Secrets from an Inventor's Notebook

Secrets from an Inventor's Notebook

by Maurice Kanbar


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Secrets from an Inventor's Notebook by Maurice Kanbar

In this informative and fun-to-read guide, master inventor Maurice Kanbar-creator of the D-Fuzz-It sweater comb, New York's first multiplex theater, and SKYY Vodka-cracks open his notebook to walk would-be inventors through five proven steps for turning a good idea into a fortune. Secrets from an Inventor's Notebook draws upon more than forty years of hands-on inventing experience and know-how to share:

• Helpful tips for getting inventions on the market
• Resources to fund and support your ideas
• An appendix full of practical information-including publications, suppliers, organizations, phone numbers, and Web sites
• Light-hearted and fun-to-read advice that really works

This indispensable guide is required reading for any aspiring inventor.

"This should be of great help to anyone who has ever wanted to invent. Fascinating reading." (Richard Nelson Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute?)

"Secrets from an Inventor's Notebook is like having an uncle in the inventing business." (USA Today)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780142000564
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/01/2002
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.66(h) x 0.56(d)

Read an Excerpt

Secrets from an Inventor's Notebook

By Maurice Kanbar

Penguin Books

Copyright © 2002 Maurice Kanbar
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0142000566

Chapter One


You Oughta Be in Pictures:
The Quad Cinema

At a Manhattan dinner party in 1972, I met a young man whose family owned a number of movie theaters. He complained about how lousy business was. "TV is ruining us," he said. "People just don't go to the movies the way they used to."

    As a regular moviegoer, I was surprised to hear this. I grew up when kids flocked to the theaters every Saturday afternoon to see the next episode of serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. On Friday and Saturday nights, when our parents made an evening out of dinner and a movie, there were lines around the block. Everyone seemed to go to the movies back then--and I still went.

    But more and more, television was keeping families at home. Why go out when you could watch comedy, drama, variety, sports and game shows while eating a TV dinner off of a TV tray? Watching TV was easy and free, unlike hiring a baby-sitter, finding a parking space and buying tickets, popcorn and soda.

    The movie theater fellow said that his 1,200-seat theaters werelucky to have 120 people in them on most nights. I knew that it was true that television offered lots of entertainment, and it made sense that young families would find it easier and more economical to stay in, but by his own admission, some people were still going to the movies. Who were they?

    I resolved to find out and did some "market research," attending movies and counting the house. I saw that the theater owner was right: no matter what the size of the theater, there were generally only about a hundred people at a time buying tickets for any given screening. And the people I saw were mainly in their twenties and thirties. I concluded that young people were still going to the movies on dates. Why were they still venturing out? If this was the core audience that could be counted on, it seemed important to understand their motivation.

    I often think problems through by concocting scenarios ... and by talking to myself. Imagining real-life scenarios is a little like writing a screenplay, only in this case you're trying to understand what people are already thinking, and what's motivating their actions. Here is the situation I imagined for most of the people I saw going into the theater: Joe is interested in Mary and would like her to wind up at his place at the end of their evening. Joe could call Mary up and invite her over to see a movie on TV but she might think, "Not so fast, buddy" or "How cheap!" But if he calls her up and invites her out for dinner and a movie, he might just get her over to his place afterward. What better motivation could there be? There may have been a sexual revolution going on, but dating hadn't disappeared. And my common sense told me that there was also a percentage of the population that would always want the eventlike feel of going out to enjoy a film with other people. We crave the communal experience. Bottom line: Fewer people were interested in going to the movies regularly, but I concluded that there were some people who always would.

    So, I reasoned to myself, TV had diminished the movie-going audience, and TV was here to stay, but there was still a smaller audience that could be relied upon. If you have a smaller audience, you obviously don't need a thousand-seat theater. How do you turn a profit when you are selling fewer tickets?

    "What if you used the same space you'd use for a thousand-seat theater on several smaller theaters?" I asked myself. Rather than one movie bringing in a hundred people, you could have four movies each bringing in a hundred Joes and Marys. Instead of concentrating on increasing the number of customers for one film, why not increase the number of offerings? Without requiring any more ticket takers, concession-stand workers or projectionists, you could easily multiply your profit. And instead of complaining about your shrinking audience, you'd be giving that audience more viewing choices and a novel atmosphere.

    I felt ready to build a model and test my idea. At the time, I owned two small buildings in Manhattan. I had a lab where I worked upstairs in one, but I couldn't rent the ground floors--hard to believe given today's crazy New York real estate market. I decided to turn the buildings into four small theaters.

    I knew I needed a distinctive name, something modern that let people know this was a new kind of cinema. While the theaters were being built, I held a contest among my friends. "Come up with a catchy name," I said, "and I'll give you a year's pass to the movies." Soliciting ideas from a variety of people, of all ages and all walks of life, is a good naming technique. And contests are a tried-and-true method of involving potential customers in your process. The Planters Peanut Company got their Mr. Peanut graphic from a teenager who entered a contest they sponsored to create a trademark.

    One friend suggested I call my theaters Movies 4. The name I liked best was the Quad Cinema. I gave the names my scenario test. When Joe called Mary, or given the seventies' sexual revolution, when Mary called Joe, would they say, "What's playing at the Movies 4?" or "Let's go to the Quad?" The Quad rolled off the tongue more easily. It was simpler and catchier. So four months later, my two vacant buildings became Greenwich Village's Quad Cinema.

    Because we were the East Coast's first multiplex, publicity was no problem. The New York Times, Village Voice, and Variety all called us. This was news. We also placed ads like the one shown above.

    Just as with the D-Fuzz-It, and because the movie exhibition business was in such a slump, plenty of people told me I was nuts to build the Quad. But we were profitable from the moment we opened in October 1972.

    Because we were so successful, we soon had imitators. Businessmen like my dinner party companion saw our attendance figures in the trades and started cutting up their theaters.

     What's happened to movie theaters since then hardly needs to be explained: many large old theaters were chopped up into several screens, and newly built multiplexes sprang up in suburban malls and cities across America, growing to ten, fifteen, twenty screens, and more. Today, despite the fact that almost fifty screens now show movies within a few miles of the Quad, we still turn a profit, showing the best independent and foreign films. The Quad is a New York City institution and, according to former Mayor Ed Koch, "one of New York's best off-beat film houses."

    Unfortunately, many great old theaters have been demolished. In addition, the new megaplexes often crammed as many people as possible into theaters the size of screening rooms for maximum profit. Neither of these developments makes me happy. Then again, many beautiful old theaters were able to stay in business by revamping themselves. And even the multiplex owners are figuring out that they can cater to the full range of moviegoers by showing blockbusters in large main halls and screening edgier or foreign films in smaller theaters. The movie exhibition business survived by innovating, and it grew healthier and more exciting because of the greater number of screens. The end result for movie fans, like me, is more choice. I give that two enthusiastic thumbs up.

    As a postscript to the Quad story: Not long ago, a friend pointed out to me that two other men claim to have invented the multiplex. Recently deceased AMC Entertainment CEO Stan Durwood said he built the first two-plex in 1963 in Kansas City because structural issues in a building prevented the construction of one big theater. He followed up with a four-plex in 1966. Apparently, one James Edwards disputed this. He claimed to have invented the first multiplex (a two-plex) in Alhambra, California, in 1939. I have no interest in entering this who-did-it-first fray. What I know is that I hadn't heard about these theaters when I built the Quad, which was certainly the first multiplex in New York City, and by all accounts, the first multiplex on the East Coast. I'll take all credit--or blame --for that much.

What's Wrong with This Picture?
Observation and Curiosity

As we've seen with the Quad Cinema and the D-Fuzz-It, the inspiration for inventions can come from just about anywhere. When people ask me where I got the ideas for a four-plex and a sweater comb, I tell them: At a dinner party and a dude ranch. But the keys are observation and curiosity.

    Inventions solve problems. You can't see problems if you aren't observant, and you won't invent solutions if you aren't curious. People sometimes think inventors sit in a chair and get marvelous ideas out of thin air, but that has not been my experience. If I hadn't observed what that concrete wall did to my sweater, I'd never have thought, "I think I'll invent a device to care for sweaters today." And if I hadn't been curious after a chance conversation about the movie exhibition business, I would never have come up with the four-plex concept. When your ideas are prompted by observations and curiosity about the world around you, you stand a better chance of inventing things that other people will care about and need.

    I once had an employee who marveled at my insatiable curiosity. One day he commented that he figured I could probably improve the light switch on the wall, if I considered it long enough. I think he's right--not because I'm such a brilliant fellow, but because I love to think about such things. I can't understand boredom because there's always something to look at and think about. The how-does-that-work questions that used to drive my parents batty are the basis of inventive thinking.

    I invented a simple game--which I am now using as a SKYY Vodka promotional item--after observing the way an empty yogurt container bounced when I missed the trash can and it hit the floor. I observed the bounce, tested it a few more times because it surprised me, and then studied the shape of the container. I imitated that shape in my playing pieces, and the result is a simple bounce game for one to four players.

    When the theater owner began complaining to me about his family business, I could have nodded politely and then forgotten all about it. We were, after all, just making small talk and what did the movie theater business have to do with me anyway? But when I heard that theaters were empty, I was curious enough to wonder why. My informant didn't have a good answer, so I set myself the task of finding out. I knew that problems are opportunities for inventors--if we can figure out how to solve them.

    When you encounter a problem, begin by asking questions, the more basic and naive the better: Where does it happen? Who is affected by it and cares about it? How does it happen? When did it begin? Why is it important? (Gelb 1998, pp. 67-68)

    I did some research. Movie attendance had peaked in 1946 when two-thirds of the American population went to the movies at least once a week. In the 1950s, with the arrival of black-and-white television, the movie business turned to color, 3-D technology and Cinemascope to compete, but movie audiences steadily dwindled. By the 1960s, the movie-going population was only a quarter of its 1946 size. During the Golden Age of TV, a movie house manager put a sign on his theater door that read, "Closed Tuesday--I want to see Berle, too!" referring to Milton Berle's popular Texaco Star Theater. Clearly my theater-owning friend was right to rail against television. But I knew that TV wasn't going anywhere. As Federico Fellini is reported to have said, "To attack television would be as absurd as launching a campaign against the force of gravity" (Winship 1988, p. ix).

    Just as talkies had lured audiences back into theaters during a mid-1920s slump in attendance, I reasoned that innovation could entice them back in the 1970s. I felt that the novelty and expanded viewing choices afforded by multiplexes were a way to hold onto and even expand the audience. As my Joe and Mary scenario showed me, and as my own movie-going experience confirmed, home entertainment could never replace the communal pleasures of seeing movies at a cinema, and there would always be a dependable ticket-buying population with reasons for going out rather than staying in.

    Another aspect of the theater business that could have discouraged me is the fact that distributors are reluctant to give smaller theaters their biggest pictures. Instead of treating this as a handicap, I made it our strength. With several smaller theaters, you can afford to show films that will attract a more limited audience. Almost from the beginning, the Quad made art, film festival and independent films its specialty. (We'll talk more about niche marketing later.)

    The conclusions I made while coming up with the idea for the Quad were based on observation and common sense, in fact, the four-plex idea seemed so simple and obvious to me that I couldn't believe industry insiders hadn't thought of it themselves. But people who work in a particular field become used to doing business in set ways. They may say they believe in innovation, but in actuality they often cling stubbornly to "that's the way we've always done it" thinking. As an outsider, you have the advantage of viewing situations with fresh eyes and fewer preconceptions.

    In Rules for Revolutionaries, former Apple Computer, Inc., chief evangelist Guy Kawasaki calls this outsider advantage "harnessing naivete." He cites a great, possibly apocryphal, example from General Electric. In the 1930s, new engineers in the incandescent lighting group were welcomed with a practical joke. The initiation rite consisted of being assigned the "impossible" task of inventing "a coating for light bulbs that would remove the hotspot in the then current state-of-the-art design." No engineer was able to create this uniform glow bulb until around 1952 when a newbie did. He didn't know it was "impossible," so he wasn't trapped by a set of expectations (Kawasaki 1999, pp. 18-19).

    Author Denise Shekerjian warns against "the twin opiates of habit and cliche.... The more adept you are at something, the less likely you are to appreciate a varying interpretation ... [or] generate new approaches" (Shekerjian 1990, p. 99). This was certainly true for movie theater owners in 1972. I didn't assume, like the veteran GE engineers, that since no one had come up with a solution, there must not be one. And while theater owners thought the only solution to their problem lay in drawing more people, I saw the solution might be more movies. Don't assume you have to be an expert or an insider to invent and innovate.

    If you are observant and curious, and if you get a kick out of thinking, you've probably imagined ways to improve existing products that you use every day. Bank employee George Eastman didn't invent the camera, but in 1877, after buying the bulky state-of-the-art model and all its accoutrements, he did recognize the need to make picture taking less complicated. He pioneered paperbacked film, doing away with heavy, breakable glass plates, and he kept innovating until by the turn of the century, people around the world were taking pictures with his small, light Kodak box cameras (Newhouse 1988, p. 160).

    Many of my inventions have been improvements on existing technology: a more comfortable dental X-ray device, a safer cataract removal instrument, a more effective hypodermic safety needle. You know what they say about building a better mousetrap. Ask yourself the following questions about your improvement idea. If you can answer yes to even one of them, you may be on to something.

    * Is it more environmentally friendly or durable?

    * Is it less costly or time consuming?

    * is it safer or easier to use?

    * Is it smaller or quieter?

    * Is it more comfortable or attractive?

And consider these ten techniques for fostering your creativity and enhancing your inventing life:

1. Observe the world around you and be curious about what you see.

2. Study problems--think about why they exist, who they affect, and how they might be solved.

3. Ask questions, of yourself and others.

4. Look up words you don't understand and subjects that are unfamiliar to you.

5. Recognize and embrace the advantages of being a nonexpert.

6. Read as much as you can. (See the Inventor's Reading List on p. 29.)

7. Pay attention to surprises (fuzz balls on a concrete wall) and accidents (bouncing yogurt containers), and make connections--think of ways to use that grabbing or bouncing (D-Fuzz-It, SKYY Bounce Game).

8. Carry a notebook to record your questions, insights and reflections.

9. Talk with others. Seek out intelligent give and take in a small group, with egos checked at the door, and with mutual criticism that requires each person to defend his or her positions.

10. Go to places like San Francisco's Exploratorium museum of science, art and human perception--places where the imagination and ingenuity of others is on display and may spark your own.


Excerpted from Secrets from an Inventor's Notebook by Maurice Kanbar Copyright © 2002 by Maurice Kanbar. Excerpted by permission.
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