When Beezie Northrup retired in 2011, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with all the extra time he had on his hands. After serving 30 years as a police officer in of Pompano Beach, Northrup decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming an inventor.
“I’d been tinkering with an idea in my head for years,” said Northrup, of Deerfield Beach. “I told my wife that I had my mind made up and that I would work on creating a new and improved Tiki torch holder for people who like me, who loved throwing parties in their backyards.”
But before his invention — B-Z’s EZ Tiki Torch Holder — could reach the masses, Northrup had to develop a prototype of his product. Northrup’s tiki torch holder can be attached to a fence using three small screws; a metal arm holds the torch in place and folds when it’s not in use.
“For me, making a prototype that actually worked was the hardest part, particularly because I was committed to making the product in the USA,” said Northrup. “I didn’t want to outsource the manufacturing to China if I could help it.”
After months of research, Northrup found a manufacturing facility in North Carolina that could create, package and ship the torches for just over $7.50. Northrup is creating a website to sell his product online and plans to retail his torches for $14.95 apiece. “I’m really just starting out,” he said. “When I retired in 2011, it took us a couple of years to develop the product and get a patent for it. Now we’re finally ready to bring it to market.”
Northrup is under no illusions about the challenges he’ll face. “I think it’s a great invention,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m a realist and I know that I have to see if this product actually sells before I can it to the next step to grow this into a viable business.”
Mary Purcaro knows the challenges of introducing a new invention firsthand.
In 2010, Purcaro, of West Palm Beach, invented the CuddleCloth, a blanket that protects babies during bath time. It wasn’t Purcaro’s first foray into inventing, however. “Many years ago, when my son was born, I had this fear of dropping him when I was bathing him,” said Purcaro. “Babies are pretty slippery when they are being given a bath, and I wanted a way to make sure he was safe and wouldn’t fall.”
Purcaro, a stay-at-home parent at the time, devised an apron that used Velcro to hold the baby securely to her chest.
“I thought I had invented something great back then, but it just wasn’t right and I knew I could do better,” said Purcaro. “But with raising two kids and just dealing with life in general, I didn’t have time to do much with it for a few years.”
Once her children were older and in school, Purcaro took a fresh look at her invention. “I kept working on it and all of sudden one day it hit me,” she said. “I knew exactly how I could make this a useful product for moms.”
Purcaro then began making prototypes of the CuddleCloth that she shared with family and friends: “I sent some out to my sister-in-law and other friends. Everyone loved it and kept asking me for more of them. But at that time, I had no way to manufacture them except by hand.”
Purcaro didn’t know much about running a business, either. “What’s great about me is that the word ‘no’ is not in my vocabulary,” she said. “I knew there was a lot that I didn’t know, but I also knew that I could learn and I was open to that. I think as an inventor, you have to be able to say that you don’t know something but you’re willing to go out there and find the answer.”
Purcaro filed for a patent through the United States Patent and Trademark Office and set about making 700 samples of her product, which she took to trade shows around the country. “For me, trade shows were a great way to get started and get my product out there,” she said.
Purcaro has sold thousands of CuddleCloths, and although her products are sold in 30 boutique stores throughout the U.S., the vast majority of her sales are achieved online: “The brick and mortar stores are great, but you can move a lot more product if you sell online. That’s the way to go.”
Today, Purcaro is focusing on expanding her business with a range of different products including the CuddlePet, a cloth for bathing dogs. Her immediate future plans include not only expansion, but attracting outside investment and perhaps a licensing agreement. One thing she has learned as an inventor: “You really have to build the valuation of your company before you start looking for investors or licensing deals,” she said. “You’ve got to get your business to a point where it is generating a large volume of sales and is attractive to an investor.”
While South Florida inventors like Purcaro have enjoyed some success and have big plans for the future of their inventions, many, for a variety of reasons, don’t achieve major mass-market success for the long term.
For Lydia Woods, inventor of the Tarp Klip, a clip-on device that holds tarps in place, it has been an uphill battle of almost 20 years to get her product out there.
“I invented the Tarp Klip in 1998 when I was 50 years old,” said Woods, of Fort Lauderdale. “It started because I wanted to have a way to hold the tarps around a swimming pool where my kids were playing, and the idea just hit me.”
Woods mortgaged her home and spent more than two years developing the product and securing a patent. “My husband and I actually had great success in the beginning,” she said. “We went to trade shows and had some test orders from Wal-Mart and Home Depot.”
Today, at age 69, Woods is interested in selling the Tarp Klip business. “We get calls all the time from people interested in buying the business,” she said. “And we are actively trying to sell it.”
Woods’ first recommendation to would-be inventors is to hire an attorney to file a patent. “When we first tried for a patent, my husband filled out the paperwork and we did it ourselves. We even did the drawings of the prototype ourselves, but in hindsight, that was a mistake,” Woods said. “It’s better to have an attorney do the filing for you and to have your prototype drawings professionally done.”
Next, Woods recommends designing packaging that is eye-catching.
“One thing I learned early on from buyers who bought products for Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the like is that the packaging is one of the most important parts of the process,” said Woods. “Use bright vibrant colors, and don’t fall in love with your initial packaging design. If professional people make recommendations for you to change it, do it.”
Leo Mazur, president of the Inventors Society of South Florida, understands the struggles inventors face today. “It’s a tough road,” he said. “Having a great idea is only half the battle you’ll encounter. The hardest part is not creating the invention — it’s getting it out to others and generating sales.”
Mazur, an inventor himself whose products didn’t quite take off, now spends his time counseling other inventors about the technical aspects of bringing a product to market: “One of things I find myself repeating over and over again is the importance of making sure you have the resources to introduce your product to the world.”
Often, Mazur sees inventors who have something viable but don’t have the resources to file the patent, or in some cases, develop the product. “This is going to hamper you as an inventor,” Mazur said. “You’re going to be stuck with a great idea and can’t do anything with it.”
John Osher knows the value of a great idea. He is perhaps one of the most successful inventors from South Florida.
In 1999, he invented the SpinBrush, a low-cost electric toothbrush that sold for $5. Osher, who lives in Fort Lauderdale but is originally from Ohio, describes himself as a serial inventor.
“SpinBrush wasn’t my first invention,” he said. “It actually started from another product I invented years before called the SpinPop, which was essentially a spinning lollipop. I sold over 100 million SpinPops and then took the concept of the small motor, batteries and gears that were in it and applied it to a toothbrush.”
From there the SpinBrush was born. A year and a half after developing and introducing the SpinBrush to market, SpinBrush became the No. 1-selling toothbrush in the U.S., and Osher sold his invention to Proctor & Gamble for close to a half-billion dollars.
“It was a pretty exciting time for me,” said Osher, who speaks at business schools around the country about his experiences. “But inventors out there need to know that it’s a lot of hard work.”
If you’re an inventor who isn’t afraid of a little hard work, Osher recommends focusing your efforts on developing a product that is commercially viable: “Too often, I see inventors who create product for a market that is too narrow. It doesn’t have broad appeal.”
Another pitfall that Osher sees inventors fall into is not properly researching their idea. “When I started out, there was no Internet where you could really research your product and see if others were doing anything similar,” he said. “Now there is no excuse not to thoroughly research your product.”
Osher also sees inventors who aren’t familiar with the patent process. “Getting a patent can be difficult,” he said. “Now, you can get something called a provisional patent that basically lets the patent office know that you are developing a product and intend to file for a patent in the future. It’s like a placeholder to secure your spot in line at the patent office.”
Today, at age 67, Osher devotes his time to a venture he is preparing to launch called Capture: “I can’t talk too much about it now, but suffice it to say that it’s a game-changer and will radically change the way mobile-content publishing is done.”
Beezie Northrup hopes one day to accomplish what Osher has. “If I could have the kind of phenomenal success that SpinBrush has achieved, I would be ecstatic,” Northrup said. “I know that I’m a long way from that right now. But my plan is to put one foot in front of the other each day, and I’m hoping with that I can get there. Wish me luck!”