In the late 1970s, my mother was working at a children’s hospital. She came home every day and shared stories of the kids she worked with.
One night my sister dreamed that the children in the hospital were playing with dolls that were sick or injured. Dolls that were like them with bandages and casts, surgery scars, and IV tubes in their arms. Dolls that had to use crutches or a wheelchair. She told my mother about it. Mom saw it as a great idea.
She envisioned dolls with a variety of health challenges that her patients at the hospital could relate to. She thought the dolls would help children with illnesses and disabilities feel better about their condition — to be able to play with dolls that looked like them. Dolls that were not perfect.
Mom also thought it might be a way our family could make some money after my father lost his construction business.
My mother took the idea very seriously and hired artists to create drawings of the various dolls. She consulted patent attorneys, manufacturers, marketing experts, and public relations agencies. Her concept was to initially go to market with a girl doll and a boy doll that each would have common surgery scars with stitches. They would come with Velcro bandages, snap-on casts, eye patch, crutches, wheelchair, and an IV bottle with pole, as accessories.
Eventually she produced a detailed proposal for a line of disabled dolls. She presented it to every doll maker and toy company in the US. To her disappointment, they all turned her down. None of them thought there was enough of a market for them to make a profit. She was simply ahead of her time, because today — 40 years later — there are several manufacturers of disabled dolls.
A few years later in the mid-1980s, I had an idea to make some money. I was deep in the midst of collecting bathroom graffiti for my book OFF THE WALL: The Best Graffiti Off the Walls of America (see my earlier article Compelled by an Idea), when I saw a funny line drawing on a bathroom wall. It was in a small restroom deep in the interior of the Strand bookstore in New York City; someone had drawn the outline of a man around the light switch. The drawing hilariously incorporated the switch itself as the male-part of the man’s anatomy. I literally laughed out loud.
Later, I would laugh every time I thought of it. I told all my friends about it; they laughed too. After sharing the story dozens of times, it occurred to me that someone ought to create a product that duplicated that drawing. Perhaps a sticker, or a molded plastic switch plate cover that looked like a naked man would do it. At some point, I thought Why not me?
It wasn’t a new idea; I later learned that a couple of companies made something similar in the 1960s (and today you can find several variations online), but my research didn’t turn up anything like it being made at the time. I invested $1,000; it was all the savings I had. I hired a graphic designer to create the artwork. I asked for an 1880s-era muscleman with a handlebar mustache flexing his arms over his head. Next, I explored whether to create a sticker, a molded plastic cover, or a plastic stick-on cover. The third option was the most cost-effective. I named it Turn-Me-On-Tony at the suggestion of a friend. I had a few hundred made. The rest of my money went to advertising and postage.
My goal was that this would be a first item that would over time grow into a catalog of novelties and other funny toys, sort of like a mail-order Spencer Gifts. I purchased a mailing list of college kids attending known party schools, and created a self-mailer as my first one-item catalog. I also ran ads in some adult magazines. The magazines outperformed the mailing list — college kids rarely have discretionary income. Unfortunately, I did not get much return on investment. I needed a positive or nearly close to break-even return on my advertising budget in order to keep going. Since that didn’t happen, I contacted some novelty companies to see if they were interested in purchasing any, but none were. Discouraged, I abandoned the idea, but not before learning several valuable lessons which helped me succeed in other businesses.
I have mentioned before in this column there are 3 times we are most likely to be innovative: by necessity, out of curiosity, and to make money. Making money is the most intentional way in which people innovate. If you want to make money with innovation, you need to solve a problem that a lot of people have. You’ve heard the famous proverb Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door. It’s true, but you need to find a problem that you can solve.
In my speeches and workshops on creative-thinking and innovation, I offer some suggestions to my audiences in how to find a good problem to solve. I ask them to think about all the tasks that they do every day whether it is at work or at home.
I then say, “I’ll bet there is at least one of those tasks that you hate to do.” That typically gets a quick response as several people will blurt out some job or chore they detest. I then suggest that if they hate doing that thing, then there are probably countless other people who hate it as well, which means that they have now identified a problem that needs solving. A solution that might become a million-dollar idea.
I love the story of Sara Blakely, who first solved a problem for herself, and then realized it solved the same problem for many other women. In 1998, she was required to wear pantyhose as a sales representative in Florida. She liked control-top pantyhose for how they eliminated panty lines when wearing pants and made her body appear firmer, but she didn’t care for the appearance of the seamed foot when wearing open-toed shoes. She also didn’t like how warm they made her feel.
Then one day while getting ready for a party, she got the idea to simply cut the feet off with a pair of scissors. It worked. The bottom of the hose rode up her legs, but she got the look she wanted. I would’ve suggested duct tape for holding the bottoms down, but Sara is smarter than me; she found a real solution, then created the multi-billion-dollar company Spanx.
If you want to make money — innovate — find a problem and solve it. Find one no one has solved before or solve it better than it has been done in the past.
There are other ways to innovate:
• You can look for ways to improve your existing business to make it more profitable.
• Maybe it’s a better way to market your product or service.
• Perhaps a new use for an old product.
• You might find a more cost-effective method of production.
The greater your determination, the more likely you are to succeed.
Go for it!