After 16 inventions and years in the red, an inventor gives it another go with computerized foreign language translator.
So you've had a rough time getting your business in the black. Don't feel too bad. You could be Stephen Rondel. Since he founded Advanced Products & Technologies Inc. 12 years ago, Rondel has invented 15 products that he has successfully brought to market, and he has yet to turn a profit. "I've created these products just to survive," he says.
Rondel's company, located in Redmond, Wash., specializes in travel-related products, a niche he more or less stumbled into back in 1976. A systems engineer, he had bought the license to a voltage converter that he planned to sell to computer users. Instead, his main market turned out to be travelers, who took the converters abroad and used them to plug in their hair dryers and shavers.
Soon retailers began asking Rondel for more travel products. So he invented the single-cup coffee maker, the traveling smoke alarm, a portable lint remover, and more. Demand was strong -- so strong that Rondel never had enough working capital to meet it. "The retailers would get furious at me, so I would keep solving a new problem in travel, and all would be forgiven," he says. "I was the only resource I had."
Hoping to change that, Rondel took the company public in 1986, raising almost $4 million -- not bad for a business doing less than $600,000 per year. The infusion of capital led to a growth spurt. During 1987 company sales doubled every 90 days. "We had the money, so we shipped our brains out," Rondel says. Unfortunately, he also shipped his profits out. Thanks to price wars, heavy R&D spending, and what he calls unfair finan-cial terms from retailers, Advanced Products lost more than $1 million for the year.
But did Rondel give up? Not on your life. He insists, moreover, that his 16th, and most daring, product will finally turn things around. It is a 16-bit, hand-held computer called Voice that translates 35,000 preprogrammed words and phrases for travelers. You utter an English sentence into the machine, and a monotonal synthetic voice responds with the French, Japanese, or Spanish equivalent.
Be warned, though: this talk is not cheap. Voice will retail for about $2,000, and each language cartridge will go for another $300. Meanwhile, Rondel already has plans for other, less expensive voice-activated consumer products. "This technology has more applications than I could ever tap," he says. "This is the one that will make us profitable. I'm sure of it." -- Joshua Hyatt