Most inventors, entrepreneurs, product developers -- everyday people with ideas -- are fearful and intimidated. They're wary of approaching companies that manufacture similar products with their ideas. They think that people won't care about their ideas. Maybe they don't have the right skills they think they need. Why would companies listen to them?
And then there are those who are so concerned companies will steal their ideas for new products, they decide to keep their ideas to themselves entirely.
I've brought products in the novelty gift, toy, packaging, beverage, and music industry to market throughout my career, mostly through licensing. Keeping your ideas to yourself? That, as a business strategy, does not work.
The excuses I hear kind of amaze me, actually.
I'm not that creative, but I know I can come up with marketable ideas. Because when I was in my twenties and just starting out, I sold my inventions at street festivals and art fairs. I learned how to sell -- to pitch. Passerby either bought or they didn't. I learned to be adaptable and pivot quickly.
So, if I'm being honest, I traveled to the International Home + Housewares Show in Chicago last weekend to prove people who think like that wrong.
My mission? To identify housewares companies looking for ideas for new products from creative people like you and me.
And boy did I find plenty.
The question I posed was simple.
Do you embrace open innovation?
Open innovation is a perspective. It's the recognition that great ideas can come from anywhere. Why not look? It takes few resources to do so. But the benefits to larger businesses (which tend to innovative slowly), including reduced spending on research and development, are proven. Contests that encourage inventors to solve a problem in exchange for prize money are another example of open innovation.
I was happy to run into Alex Lee, the longtime president of the award-winning kitchen company OXO who is retiring this year, early on. The OXO booth is hard to miss, standing proudly and invitingly at the entrance to the cavernous South Hall at McCormick Place. (I wrote about Lee's philosophy on royalties and more last year in this article.)
Lee told me, "It's a little bit like shopping in a flea market. You have to go through a lot [of submissions] to find that gem under something. And we focus on that and we have a process to make sure we discover those ideas -- because some of our best products over the years have come from there. It's not always immediately obvious when an idea is brilliant until you dig into it, so we make sure we go through every submission that comes across us."
Right? You're never quite sure what you're going to find... but you keep looking, because you could find that one great idea.
If you want to be innovative, stay curious.
At Architec Housewares, founder and president Jenna Sellers pointed me towards an extremely simple product idea she licensed from an inventor who contacted her several years ago. Her mission is to makes housewares products better by using elements of architecture. So when an inventor showed her how his slightly concave cutting board differed from traditional carving boards -- ones that are designed with a well on the perimeter to collect runoff juices -- it was an obvious fit.
"You don't want to separate the meat from the juice, do you? This way, the juice stays with the meat and makes for a juicier steak," Sellers explained.
The Gripperwood concave cutting board was displayed prominently in the company's brightly lit, colorful, wall-less display space.
I mean, how much more simple can you get?
Of course, some of the submissions she gets need to be finessed and worked on so that they fit within their line, Sellers said. The company doesn't employ an engineer, so simple is a must.
At Chef's Planet, I was informed that the company licenses nearly all of its products, which are selected because they solve common everyday annoyances, from independent inventors.
The co-founder of Joseph Joseph, the design-focused manufacturing firm whose product line was eye-catching and elegant, described the kinds of ideas he looks for.
"We design really functional, useful products that are used every day. And that happens to be in the home, in the kitchen, around the trash and sink, cleaning and organization," Richard Joseph said. The company works with many external designers as well as does its own design.
If you are a designer and want to get in touch them, he said to please do so.
"We'd love to hear from you. Maybe we'll end up working together in the future."
The direct response television industry relies on inventors to show them great new ideas, and that's exactly what was confirmed to me when I stopped by Allstar Products Group. They're always looking for their next big hit. Could it be you?
At Lifetime Brands, Warren Tuttle (whom I've known for many years now) showed me multiple fantastic products ideas he had picked out of the many submissions he receives each year as the conglomerate's director of open innovation.
I have to shout out HotDoglicious, one such product right away. It was hard to miss, as the product was displayed by itself right next to the aisle. (Full disclosure: HotDoglicious was invented by Scott Baumann, an award-winning product designer who keeps licensing idea and after idea to companies like Fat Brain Toys. At one point, Baumann was my student.)
Baumann had shown it to him about eight months ago, Tuttle said. Now here it was, unit upon unit stacked before my eyes.
"Not only does it grill your hotdog in the microwave, it gives your dog that nice grill taste. It also warms the bun!" Tuttle explained. "When it's cooked, you can drain the juices and have a nice warm bun."
The other licensed products Tuttle showed me also had top billing.
A few companies I approached were not receptive. You can usually tell right away. The companies that told me they embraced open innovation were very transparent. They welcomed us into their booths.
The companies that weren't as wild about innovation tended not to be as friendly!
If you have a product idea for the home you want to bring to market, this is a great show to attend. It's a great place to launch a product if you want to start a business. You can also use the show to get a licensing deal. In that way it has a little something for everyone. How could it not? With more than 2,200 exhibitors and over 62,000 total attendees from 125 countries, it's absolutely massive, for one. Everyone in this industry is under one roof!
If you're serious about licensing your ideas for housewares products, this show is an absolute must.
Like I've said before, in our increasingly digital world, the power of meeting face-to-face is more important than ever.