For some time I have wanted to write an article discussing what independent inventors can learn from skateboard icon Tony Hawk. In the October 2009 edition of Entrepreneur Magazine there is an article about Tony Hawk and his rise to become the highest paid action sports athlete, bringing in some $12 million in 2008. This interview with Tony Hawk provides numerous tales that every inventors should hear, learn and accept as true. There is no real secret to be told relating to what separates successful inventors from unsuccessful inventors. Having a good invention that fits a market need is certainly important, as are meaningful patent rights that can exclude and thereby attract investors. Hard work, determination, seeking competent help and taking advice are all high on the list of important things for success, but there are other aspects. Having a little luck is certainly helpful, although the harder you work the luckier you tend to get. Notwithstanding, in my experience there are several key things that separate those who are successful from those who are not. In my experience inventors who invent in industries they know and understand are far more likely to succeed. Coming up with an idea, translating that idea into an invention and moving forward is all well and good, but too many inventors have no experience in the industry where they seek to invent, so they are starting off behind the 8-ball. Take it from Tony Hawk, focus on what you know and build from there.
So many times I hear from independent inventors who come up with an invention that they think is the greatest thing ever. What inventor doesn’t think that, right? I know I am no exception, and there is nothing wrong with dreaming, thinking outside the box and being creative. Unfortunately, independent inventors frequently face a problem in their own life and then come up with something that provides what they are looking for and then assume that everyone would want what they created, or even worse believe that since there is nothing they could buy on the market there is certainly no patents. Every patent attorney has heard: “I know there is nothing like it because if there were it would be available and many people would buy it, including me.” A somewhat arrogant derivative is: “No one would have ever thought of this, it is so creative and so different than anything out there that I am confident it does not exist.” Every time I have ever heard this a patent search has uncovered pretty much exactly what the inventor thought they were the first to create, or so many patents covering inventions that functionally accomplished the same thing that it just didn’t make sense to move forward. Inventors are always surprised what a professional search finds.
Conversely, when I have been contacted by individuals within a certain industry segment and they tell me that they do not know of anything like what they have invented there is rarely, if ever, anything that closely resembles their invention that can be found. Certainly meaningful prior art is found that allows for the focusing upon certain aspects that are most likely to be unique, allowing for the accentuation of the positive and most likely patentable aspects of the invention. But those who work within or otherwise know an industry invent not only for need, but they invent things that do not exist. Simply put, if you know the industry you are more likely to come up with an invention that is new and non-obvious.
There are many ways to “know” an industry. Either you work within an industry or otherwise through experience become intimately familiar with an industry. You can, of course, educate yourself on an industry through research. The secret for learning is no secret at all — read! You can read, talk to individuals within the industry and conduct market research. However you get it, knowledge and information about the area you are inventing in is essential to maximize your efforts, focus on market opportunities and identify space available in the innovation sphere that would allow for the acquisition of meaningful patent rights. Like any other endeavor in life there is no substite to being prepared and informed.
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Enter Tony Hawk, who first got on a skateboard when he was 9 years old and turned pro at 14. His achievements in skateboarding are legendary, at least to those familiar with the industry and sport. At age 41 he is not doing the same stunts at X Games, and has traded in his youthful passion that lasted well into adulthood for a boardroom. The difference is that Tony Hawk has built on what he knows best and is capitalizing on the business associated with the skateboard industry.
When asked whether it was hard to move from skateboarding to the boardroom, Hawk explained:
When I started the business, I thought that I was easing my way out of being a pro skater, that I would work more behind the scenes. But at some point I realized that was the completely wrong approach: I was more effective being a pro skater and being an ambassador for the company, instead of being the guy that created the ads, which someone else could do better than me.
This shows a tremendous business savvy that most people, including most inventors, never comprehend. Inventors in particular are highly creative people and are typically control freaks. I have to plead guilty to that myself at times. In fact, it is a constant struggle to stand back and focus on those things that I can do best and let others do things they can handle, and in fact handle better than me, so I am not using the “control freak” label in a pejorative way, but rather in a descriptive way. Inventors and creative people need to learn when to stand back, they need to allow others to focus on what they do best and then apply their energies in places where maximum benefit can be found. You cannot do everything and many inventors and business people strangle their business to death with micromanagement. A case in point is how Robert Kearns rejected a $30 million offer from Ford Motor Company relating to his windshield wiper patent, choosing to litigate and ultimately winning only several million, alienating his family and becoming bitter. The story of Kearns is not how big business destroyed the independent inventor, it is how the independent strangled his invention to death and destroyed himself. Inventing has to be about business if you plan on making money. Expecting a 50% royalty for an idea, or even for an invention is unrealistic in a world where 2% to 5% is the typical norm.
At one point in the interview Hawk was asked about his unsuccessful ventures. He explained:
We decided to invest in a high-end denim company and just kept throwing money at it because it had created a buzz, which was deceptive. We kept believing it was hitting until we realized how few people would actually pay $120 for a pair of jeans. So we were taking awy the profits from our successful businesses to keep this one alive. Finally, we realized we had to get out.
What do high-end jeans have to do with skateboarding? Nothing. Do you think it is a coincidence that Hawk failed at this business? I do not believe it is coincidence, and I really don’t believe in coincidences for the most part. Yes, coincidences do happen, but repeated coincidences cease to be explainable as coincidence and cross the threshold into causative. Time and time again I see people enter businesses they do not know, they have not taken time to learn and the outcome, at least in my experience, is universally uniform — ending in failure. I can say this not only through observation, but also through experience. Perhaps my greatest business failures have come in areas where I didn’t thoroughly know the industry. Tangential knowledge, hard work and dedication can cover up lack of specific knowledge and allow you to convince yourself you can do it, and what happens is you just convince yourself to stay the course longer than you should and lose more than you should. Sticking to what you know doesn’t guarantee success, but it does make it more likely.
A few more words of wisdom from Hawk:
What advice do you have for someone starting out these days?
My advice is to follow your heart and do it because you love it. Do something that you would do even if you didn’t get paid, and everything else falls into place from there.
Is there a process you’d follow?
My best advice is to set small, attainable goals for yourself. Don’t think of the big picture all the time, because your just going to end up being disappointed the whole wy there… If you love what you’re doing , all the other stuff falls into place.
I don’t claim to be as successful as Tony Hawk, but I am working on it. Setbacks happen to everyone, it is how you handle them and how you chart a course forward that makes the difference. There is a lot that can be learned from those who are successful, and this interview with Tony Hawk is something that every inventor should read. You can do it! Do what you love, seek and listen to competent advice and treat your endeavors like a business; this will maximize opportunities for success.