It’s hard to shock a patent attorney. Bob Wise, president of the Texas Inventors’ Association, would know. After working in the business for 41 years, including 20 as a patent examiner, he has heard it all: medical products, toys, office supplies, gardening tools, appliances, oil well devices, radar systems, travel gear, baby contraptions. But there is one idea that sticks out after all these years, and he needs to take a deep breath now to recall this intentionally repressed memory. “It was butt jewelry,” he said, cringing. “Something that is hanging out that is supposed to be…ayyyyyy.”
No question, he hoped to hear more marketable ideas than that at the November meeting of the TIA. In a public library in Plano, Wise, dressed lawyer-casual in a light gray suitcoat, mingled with members old and new as they began filing in and slapping on nametags. There was John Caldwell, inventor of the Biceps Bike. He was followed by Alan Beckley, the man who thought of the Wonder Wallet. In walked Mary Sarao, the success behind the poster board Ghostline. Aspiring inventors tip-toed up to the more experienced creators with questions as Wise kept reminding newbies not to tell anybody about their ideas. “Very few people understand,” he said. Anyone who hears about the product should sign a nondisclosure agreement first to prevent headaches down the line. Barring a contract, he said, “just keep everything secret from everybody—your wife, husband, mother, father. First thing I say at every meeting.”
Inventor groups around the country have gathered for many years, and there are other associations in Texas—San Antonio, for example, and Austin. But the Dallas-Fort Worth club was the first in the state, formed in 1968 by a man named Tom Workman, an architect who dabbled in gizmos and creative concepts. “My sister and I got involved in TIA in 1994 when we were developing our invention,” Sarao told me. “We went to them as a resource and it was hugely helpful.” Afterwards, she and her sister licensed a product she conceived of in a dream—a poster board with faint grid lines—and when her mailbox money began rolling in, she became the president of the TIA, a position she held for fifteen years until passing the reins over to Wise in 2007.
There were two themes to the evening, cautionary tales and runaway successes, and over in the corner, a manufacturing expert named Matt Smithers was already giving advice. “Don’t think you’re the only one that has an idea,” he was telling a small group. “I had a lady here awhile back. We stepped into the other room for privacy so I could sign a nondisclosure, and she goes, ‘I really want something that can hold used cigarettes; you can take it with you and throw it away later.’ I go, ‘Wait a minute, we did it. It was an inventor out of San Antonio. I helped him, and it’s called the Butt Crusher. It’s already on the market.’”
“She was disappointed,” he continued, “but think how much money she saved.”
When the meeting came to order, Wise introduced the night’s speakers: Sarinya and Glen Oliver, inventors of a newfangled diaper bag, and Reuben Miller, creator of a set of exercise equipment that could be packed into a basketball-size disk. Each of them gave a five-minute Shark Tank-esque sales pitch to the members, who responded with a healthy mix of admiration and skepticism. “What does this retail for?” “How are you going to advertise?” “Who’s your market?”
Then a recurring guest took the center circle: Josh Malone, the man behind the gangbuster hit Bunch O Balloons. Malone is a skinny, handsome guy who looks like he could star in a family sitcom, and he started in on his story: how, in 2014, his Kickstarter raised thirteen million dollars—a number that caused some in the audience to gasp.
“Thirteen million!” one man said.
But inventors’ narratives have more twists and turns than a soap opera, and Malone’s tale was no different. “Three months later, this company started selling my invention on TV, and for the past four years now, all I do is fight these guys in court,” he continued. The crowd leaned in, envisioning their fortunes evaporating before they’d even been attained. In 2011, he said, “Congress passed a law that says, ‘if you’re a multi-billion dollar company and you go to the government and you know hordes of lawyers that will fight for you, you can play the game, but if you’re a small business or independent investor, you’re screwed.’” He pleaded with them to complain to their Congressperson and the members nodded somberly.
Before this news put too much of a damper on the evening, Wise clapped his hands together to signify that the official presentation was over, giving way to the informal segment of the night when newcomers could ask more experienced inventors for help.
A woman carrying a notebook titled “Evil Plans and Stuff” approached Wise. She wanted to patent a concept for a product that she couldn’t find it in stores. “I mean, not a day goes by that I don’t say, ‘I need this,’” she said. “I went to different places looking for it, and, ‘Nope,’ ‘Nope,’ ‘Nope.’”
First, Wise repeated, “Don’t tell anyone your idea!” Then he rattled off his recommendations, rat-a-tat-tat. “A professional search [done by a patent attorney] is more efficient,” Wise told her, then encouraged her to stick with her passion. “It’s a long, hard road, but a lot of people make it to the end of the road, it just takes a lot of time.”
As Wise continued his lesson, a few feet away, Sarinya Oliver was fawning over Sarao, author of three books on inventing. “I read your book! The one with the lightbulb on the cover,” Oliver said. “It is inspiring to see people—like normal people doing things and making things happen. Not like Steve Jobs.”
A first-timer standing between the two women agreed. She was keeping her idea close to the vest, but she was ready to take her first step. “A regular person can make it and so can I,” she said.