Why I Keep Secrets as a “Wannabe Inventor”
Creativity Can’t Be Taught, Sorry
In a recent interview with acclaimed and successful Google Engineer and Executive, Andrew Ng, who decided to move to Baidu, said the following:
I believe that the ability to innovate and to be creative are teachable processes. There are ways by which people can systematically innovate or systematically become creative. One thing I’ve been doing at Baidu is running a workshop on the strategy of innovation. The idea is that innovation is not these random unpredictable acts of genius, but that instead one can be very systematic in creating things that have never been created before.
Look really closely at that statement, and it becomes obvious what he’s describing isn’t remotely about teaching creativity, but a simply process-oriented rubric for creating a derivative work from existing sources. What’s lacking from his statement is telling — what’s known as ‘creativity’ is inherently insubordinate. That is, in order to genuinely innovate, one must look at existing things — be it an approach, device, or process flow — and be willing to embrace as a premise that the existing thing is wrong.
Creativity, as a concept, is about having a vision and then using intellectual strategies and communication tools to convey the ideal in a useful fashion. Creativity is about working backwards, not forwards, as he wrongly believes.
What Andrew Ng describes reminds me of how early European explorers set out to discover new westward lands. They used a systemic approach — set a goal of finding something new, get funding, build a boat, get a crew , prepare— and then set sail…that way! The outcome is simply too open-ended to be a practical approach to creativity, it’s begging to spin the wheels of “blank sheet syndrome” until desperation sets in.
Preparing in such a fashion doesn’t bode well for, say, creating a genuinely new type of eating utensil. The approach he describes sounds creative, but it’s really simple derivative iteration. As in, one might be able to use his approach to make “the ultimate folding spoon” which has “never been created before,” but it’s still just an improvement on a spoon. Innovative and creative? Yes. Still a spoon.
Defining the Term “Wannabe Inventor”
So that brings me to the term I’ve given myself — that of “Wannabe Inventor.” Covering some history will help, so let’s start with some context. I think one of the most inspirational memories is in the opening sequence of the first Back to the Future film, with the elaborate Rube Goldberg-type alarm clock system that starts the coffee, turns on the TV, makes toast, and feeds the dog. That’s the kind of creativity and problem-solving in harmony that I associate with being an inventor — see a challenge, contemplate what it means to address it, and then bring the imagined solution into reality.
In hindsight though, my interest in inventing got started a lot earlier. In elementary school, I always enjoyed the assignments challenging students to “come up with something” as a project. I made a cat food dispenser using a 1 gallon milk jug, with portions measured and held in place by a cardboard tube with shim dividers. It didn’t work, and a cat would’ve been able to destroy it, but in a time before automated feeders were on the market, it was certainly a creative thought. So was the ‘toothbrush with dental floss holder’ I put together. I can honestly say I’ve seen something similar come on the market within the past 5 years, and my reaction was simply, “Huh, I’m glad somebody finally got around to making that.”
I’m a “Wannabe Inventor” because I’ve never obtained professional engineering training. Sure, I took a few core classes during my Undergraduate studies, but I’ve only got a limited grasp of electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. But — and this is a big but, I think — thanks to years of reading online, of studying diagrams, schematics, and watching TV shows like “How It’s Made,” I’ve got a strong grasp of what makes things work. Also, if there’s ever an idea or concept I come across that I want to study, hey, cool, the internet is like one giant, convenient library of good encyclopedic knowledge if one goes to the right sources.
I’ve barely got a workshop. I work with pen and paper, sketching, drawing, revising, and researching online to see if anybody has brought something similar to market. I’ve got numerous inventions in mind — we’ll get to that a bit more discussing Business Goals — but having a full-time day job, home life with pets, and social obligations, time and resources are scarce. Honestly, they’re scarce because when prioritizing, “become a full-time inventor” is fraught with extensive risks — I’m intelligent enough to weigh the cost-benefit of taking a leap of faith, and thus far, there’s been no indication jumping is a good idea. It’s still a bad idea.
So, that makes me a “Wannabe Inventor” as a way of describing that yes, I put in a lot of time and effort making inventions, but all I have to show for it at this point is a notebook. I’ve gotten quotes for how much it would cost to file a full or provisional patent, and while I could probably afford to pursue one patent, then what? Take the leap? It’s not that simple.
Business Goals: Outreach versus Secrets
Not sure where the expression “You can’t sell a notebook” comes from, but I know what it’s trying to convey in a business sense. Practically speaking, a drawing of a device is simply a drawing. True, a drawing and a professional, effective description are all that’s required to secure a device patent, but as noted earlier, doing that for each of my concepts isn’t feasable.
I’ve long held the opinion that the only way I could go from being a “Wannabe Inventor” to a “Full-Time Inventor” would be as follows:
⦁ Pursue one concept / invention
⦁ Protect it via patent
⦁ Start ‘The Company X’ with the goal of production of that concept
⦁ Acquire interest from funding sources
⦁ Bring product to market, or partner with existing ‘Company Y’ via licensing
⦁ If successful, ‘The Company X’ releases subsequent inventions as products
⦁ ‘The Company X’ holds the patents, grows, and continues to innovate
Yes, it’s a list that generalizes a lot of the stages of development and growth, but for good reason — until some of the first stages get done, then there’s nothing to work with down the line. This is what has been, more than likely, my sticking point and inspiration to sit-down and write this essay. In a lot of respects, I’m too afraid of being ripped off to discount the first stages of the process.
Could I take one of my inventions, work up a full business plan, put it up on Kickstarter, and hope for the best? Sure! It seems to have worked for several other groups — more or less. Based on quick research, the arena were my inventions would likely fit, Technology, has a 20% successful funding rate. Is the risk of putting out potentially valuable Intellectual Property for a chance at funding through that channel worthwhile?
It might be, but I’m hesitant. Besides from what I’ve read, once hitting the money goal, then it’s essentially a free-for all rush to get the business components and execution up and running. Who knows if the funds and timing projections are correct? Am I the kind of guy to sell his car to cover the spread and at the same time show a face of strength publicly if setbacks keep getting in the way? Honestly, that’s not me. I’ve worked in the service industry enough times to believe that “under promise, over deliver” is the best strategy.
That line of reasoning essentially removes any “crowd-sourced” funding without a patent, which takes a long time, and even if it’s patented, there’s still the potential for a foreign entity to disregard the protection and just start making their own anyway! I’m not saying it’s a given, but it’s certainly possible considering how connected the world is right now. Starting a company from scratch, working on a product, and also fighting copycat lawsuits doesn’t strike me as a rational business plan, it just doesn’t.
So, that leaves me in the ‘Keep your secrets’ camp…mostly.
Let’s talk about “Start-Up Culture” from my perspective. I’ve studied quite a few examples of companies that went through “incubators” or Shark Tank type outreach to start or grow their business. The best part about Start-Up Culture to me is the sheer impatience of wanting to get something out (app, product, service), grow, and capitalize to the greatest extent the market will bear. That’s awesome. I like money!
The part that doesn’t help me out is that Start-Up Culture is a lot like Top 40 Pop Music. While every investor or record company wants to be a part of “the next big thing,” nobody wants to back a failure. Let’s be honest: even ‘moderately successful’ could be considered a failure in this discussion.
That being said, I’ve tried some outreach through private communication channels to describe my business plan, and also describe the ‘lead’ invention concept that I’m targeting for the first effort. What I’ve learned through this process is that Start-Up Culture isn’t particularly interested in ‘some guy with a notebook’ no matter how deep that notebook might be. If returning to the Top 40 Pop Music analogy, coming forward as an ‘emerging artist’ isn’t enough — the first album better already be recorded and only then will the label come to the table and start talking business plans.
Honestly I can’t say I’m really surprised. In Start-Up Culture, impatience cuts both ways. I wanted to at least test the waters, which I did — through private communications and also by entering more than a few ‘incubator’ type contests for seed funding — and all I’m describing here is what I’ve noticed, how I perceive things, for good or ill.
Okay Hotshot, Let’s See an Example!
If you’ve made it this far, then I owe you an example of what I do as a “Wannabe Inventor.” The following is called The Wristband Carpal Tunnel Keyboard Concept, and I remember coming up with it and drawing out a preliminary sketch many years ago. To be honest, I’d actually forgotten about it until I sat down to work on this essay in earnest.
Before including this idea, I went ahead and did some basic online research to see if there was any device on the market that would be a correlative. As in, I didn’t want to be unknowingly guilty of talking up my invention only to find out one existed already, either as a proof-of-concept or device that could be purchased today or in the near future. So, it doesn’t exist, and here I am, peeling the curtain back on one of my “secrets” that I try and protect so often.
Do It Because You Love It
Writing this essay, I didn’t want to sound like I’m sitting around feeling sorry for myself, which, you know, does happen from time to time. As with being an independent musician, there are real and difficult trade-offs. In music though, copyright is a very simple process and clear protection, but an invention is a much more complex undertaking — it’s easy for me to say, “Yeah, I didn’t make much money on that song/EP/album, but I enjoyed making it and my out of pocket expense was negligible” but I can’t apply that train of thought to undertaking the patent process for one or more of my inventions.
Unlike Andrew Ng, I don’t believe a person can learn creativity. Based on several witness reports, I’ve been a ‘creative person’ for my whole life — what I have been able to learn are techniques and methods by which to use my insurbordinate tendencies constructively to turn imaginative thoughts into rational descriptions. It’s hard to describe to those who haven’t finished a song or a drawing of an idea, but it feels wonderful to create something, to know it came from within, to see it in front of you. It’s a source of hope, that if I did it once, maybe, just maybe I can do it again in the future, to feel this endorphin rush again.
I guess that’s why I don’t feel bad about dreaming, off and on, of the chance that somebody would see my perspective, understand my methodology and be willing to invest a modest sum to give me one year — just a year — to try to make the jump from “Wannabe Inventor” to “Successful Inventor.” Sure, there’d be lawyers and negotiations and probably quite a few meetings in-person and whatnot, but that’s how business gets done, and I’m not really an idealist. I’m a capitalist! To quote a very smart friend I’d like to hire one day:
I enjoy the idea of using my grey matter to acquire green matter.