Read an Excerpt
Are You Ready?
“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”
—Gail Devers, three-time Olympic champion in track and field
When we think about the world’s greatest inventors, we tend to remember a select few whose innovations quite literally changed the world. Thomas Edison for the phonograph and the first incandescent lightbulb that was safe and practical enough for home use; Nikola Tesla or Guglielmo Marconi, depending whom you ask, for the radio; George Washington Carver, for peanut butter; Wilbur and Orville Wright, for the airplane. And yet, every day we take advantage of products and devices created by millions of inventors who are not and may never be household names, but who have made our world a better place. They are young, like Chester Greenwood, who invented the earmuff when he was only fifteen, and they are old, like Charles Greeley Abbot, who invented the first solar cooker and was 101 when he received his last patent. They are moms—notorious for creating new time and labor-saving devices, including the disposable diaper—and dads, like Frank Epperson, inventor of the Popsicle (originally called the Eppsicle). They are tinkerers who constantly take things apart to see how they work, only to immediately identify how they could build them better; troubleshooters who get energized when hunting for creative solutions to life’s everyday dilemmas; and DIYers whose impatience with inefficiency or disorganization leads to jerry-rigged home storage solutions and ingenious contraptions that leave their friends agape with admiration and begging for their own.
Truly, anyone, at any time, can become an inventor. And yet, the numbers are sobering. Out of all the patents that are filed every year in the United States, only about 1 percent are for products that actually get made and reach the market. In addition, Richard Maulsby, former director of public affairs for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, told Bloomberg Business Week that, “It’s a very small percentage of patents that actually turn into products that make money for people.” But it does happen, sometimes in spectacular fashion. So the question is, how do millionaire inventors beat the odds and achieve commercial success—and how can you join their ranks?
That is why you picked up this book, isn’t it? You want to know how they did it? How I did it? Though the details of everyone’s story are different, there are often common themes. A spectacular, often simple idea. Hard work. Good timing. And yet, research suggests that the seeds to successful inventions are often sown in an inventor’s character, long before he or she ever has the brilliant idea that required such good timing and hard work to strike gold. Psychological profiles of famously prolific inventors and entrepreneurs like Martha Stewart and Richard Branson reveal that most share certain strengths and characteristics. Before I became an inventor, none of my interests or ambitions would have predicted that I’d wind up on the entrepreneurial path, and yet as it turns out I do fit the mold and possess most of these character traits. I think that explains why it was actually fun for me, not frightening, to maneuver around the obstacles that confronted me when I was trying to bring my first idea to market, and to ensure that the odds were better than average that my inventions could become the foundation of an exciting and lucrative career.
You’re probably feeling something burn inside, a powerful force that insists this is your destiny, too. That’s a good sign. But it’s not enough. I’m not saying you’re confusing heartburn with a hunger for success; I’m just cautioning you that the road to successful invention is not easy, and sometimes we too easily dismiss or ignore our weaknesses. For an inventor, that’s a dangerous thing. It’s important that you know yourself well before taking one more step. You can be a source of truly spectacular ideas, but ideas without follow-through go nowhere; determination untempered by a willingness to face reality can lead to bankruptcy; dreams unsupported by strong stamina and organizational skills tend to die. But if after deep self-reflection you are still convinced that you do possess a solid number of the following character traits and tendencies, you can move forward knowing that you’re starting out with the right stuff.
The Six Essential Characteristics of Successful Inventors
If there’s one thing that unites all inventors, regardless of who they are or whom they are selling to, it’s their passion for their inventions. I treat each one of mine like my babies, including ones I didn’t actually invent but invested in. One of my colleagues at QVC used to joke that I could sell mud—that’s how strongly I believe in my products and how infectious is my enthusiasm. Actually, that’s how strongly I believe in most things that are important to me. I don’t know how to dabble. I’m either going to jump into something wholeheartedly and for the long haul, or I’m just not interested at all. So whatever product I fall in love with, or whatever business I champion, I’m behind it 100 percent! And since I fall in love with most of the products I create or businesses I support, it’s just not that hard to get everyone else who matters behind them 100 percent, too. And as you’ll see, once you get the people who matter to support you and your idea, you’re halfway to seeing your dream become a million-dollar reality.
I’ve never met a single inventor who was lackadaisical about his or her creation. Inventors’ descriptions can even be overexaggerations: “My money-dispensing, hot-chocolate making, floating skateboard is the most important advancement in transportation since Henry Ford’s Model T!” Later, we’ll discuss how to objectively determine whether your invention deserves that kind of hype, but for now, your enthusiasm for and belief in your idea really should be that intense. You’re going to need that degree of passion to sustain you through the incredible journey you will take as you shepherd your invention from concept to commercial—and lucrative—stardom.
However, make sure you’re passionate about the right things. A lot of entrepreneurs and inventors are passionate about making money, but you don’t start your journey with the goal of becoming a millionaire. It won’t work. No one gets rich merely because he or she wants to get rich. You get rich because you bring something into the world that is unique and that people are willing to pay for. You get rich when you can successfully prove to others how amazing your product or service is. You can sell a million dollars’ worth of goods, but if a million dollars’ worth of goods are returned, you’ve accomplished nothing. When I started out, of course I hoped I’d make money, but it was the art of perfecting my product, and the excitement of launching the business, that drove me. Start with the important part: create something special. Believe in it so much that other people can’t help but see it the way you see it. Do that right, and the money will follow.
You will get nowhere if you carry around the idea that you are less important or less deserving of success than anyone else. The inventor’s arena is no place for self-doubt. You need to believe in yourself as passionately as you believe in your product. You will encounter plenty of people who will be looking for reasons to say no, or to make you feel as though you are not worthy of their respect and consideration. Do not let them, regardless of whether they have more clout, better educations, bigger reputations, or fancy nameplates. Your success will have everything to do with how you perceive yourself, because how you perceive yourself is how others will perceive you, too.
That’s a message for everyone, men and women alike. But an important note to women: don’t ever think of yourself as a woman in business. Rather, think of yourself as a businessperson, equal to anyone else and better than some depending on the areas of your expertise. That’s how I see myself. Aside from giving me firsthand insight into the female consumer’s mind, being a woman has had no bearing on how I do business. I think that’s why it’s always been such a shock when I’ve found myself face-to-face with sexism. The first patent lawyer I ever met with was a man in his thirties who had somehow never heard of the women’s movement.
My husband, Dan, accompanied me to our first meeting because he was interested in hearing what the attorney had to say, since any decisions I made would necessarily affect his finances, too—I used our money, about $5,000, to pay for the first patent filing. I sat across from the lawyer so we could face each other, and Dan purposely sat off to the side as a listener, not a participant. He remained silent as I talked, and yet every time I would ask a question, the attorney would turn to my husband to reply. I was shocked at how blatant this was, but he went on, oblivious to what he was doing. I kept asking questions to see how long he was going to continue this way. He went on and kept directing his replies to Dan. After about ten minutes, I said, “Okay. I’m done. I’d appreciate if you would go find one of the partners of this firm. Tell them you have been such a chauvinist to me that they need to send in a female attorney to help me instead of you.” Maybe that was reverse chauvinism, but I didn’t want to risk this happening again, and I felt I could avoid it for sure by asking to work with a woman. The attorney blushed and stammered and tried to say he was sorry, but I wasn’t interested in his apology. “You’re not really sorry. You’re only sorry that I called you on it.” Fortunately, the lawyer who replaced him, Natalie, is a terrific attorney. Seventeen years and 120 patents later, I’m still with her to this day, and I consider her a dear friend. I’m so glad that guy screwed up. It just goes to show that things happen for a reason.
I’ve been asked if I’m ever nervous when I go head to head with fellow sharks Mark Cuban or Kevin O’Leary on Shark Tank. On the contrary, I like sparring with them. And besides, why would I feel nervous? Because Mark is a billionaire? Because Kevin is ruthless and has an acid-tipped tongue? They’re unbelievably smart, they have worked extraordinarily hard and made brilliant business decisions, and they run tremendous empires—they deserve respect. But does that mean I can’t stand up to them? Does it mean they are better than me, or anyone else? Of course not. They are just admirable and very successful. We are all just human beings in the end. I have my areas of expertise and they have theirs. And boy, do we all have our opinions!