Your Crazy Idea
First, a bit of history.
My Sicilian-born grandfather owned a barber shop in gaslight New York, in what today is Times Square. He also operated a pool hall and tavern, and a small factory that manufactured cigars ‘rolled on the tender thighs of Cuban women.’ It was their slogan. Yeah, he was a lady’s man too.
But my grandfather died poor, not because he ran out of entrepreneurial spirit but because history conspired against him.
During a raucous house party where he was eating and drinking and sawing away on his violin, my grandfather got into an altercation with a non-Italian party crasher that quickly turned lethal. In that era, the New York Times and other news agencies were conducting a vicious hate campaign against Italian immigrants, its editorials insisting that the Sicilians among these no-gooders were Africans. They were born with bad blood: thieves, murderers, and rapists. Sound familiar? Those “little brown people from the Mediterranean” were proclaimed responsible for everything that was wrong with the country. My grandfather knew that by killing a White American he’d be charged with murder and sentenced to the electric chair, another marvelous American invention. There could have been no other outcome.
He fled New York, changed his name, and continued on with life. He walked away from a fortune in thriving businesses.
Had my grandfather not attended that party, he’d likely have become a very wealthy man because he was also an inventor. He and his brother had conceived of a small direct-current-heated curler that women rolled into their hair and within a few minutes accomplished what they’d had to sleep a whole, uncomfortable night on to get the same result.
They began manufacturing this product before immigrating to the USA and marketed it in Ireland. Some users even claimed they could pull in local radio stations and heard their favourite dance tunes beamed in on the little devices. This initial concept led to the pistol-type, hand-held hair dryer pioneered by Conair Corporation, a premier distributor of hair dryers. So goes the legend.
I’ve had a lot of great ideas in my life but, like my grandfather and his hair curlers, I failed to follow up on some very promising ones.
One such idea came during a 40-year career in engineering. Working on low voltage applications for fire and security systems in refineries, I stumbled upon the concept of teledildonics before the word ever came into the lexicon. In case you didn’t know, teledildonics is the science of sex by modem or, in today’s world, by Wifi.
It happened in a strange way. The idea was inspired by a young engineer on our team who had the annoying habit of designing both direct and alternating current circuits in the same junction box, a definite no-no from a safety and maintenance standpoint. I’ll give most of the credit to my AC/DC friend. The concept involved a tiny vibrator that a woman or man inserted in their body that could be controlled remotely from anywhere in the world via the internet. Just download the software onto your smartphone and enjoy. Of course, in those days cellular telephones, never mind smartphones, were still in their infancy.
My engineering team sensed the potential but we didn’t follow up on it. We laughed a lot. We thought it was clever and titillating, but people were still using landlines and dial-up connections to access notice boards. Computers were DOS-based and Windows was still on the drawing board. Sex toys of that era were battery-powered with cables connected to clunky hand-held remotes and not for the faint-hearted. Still, we’d stumbled upon the concept of teledildonics ahead of the technology needed to realize its full potential. I take pride in having coined the word.
Websites like Chaturbate, BongaCams, LiveJasmin, and others are predicated on the use of this invention which rapidly became a multi-billion-dollar industry, spawning a whole generation of ‘internet sexuals.’ I still have the drawings somewhere, but WTF. Another missed opportunity.
The takeaway here is: if you have a good idea for a product, then follow up on it. Seemingly ludicrous concepts may be diamonds in the rough. It requires a bit of intestinal fortitude and ability to predict trends, but mostly it’s just common sense and the will to persist from concept to prototype to manufacturing and through to distribution. Then count your money.
If you can conceive of something useful or entertaining that isn’t yet on the market, then others will likely find it useful and entertaining too. And they will buy it. But don’t think you can wear many different hats at once. Ask for help. Teamwork is a key component in a successful development strategy. Look to professional designers if you must. Let an expert (not your unemployed cousin Vinnie) do the marketing. It’s better to earn a smaller percentage of something than zero percent of nothing. And, of course, secure a patent on your brainchild.
Here’s how to apply for your first patent:
- Jot down your idea and make some hand sketches on a napkin.
- Download a free copy of Autosketch or Sketchit and learn to make professional-looking drawings using your computer or smartphone. You can even use the Paint program that came with your computer. If that’s too much, then low-cost professional drafting services are available almost everywhere.
- Write up a simple textual description of your device to preface your drawings. Usually, one of two views (front and side) are enough. You don’t need lots of dimensioning for a patent application. Roll it all up into a pdf file to upload with your electronic application.
- Go to the website for your country’s patent office and file a patent application online. U.S. and Canadian online patent application procedures are geared for ordinary people to navigate and you don’t need an expensive patent attorney. Don’t waste your money.
- Be sure to specify that you’re an individual inventor or group of inventors, not a corporation. The fees are half for individuals. A typical Canadian patent application will cost you $200.
- Once you have registered your application, you effectively have a ‘patent pending’ or ‘patent applied for.’ Go ahead and solicit pricing from manufacturers or think about how you might fabricate the product yourself.
- Talk with professional marketers and distributors.
- If you’re uneasy about disclosing your idea to others, ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before revealing any details. Free NDA templates are available online. For my patents, I always have potential manufacturers sign an NDA before sending them the drawings. Of course, if you expect to fabricate in China or countries where North American patents are not enforceable, expect that someone will pirate your invention. It’s the way of the world. The idea is to earn your money and get out before all the dollar shops are flooded with cheaper knock-offs.
Here’s a sample patent application I filed recently in Canada and USA. It’s for a product with a specific niche (a harness for installing heat detector cable inside tanks in refineries), something I’m familiar with professionally and can verify a need in the market. It’s not something you’ll find in every home but then nobody believed our teledildonic vibrator would appear in (almost) every home thirty-five years later.
You should also do a patent search using the Google Patents search engine. Government patent examiners want you to do most of their work for them, and they love when you cite what’s called ‘prior art.’ Prior art is simply other patented inventions that may be similar or share aspects of functionality with your own idea. In other words, they want you to prove ‘uniqueness.’ If you do find some prior art, you need to mention its patent number in your application and explain how and why your item is unique and not a replication of something already protected under another patent.
After your application has been received, you will receive a confirmation that looks something like this.
Okay, work done. This is pretty much all you need to secure a patent. It may take months or even years, but eventually, you’ll hear a yea or nay from the patent office.
Some things just can’t be patented. Say, the wheel maybe? The pulleys used in the above sketch are not patentable per se, as there’s nothing unique about them, but they are only components (like nuts and bolts) of the whole harness assembly which is the subject of the patent application.
Ideas are like water. Once you open the faucet, they start to flow. You may find that after a great deal of study, calculations, sketching, prototype development, testing, and spending money, that a concept just isn’t worth pursuing any further.
Let it rest for a while but don’t give up just yet. Like teledildonics, its day may come.