Within the inventing community, fear runs rampant. Some inventors are so afraid of having an idea stolen that they fail to take any action at all, which is truly unfortunate. To be clear, keeping your ideas to yourself is sound policy. But there are exceptions to every rule, including that one. One of the most exciting things about being a product developer today is that there are so many different avenues to market. And the truth is, sometimes it pays to go public. Let's talk about when that is.
I recently stumbled upon a former student's Kickstarter campaign. Miguel Valenzuela is the inventor of PancakeBot, the "world's first pancake printer." PancakeBot allows users to upload designs that the machine then prints out of batter onto a hot griddle with remarkable specificity. His campaign has been wildly successful already, having surpassed its goal of raising $50,000 by $300,000 with about a week left to go.
Valenzuela conceived of the idea way back in the fall of 2010 after an interaction he had with his three-year-old daughter. While he was perusing an article about an individual who had made a pancake-stamping machine out of LEGO in Make magazine, she asked him what he was reading. Mistakenly interpreting his response led her to exclaim, "Papa's going to build a pancake machine out of LEGO!"
As he started to transform her dream into a reality, Valenzuela said that he didn't realize what he was doing was inventing.
"I just thought it was a fun thing to do for the kids," he explained. "And it was a way for me to explore technology and challenge myself to learn about robotics and programming."
In June of 2011, he uploaded a video of an initial prototype to YouTube. Friends and family had reacted so positively to the invention that it had started to dawn on him that other people might want it too. He knew there was a risk someone might copy him, but he did it anyway, because he was broke.
"I wasn't able to fund it, and I wanted to stake our claim," Valenzuela said. "Because it was made out of LEGO, no one took it seriously. I think that was to my advantage." He also thought of the machine as more of a creative teaching tool than anything else, which is an aspect of the product he still emphasizes. And he hoped the video would inspire others, making the instructions for how to build the first version of the bot available as a free download.
The machine was a big hit at Maker Faires, but without funding, further progress stalled. Valenzuela recommitted himself to the project in the spring of 2014 with the goal of creating a more advanced and precise version. This time around, when he uploaded a video of the machine printing a pancake that looked like the Eiffel Tower, it garnered 100,000 views within a month. Some time thereafter, a company wanting to license the innovation approached him. Together, they're bringing it to market.
If you Google "PancakeBot," you'll notice that its Kickstarter campaign has been written about seemingly all over the Web. Within those articles and on the campaign's page, the bot's origin story is proudly described. I mean, what's not to love about its conception? It's a fantastic, compelling, entertaining story--about one of the most beloved breakfast foods!
"If I had kept it secret, it wasn't going to benefit us at all," Valenzuela clarified. "We used the Internet to proclaim, 'Look, we created this. This was a family thing that we did.'"
What company is going to risk lifting an idea from a child whose ownership is so clearly established all over the Internet? That's a PR nightmare if I've ever heard of one.
By going public, Valenzuela established perceived ownership. He took a risk. He didn't give in to his fear, choosing instead to prioritize getting to market. It's paid off--big time.
Obviously, for many reasons, this scenario is unique. Few ideas are as whimsical and fun as a pancake printer, let alone a pancake printer that a three-and-a-half-year-old wondered about aloud to her Dad. But I think it offers a lot of valuable lessons. The most obvious of which is: Don't give up too soon. It also encapsulates the beauty of today's inventing landscape. There are no shortages of opportunities to put your idea out there. Choose not to live in fear.
Or as Valenzuela put it, "There's something about a three-and-a-half-year-old who is so excited... you just don't want to disappoint her."