On how an invention becomes (or sometimes doesn't become) a business.
Thomas Edison once said he never picked up an item without thinking of how he could improve it. Ross O. Youngs finds inspiration in much the same way. "I don't really get the spark until I see something I don't like," says Youngs. "Luckily, there's a lot I don't like." In late 1987, he spent nights and weekends in his basement making prototypes of a new kind of CD holder, a part-plastic, part-fabric alternative to the ubiquitous jewel boxes that he detested. After several months and a few ruined clothes irons, he filed for a patent and founded the software-packaging company Univenture, which last year generated $22 million in revenue. Youngs is now determined to revolutionize the world of looseleaf binders, using 12 interns, a film crew, and, of course, his latest invention.
As a kid in Indiana, I always hung around my dad. He installed and serviced X-ray equipment in hospitals. It rubbed off on me. When I was 16 years old I applied for a summer job at my dad's company and he gave me a mechanical aptitude test. I scored better than anybody at the company. By the time I was 18, I had a company car and covered territory in six states. I was young, but I had a mustache back then so I got away with it.
I wanted to be a marine biologist. I loved scuba diving and the water. I went to college in Florida and got an associate's degree in environmental technology, but when I was 20 I went back to Indianapolis. For three years, I did a little bit of everything: I was a waiter at Red Lobster, a salesclerk at Sears, and a manager at Meldisco, a shoe store inside Kmart. I did bundle drops for the Frankfort Times newspaper and installed radios in police cars. I was bowling a lot and trying to get my average up to see if I could compete. I bowled about 120 games a week. I was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.
I applied for a job at the videodisc division of RCA when I was still managing the shoe store. The videodisc was going to be the next major wave of consumer electronics products. I thought, "Here's a chance to get in on the ground floor." I got offered a job paying 30% less than what I was making at the shoe store, but I took it anyway. I started out as a product assurance technician.
The videodisc seemed to be taking off, but it didn't. VHS took off. About a month before RCA closed the door in 1986, executives from an Ohio CD firm called Discovery Systems offered some of us positions. I went straight to work there. So many companies were coming into the CD market at that time that demand was minimal. Things were looking shaky. I can remember coming out of a management meeting in September '87 and thinking, "I gotta figure something out."
That fall, I started playing with different plastics and making some prototypes. I never liked the jewel cases that CDs came in, so I decided to make something better. I welded together a piece of soft plastic and a piece of fabric to create a soft sleeve that would protect CDs. I started working with a patent attorney in January when I realized I had something that could be mass-produced.
Like an idiot, I quit my job and started advertising my product. By May 1988, I had $1,200 in orders. The next month, that number jumped to $12,000. But I still hadn't delivered a product. The manufacturer kept pushing my orders aside. I called each customer to apologize. When the manufacturer finally delivered, the quality of the product was pathetic. Every single sleeve had to be cleaned with a Post-it note on a popsicle stick.
By October, I had a new manufacturer and things were looking up. Every sleeve that went out had Univenture's name on it, so the name became highly recognized very quickly. If you've ordered software or computers, you've probably used one of our sleeves.
In addition to selling sleeves, I was designing packaging arrangements for a variety of my clients. That's when I gave myself a new assignment. I wanted to figure out a way to make a better looseleaf binder in a single step. Three years and many failed attempts later, I was cutting some plastic with an X-Acto knife and it was like a thump on my forehead: I envisioned an enclosed plastic case with plastic rings that could be molded all at once.
I founded a separate company, which I called Unikeep. Getting the binders into the retail market was costly: We spent a lot of money on catalog placements and shelf space. It looked really promising. Then reality hit. Consumers just didn't know about the product.
"I woke up at 3:30 with a concept: Turn the internship program into a reality TV show."
We were in a real pickle. We had already blown our money on distribution. We had gotten the product onto store shelves, but we had virtually no consumer marketing strategy. I did a round of angel investing that brought in half a million dollars, but it wasn't enough. We started downsizing Unikeep about a year ago.
I woke up at 3:30 one morning last spring, went to my pad and paper, and started writing down a concept. The idea was to turn an internship program at Unikeep into a reality TV show. By the end of it, I'll either keep the company open or close it.
I wasn't the least bit concerned about creating drama. It bothered me that The Apprentice seemed so fabricated. I spent five weeks filming in New York City this past summer with 12 interns. The interns had one basic goal: to build product awareness however possible. They developed promotions, shot an infomercial for cable TV, met with potential clients, and even handed out fliers in Times Square. There was a lot more drama than I ever wanted. Now I'm just hoping we get the network time slot and it becomes real.
The Goods is focused exclusively on products and services for business owners. We won't ignore the latest netbook or the hottest smartphone, but we'll also examine the services, software, and Web-based tools that can help make your business succeed. NADINE HEINTZ, a senior editor at Inc., edits The Goods, as well as Quick Hits. Send suggestions, comments, and deals to firstname.lastname@example.org.