. Many times what you will find will surprise you, and enable you to see a new set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something you thought never possible before.
So while passion is an essential element for an inventor or entrepreneur’s success, you have to balance that with enough objectivity to be versatile with your idea, design and/or direction. And ultimately you’ll love a successful idea a whole lot more than a failure.