Mr. Mason, Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year, has been inducted into the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame (University of North Carolina). Based in Weston, Connecticut, he has lectured at more than 20 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada. He has been the University of Connecticut’s Director of Entrepreneurship Development, and he is regent for the Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut. He is on the Board of the National Congress of Inventor Organizations and serves as a trustee of the National Council for Industrial Innovation.
Large organizations may have enormous influence, but only individuals think. Only individuals develop ideas. Better ideas enable new products to gain market share from famous brands—and small companies to beat big companies by overcoming such competitive disadvantages as limited capital, low brand recognition, weak distribution, poor location, and late entry into a market. Perhaps nothing levels a playing field like a better idea. Without good new ideas, progress stalls and civilizations perish.
I see the enormous impact of ideas everyday. With more than 60 patents, I’ve helped develop over 100 products and improvements for companies like American Hospital Supply, Chesebrough-Pond’s, Colgate-Palmolive, Frito-Lay, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, S.C. Johnson, Kimberly-Clark, Lipton, McDonald’s, Nestlé, Neutrogena, Nike, Pepperidge Farms, Playtex, Procter & Gamble, Reebok, Richardson-Vicks, Schick, Scott Paper, Tetley, Tupperware, and Velcro. Although these companies have multi-million- dollar budgets and plenty of bright people on staff, they report that innovative ideas are always in short supply.
Early on, I learned the power—and profit potential—of ideas. My first invention dates back to when I was seven years old. I had asked my father for 15 cents to buy minnows so I could go fishing in the canal behind our house in Trenton, New Jersey. He turned me down because he thought fishing was a waste of time. My mother suggested I might make a fishing lure that would last a long time. She gave me a wooden clothespin, and I whittled it roughly into the shape of a minnow. I added a hook at one end and an eye at the other. I tried it, but I could see fish weren’t interested. I looked through an encyclopedia to see what colors might attract fish, and the answer seemed to be green, black, and white. I whittled another lure, painted it, gave it a trial, and within about 20 minutes I caught a nice bass.
Neighborhood kids were excited by how easily I caught fish, and soon I was in business making lures. I could make one every 15 minutes and sell it for 25 cents. I developed a whole product line with lures aimed at attracting different kinds of fish. I learned I could create a product people wanted, and its benefits could be demonstrated.
My next enterprise involved boomerangs because I had become fascinated with birds, gliders, and airplanes. I made boomerangs by sawing L shapes out of plywood. I sandpapered the edges so they became airfoil sections on the front and rear of each wing. They flew beautifully, and I could get $1 for each boomerang that cost me only 12 cents to make. I soon learned I could hire my friends to saw out the pieces and sandpaper the edges. I could make money simply by drawing the lines.
When I was eight, my mother arranged for me to take drawing lessons. Every Saturday for five years, I walked to class. I spent a year working with pencil, a year with watercolor, a year with oil paints. I was asked to draw common things like knives and forks. Then houses and people. Gradually I became obsessed with observing the world around me.
My father, an electrician, was a great help. He showed me how to use his shop, which had a drillpress, power saw, lathe, vise, and a foundry. He emphasized the potential dangers of the tools and let me work with them as long as I cleaned up afterward. I designed and built dollhouses, which I sold. I also sold model yachts that kids could sail in the canal.
Public schools I attended just weren’t set up to nurture creativity and independence. I recall being locked in the principal’s office for having refused to color within the lines of a third-grade workbook. My uncle had taught me how to read before I entered school, and I learned how to write not by taking an English course, but by joining the high school newspaper and seeing how news and feature articles were put together. I did have a ninth-grade math teacher who talked in terms of the projects that interested me, and my math grades soared.
One day I went to the Trenton Public Library and I talked to the librarian. She hired me to work as a page from 4:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m., for 25 cents an hour, reshelving books. Then I worked in the circulation department and was sent to get books from the shelves. I spent a year with the reference department, then worked in the technology department. I learned that everything had a name and that numbers were important. I learned there were all kinds of subjects. I learned more in the library than I ever did in high school.
I attended a local college on a scholarship and then worked for a variety of big companies. I observed that one of the hardest things for people to do is to create better ideas—especially within the confines of a large organization. New ideas require the freedom to see things from a fresh point of view—and the courage to take action. When people are worried about their mortgages and other family expenses, they are often afraid to risk their corporate careers by promoting new ideas that might not pan out. I understand, because I’ve been fired by some of the best companies. In 1973, I started my own firm, Simco, to use the talents that got me fired.
Competition and Innovation
An invention is usually a modification of an existing product, so the more products there are out there, the more opportunities for inventors. I try to invent a product that replaces something a company already has. I make the next model and get a patent on it. Then I call the product manager and say, I have developed a product that makes yours obsolete. It’s patented. It doesn’t cost any more than yours, and it uses the same machinery. I’d like to license it to you. And the product manager pays me a visit, because he or she knows that competition spurs everybody to improve.
Many of my most successful inventions began with observations that anybody could have made. For example, years ago when I was changing my son’s diapers, I noticed that a baby’s bottom was round, but the cloth diapers were square. And a squirming baby made it difficult to work with the safety pins needed to hold a cloth diaper together. Later, I was asked to generate new product ideas for a major paper company. Research revealed there was a disposable paper diaper on the market (from Sweden), but it was square, and leaks were a problem. I thought a diaper shaped for a baby’s anatomy would work better.
How to produce a form-fitted disposable diaper efficiently? After a number of experiments, I took a roll of paper and cut it into a long series of back-to-back hourglass shapes. Cut these where the broad part of each hourglass join, and you have individual diapers. Put two sticky tabs at one end of each diaper, and you don’t need safety pins. Insert an absorbent pad into the middle part. The pad is thicker on one end. Because of the way a boy urinates, the thicker end goes on top, and it goes the other way around in a girl’s diaper. As you undoubtedly know, disposable form-fitted diapers took over the market.
In the early days of microwave ovens, I bought one. It came with directions for cooking a chicken: put a large glass dish in the microwave, then put two upside-down saucers in it. Lay the chicken in the saucers and cook for a few minutes. Well, chicken fat got all over the inside of the microwave. I thought this was a terrible way to cook a chicken.
Since more and more people were using microwave ovens, I figured there would be a need for appropriate cookware. But designing it required knowing how energy was distributed within a microwave oven. Some special equipment could have given me answers, but it cost a lot of money. I hit on a simple solution. I laid out rows of popcorn on a plastic tray, put the tray in the microwave and turned on the oven. I could determine where the energy was most intense by observing which popcorn popped first. I raised the plastic tray, put more popcorn on it, and repeated the process until I had diagramed the mushroom-shaped pattern of most intense energy.
I designed microwave cookware to take advantage of this pattern. Generally, the microwave cookware was oval or round, and it was raised up from the floor of the oven by about an inch. Microwave energy would cook the food as it bounced up and down through the food. I made prototypes out of clay and plastic, and they were tested. Eventually, we had about 20 utensils for various kinds of food. They have gone into thousands of stores, including Sears and J.C. Penney.
Hunt Foods asked me what might be done about the gallon bottles they used for their cooking oil. The bottles were manufactured at one factory, then shipped to the oil-processing factory. This was expensive, and there was some breakage during shipment.
I thought polyethylene would be a better material, because polyethylene pellets could be shipped to the oil-processing factory and molded into gallon jugs with equipment that didn’t take a great deal of room. I came up with a jug design that addressed the glug-glug complaint about gallon bottles (as you pour, the flow of air into the bottle disrupts the flow of oil out, and spills are common). I designed a hollow handle and a contoured overall shape which makes for smoother air flow and smoother liquid flow, eliminating the tendency to spill. This design has become standard in billions of gallon jugs used for milk, water, and other things.
Opportunities for better ideas are all around us. To help get ketchup out of a bottle faster, I developed squeezable bottles. I developed flower pots that protect against over-watering and yield 30 percent to 50 percent bigger plants. I designed a full-face, disposable surgical mask that enables a doctor to wear glasses within the mask. To provide work for a food factory in the winter, I developed a product line of snacks and desserts. I developed a unique room-fragrance-generating system that turns itself on and off automatically—ideal for home bathrooms, for instance.
Burglars commonly go around a house and try every door, hoping to find one that’s unlocked, so I developed an early warning burglar alarm that can alert you as somebody outside touches a doorknob. When the market for plain gelatin was withering away because so many people preferred flavored Jello, I set up a series of tests which showed how plain gelatin can work as a great fertilizer. Gelatin is almost 100 percent protein. Watering once a week with a gelatin solution can double the size of many popular plants in just six weeks, and it doesn’t hurt if you use too much gelatin. This idea, which actually came from the wife of a Knox Gelatin marketing executive, was credited with helping to save the brand.
What I try to teach is that everything around us was invented, designed, or developed by some individual. The creative process is never an accident.
I believe that no matter what the product is, there is something better. I gain pleasure from the unknown, earning profits by making improvements.
Most ideas don’t work, so my secret is to keep trying. Sometimes a solution that doesn’t work today is the solution to a problem in eight months. You never really lose the information. The nice thing about failure is that it gives you new ideas.
One must make education a lifetime pursuit. I am a voracious reader. I subscribe to about 250 publications. I spend about two-thirds of my waking time reading. I believe in creative procrastination: putting off a chore so you’ll have a few minutes to think.
My hobby is visiting factories—old and new—to find out how things are done. The problem with many companies is that the people who do the thinking don’t know how to make the thing they’re thinking about. The actual chemistry and physics of these things and how people interact with them are terribly important.
A lot of beginning inventors think they need money. I don’t believe that’s a big issue. What they need are ideas. They need to travel, talk to all kinds of people, and experience lots of different things.
Never underestimate the power of a small idea. For example, a safety pin is simply a straight pin bent in a different way.
Where do you find financing for a start-up venture? Mortgage your house. I’ve done it several times. Or you could see if somebody in your family could provide some financing. Banks can’t be counted on to help. I’ve lost my shirt two or three times—but I find other shirts.
Private workspace is important. I’m reminded of a study done by Bell Labs. They asked computer programmers why some were more productive than others. It didn’t matter where the most productive ones were born, where they lived, or who their parents were. The only thing they all had in common was that they had their own workspace, they could control their own heat, and they had an outside view.
You can come up with better ideas, too, if you really observe things around you and free your mind to see the unlimited possibilities.