List of Inventors Who Made it Big, Motivation to Keep You Rocking
Every inventor dreams of making it big. It's what keeps us up at night and motivates us to put in the long hours that lead to new innovations and technology. It's the stuff that drives the American economy and improves our lives.
We have gathered together here a list of inventors whose great ideas turned into million dollar (and even billion dollar) businesses. When you are wondering if all of the hard work is worth it, let these entrepreneurs inspire you.
Leo Gerstenzang Invented Q-Tips
A Cool $200 Million Per Year in US Sales
Gerstenzang, also known as Waxy McGee, invented the Q-Tip back in 1923. The story goes that he watched his wife attaching cotton wads to toothpicks, by hand, in order to clean hard to reach spots. From this small beginning, the idea of an all in one, easy to use, cotton swab was born. At least this is one of the many stories Waxy McGee told about his invention.
The cotton swab was originally called "Baby Gays." Later on he added the term Q-Tip and sold the product as Q-Tip Baby Gays. The "Q" stood for quality. Eventually, as the product found mass market appeal far beyond the infant and baby care sector, the company dropped the Baby Gays and sold the swabs simply as Q Tips.
Gerstenzang's life story is one of those fabulous 'only in America' rags to riches tales. He was born in Warsaw and emigrated to Chicago in 1912. He returned to Europe for a brief time, between 1918 and 1919, to serve as a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He returned to Chicago in late 1919 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He then moved to New York, where he found the inspiration to invent the cotton swab and establish the Leo Gerstenzang Infant Novelty Company.
Q Tips have become a standard item found in almost every home across the developed world, all thanks to a clever Polish immigrant solving a real world problem for his wife.
Sarah Blakely Founded Spanx
Let's Hear It For The Girls, To The Tune of $1 Billion Dollars
Inventors, entrpreneurs, business leaders and professors, the business press, almost everyone in the invention industry regards the Sarah Blakely story with awe. She is the perfect example of an inventor with a good idea, who executed her business plan correctly and with determination.
The Spanx story follows the textbook model of how to succeed in invention to a "T." Blakely hits every note, from research to planning, prototyping and marketing. She is living proof that the system works and that if you do that research, market that good idea, and execute well, you can make it rich. She herself now has a net worth of over one billion dollars and Spanx obviously grosses far more.
For the guys in the room, who are wondering what Spanx are...think of pantyhose with the legs cut off. This is in fact exactly how the prototype breakthrough for Spanx was made.
The story begins when Blakely was going to a high-end party and wanted to look great, no panty lines or bulges allowed. She knew from plenty of experience that pantyhose provided tummy control and eliminated the problem of panty lines. So she cut the legs off a pair of panty hose, wore them under her new clingy slacks, and the rest is history. That very first pair of cut up pantyhose, the Spanx prototype, is preserved on display at the Spanx headquarters today.
Now Blakely had a great invention idea, but she still had a long road ahead of her before she was able to launch a successful company. At the time she invented Spanx she was only 25 years old, working as a FAX salesperson in Orlando, Florida. She was good at it, although she had intended to study law but flunked the entrance exam, so she had a few thousand in her savings. A good amount for a 25 year old, but not much to launch a company with.
Over the next several years she worked diligently. She set out to file her own patent applications to save money for more important expenses, like prototypes and advertising. She took a trip to North Carolina, which was the center of the American hosiery industry. She visited mill operators trying to interest them in her idea.
The first thing she found out was that all of the mill operators were men. They didn't do any product research, they didn't have women around and they didn't ask women what they thought of their product. Which is probably why they thought that a "one size fits all" waistband was perfectly suitable for modern women. Yes, you heard that right, before Blakely and Spanx came along, every single pair of pantyhose in the United States was made with the exact same waistband, no wonder they didn't fit worth a darn.
Sarah returned home dejected, but not ready to give up. For one thing, she knew that correctly sized waistbands were going to be an important product feature in Spanx.
Eventually, one of the mill operators she had contacted in North Carolina got back in touch with her. He had initially rejected her invention, but he had a wife and daughters at home and they loved the idea. Based on their interest, he offered to make Spanx for her.
Sarah was off and running in a flurry. She had to do more patent work and hired an attorney for it. While all of that was underway, she got busy with the advertising and marketing. She surveyed stores and hosiery lines, and opted for colors that stood out from the pack and crafted a direct woman to woman sales pitch. She put a "K" sound in the name, because it had worked for so many other companies, from Coca Cola to Kodak.
She cracked Neiman Marcus then she cracked the entire luxury department store market. In 2000 Oprah named Spanx a favorite product and sales went through the roof. In 2014, Forbes listed her as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. Not half bad for a girl who couldn't get into law school!
Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver Invented Post-It Notes
A One Billion Dollar Success Story, from An Uninspiring Beginning
Post-It Notes are a story of luck and serendipity. Of course, it also includes two tenacious inventors who would not give up.
You could say it all began at the 3M labs in Minnesota. In 1968 Spencer created a new adhesive that had unusual molecular properties. The new adhesive was fairly strong, but had a weak bond. In the words of normal folks, it stayed stuck until you pulled it off.
Over the next few years, Spencer just couldn't find a useful application for his adhesive. While everyone agreed that it was interesting, nobody had a good use for it. 3M wasn't hot on it and encouraged him to drop the project. He gave a symposium on it in 1974, Fry was in the audience.
One night, Fry found the perfect use for that adhesive. He sang in the choir. While he was at practice, he noticed that the bookmarks and notes that they inserted into their sheet music were always falling out or getting lost. Fry thought, to paraphrase, 'Why not coat the back of the bookmark with Spencer's glue?'
The Post-It Note was born. Of course, nothing that really succeeds in the invention business is truly overnight. 3M fully supported the idea, by the end of the year the concept had been refined into what we would all recognize as the Post-It Note. But, even with 3M's backing, it still took five more years to create the machining and the factory for mass production.
Post-It Notes were launched in 1980, within two years they were a staple product in every office and school across the country.
Fry and Silver continued to work at 3M for the remainder of their careers, regarded with something approaching hero status and earning many awards and patents.
Richard Knerr and Arthur "Spud" Melin Created Some Of America's Most Iconic Toys
Hula Hoop -- The Quirky Invention Made $45 Milllion PROFIT
Let's just make one thing clear at the start, that $45 million is in 1959 dollars, today it would be about $346 million. And it's net, not gross. And that was just the first two years for the Hula Hoop, 1957 to 1959. The Hula Hoop may be the most successful product launch ever.
The two men responsible, Knerr and Melin, were graduates of USC. They lived in Southern California and didn't much like their jobs. So they set about starting a toy company and founded Wham-O in 1948. Their first product was a slingshot made of wood which they marketed all over Southern California. When the sling shot hit its target, it made a sound like "Wham-O." That sound was the inspiration for the name of their upstart company.
Wham-O began its life in Knerr and Melin's garages in South Pasadena. They soon outgrew the garages and moved to warehouse space in Alhambra and then San Gabriel. Knerr and Melin continued to focus their attention on the slingshot business for the next decade.
In 1957, they came across what were known as Australian exercise hoops made of bamboo. (One of the interesting things about the Hula Hoop is that it wasn't new at all, "hoops" had been common for play and exercise for centuries, even the name "Hula Hoop" had been around since the 18th century.) Knerr and Melin made one big change to the all-too-common toy. They made the hoops out of bright colored mylar plastic.
It was a huge hit, one of the biggest fads in American history. 25 million were sold in the first four months. 100 million in the first four years. Revenue in the first two years alone was $45 million.
They followed on this success with the Frisbee, the Super Ball, and the Slip'n'Slide. They also had some duds, "Instant Fish" was wildly popular, but the darn fish didn't lay eggs fast enough to keep the product in stock. And a toy company selling a Do-It-Yourself Bomb Shelter Cover for $119.95 is just a little weird. But it was the 1960s.
Knerr and Melin were two of the most intrepid men in the toy business for much of the American Century. They ushered in a new way of thinking about the toy development and marketing. They were famous for performing research, interviewing real children and watching them play with the toys in order to refine the products. Those crazy product names were marks of genius, but also carefully researched. Together, they had a magic combination of brains and chutzpah that led to one an all-American success story.
George De Mestral Struggles to Invent Velcro
Now Sells One Billion Dollars A Year
George De Mestral started inventing young. He got his first patent at age 12, for a toy airplane. He was born in Switzerland and graduated from college as an engineer. His first job was in the machine shop of an engineering company, starting in the 1930s.
The inspiration for Velcro came to him after a hunting trip in the Alps with his dog. With so many inventions, the inspiration seems to come from out of left field and Velcro is no exception. When De Mestral returned from his hunting trip his dog was covered in burs. What interested him most was the way the burs caught so nicely on his dogs fur...and held tight.
He looked at the burs under a microscope and found tiny hooks. From this germ of an idea, he developed the hook and loop fastener that we now know as Velcro.
Once again, we have the story of an inventor with a great idea, who spends years perfecting the product. His initial invention prototypes worked okay, but they were made of cotton and didn't last. Through years of trial and error he found that he could make both the hook and the loop pieces from nylon. But it took eight more years to perfect the invention manufacturing process and still another year to build the loom!
He obtained patents and opened factories throughout Europe from 1951 to 1957. He thought the product would be an instant success, but the textile industry was slow to accept it because it looked, well, it looked clunky. His big break came in the 1960s when Velcro, as the hook and loop fastener was now called, was used on the NASA astronaut suits. It also became standard in skiing and scuba diving sports gear, eventually branching out into all types of apparel and applications.
De Mestral's patent expired in 1978. But, the company still survives under the Velcro name and is the avowed leader in the hook and loop fastener industry. They bring in one billion dollars per year.
Our List of Inventors Shows Tenacity Pays Off
We purposely selected a list of inventors who had a variety of backgrounds. Some were indeed "engineers" and had careers in well-funded research institutions where their job description said "inventor." But others, like the founders of Spanx and Wham-O, did not come from technical backgrounds at all. Yet, all of them enjoyed incredible monetary and professional success.
We wanted to remind our inventors of, is that it is not about where you start, as the saying goes, but where you finish.
Every one of these inventors stuck with their idea, often for years and long after any "reasonable" person would have moved onto something else. But, they had a vision. They weren't going to let their invention ideas die, when they encountered an obstacle, they just kept searching until they found a way around, under, over or through it.
All of these are relatively simple, ordinary every day products, are all generating incredible amounts of money. They provide entire communities with jobs and people around the world with products they like to use every day.
Let this list of inventors be your inspiration. You don't need a high tech lab, or a fancy degree, or a lot of money. All a great inventor needs is a big dream, a ton of tenacity, and one darn good idea.