Ken Tarlow demonstrates a new style of coat hanger to fourth graders on Tuesday, May 31, 2011.
KEN TARLOW has invented products since he was a young boy, selling homemade toys to classmates as a 7-year-old and appearing in a Newsday article after he designed a walking, talking robot at 14.
For the past 15 years, the 63-year-old Corte Madera resident — who runs product development company Tarlow Design — has brought his love of tinkering, creative thinking and gadgets to fourth-grade students at Neil Cummins Elementary School via his annual "Invention Convention." This year the entire fourth-grade class is participating for the first time, with approximately 150 students coming up with their own inventions to be unveiled next Tuesday afternoon.
"When my daughter was in fourth grade, her teacher Michael Arrow found out what I did and he said, 'Let's do a convention thing with the kids,'" Tarlow said. "It started out just his class and slowly but surely the entire fourth grade.
"It's a great age because they're around 10 so they're old enough to think about things," he said. "They have some motor skills so they can sort of put things together, but they're also young enough that they're wide open so they just go for it."
Tarlow meets with students four times before the convention, teaching them about what kinds of products might make good inventions, how to find out if anyone else has come up with a similar idea, the basics of market research — and, finally, how to create a prototype or design drawing.
On Tuesday morning Tarlow spent nearly three hours speaking with students about their prototypes and fielding questions about plastic, glue and general design principles. Tarlow showed children various inventions he'd designed for clients at his company, including a plastic face-protector that attaches to a baseball cap for outdoor work, a DVD player with a sun visor that hooks onto a stroller and a plastic strip that can determine whether a coin's made of real gold.
"That's cool!" 10-year-old Parke Moorhead exclaimed as Tarlow demonstrated how a plastic ring with a remote control device inside could mute a television set.
Avery Briggs, 9, had already built his invention, "The Magnetic Road System," an elaborate model of an intersection with miniature trees, buildings and cars. The vehicles had magnets on both ends, so they would repel each other and avoid crashing. Avery had attached magnets with the opposite charge to police cars so they could tow other vehicles.
"I looked on the news and there was a car crash, and I said, 'What if I find a way to stop the car crash?'" Avery said. "I used the magnets and attached them to cars so they repel."
Other inventions included a grill that children can bring to school in their lunch boxes to heat up pizza and other hot treats, a garden tool that combines a rake and weed hacker and a spatula that flips burgers on its own and even has a drink holder built in.
Madeleine Remy, 10, said she was working on a sleeping mask with lavender inside and attached ear muffs that play restful sounds. "Most people have trouble sleeping, and this is to help them sleep," she said.
Meanwhile, 10-year-old Sydney Segal said her grandmother wants to use the page turner she's designing because of her arthritis. "My brother said he would use it if he's eating," she added.
Past students have designed a fork with a special tube that, when tilted upward, funneled unwanted food to the family dog under the table, as well as a partition that kept one boy's brother from pestering him in the back of the car, Tarlow said. The project "gives them a chance to be creative, to build something that's useful, and it means something to them," said Arrow, the fourth-grade teacher who has been working with Tarlow for 15 years.
"Kids who may not be so good at academics ... this gives them a great opportunity to succeed in something cool and come up with some awesome ideas."
Want to know how to get it wrong? Probably not, but in the world of creativity and invention, getting it wrong can sometimes be useful. Sound strange? Not to Ken Tarlow, who views failures as a necessary part of the creative process. Tarlow, a successful product developer, has encountered failure many times during the past 20 years, while bringing more than 300 consumer products to the marketplace. And with success that have earned his clients more than $400 million, he now teaches a method of learning that includes "getting it wrong."
"I see young people who are deathly afraid of taking risks," says Tarlow, who teaches product design at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. "We need to start early and foster the process of discovery." A native of Rockville Centre, New York, Tarlow says he began tinkerin, building and taking things apart at a very early eage. And although he battled dyslexia in school, his creative urges remained strong with support from his parents. "They basically gave me the basement," he says, laughing. "It was okay as long as I didn't blow up the house." During those formative years, Tarlow designed and built remote control cars, waling / talking robots and model rockets, while even constructing a roller coaster in the basement. But his classroom struggles continued until he took an art class during his senior year in high school. When a local college student returned to share his portfolio, Tarlow discovered industrial design.
"He told me he studied at the Univeristy of Bridgeport," Tarlow explains. "I immediately applied and was accepted. When I arrived, it was like coming home. They had a great shop and plenty of students just like me." Bridgeport, one of the finest industrial design schools in the nation, was tough, but Tarlow made the Dean's list and was one of seven in his class who compelted the program within four years. Folowing graduation, he took a job desining day-care centers for the City of Bridgeport.
And he also discovered something that would ultimately change his life – Transcendental Meditation.
It was the early "70s and Tarlow left the United States to study TM in Europe. While there, he became deeply involved in the organization and took an assignment developing the TM video library. As a result, he helped design an early-modle VCR – a holographic black and white laser unit. Although he enjoyed the video project, he was not able to continue upon his return to the U.S., when funding was no longer available.
Tarlow, who continues to teach TM as a sideline, went looking for work, shopping his services in New York, and the Midwest. During the next few years, he reengineered a milk processing plant, designed a guitar with interchangeable finger boards, created a system for growing alfalfa sprouts and developed a platform bed made of triple-thick corrugated cardboard. Although he and a partner sold more than 1,000 beds, they learned a valuable lesson in product development. "We sold several beds right away and even got a write-up in House Beautiful magazine, " he explains. "But then the sales dried up. We found out that sales people were reluctant to recommend the beds because of the cardboard. It was one of the strongest beds made, but we couldn't overcome the psychological implications of the word 'cardboard.'"
Tarlow's 1978 move to California marked his first attempt at a standard nine-to-five job. Hired by the Stansbury Company of Beverly Hills, he soon moved from staff designer to manager of the 35-person design firm. While working at Stansbury, Tarlow helped develop such products as a new dental chair, a food dehydrator, the smokeless ashtray and a back massage unit. Prdocuts sales eventually reached $40 million annually. After a brief interlude as an independent designer / developer Tarlow worked for the Casablanca Fan Company until the early "80s, when the call to indepence grew too strong to ignore. "A bell kept going off in my head," he recalls. "I had picked up a few clients along the way and even had two whoe kept me on retainer and gave me ongoing work. So I went out on my own helping people develop everything from toys to medical equipment. That was 13 years ago and I haven't looked back."
Additional Tarlow successes include the Fast Track Tie Rack (two million sold), the Barbe Claw cookware grip (100,000 sold), and Airline Head Phone (50 million sold). Tarlow acts as a type of "general contractor" for new products, using a top-notch stable of "subcontractors" to handle the drafting, package design, legal protection and manufacturing. When clients use his services, they may choose to pay the full free and retain all rights to the product or pay a reduced fee, giving Tarlow a percentage.
"People always have the option to do most of the work themselves," says Tarlow, who can even provide scripts for those who wish to approach manufactures for licensing.
"I just like working with people. There are so many frustrated inventors who have ideas but don't know what to do. And there's precious little information out there, so I've tailored my business to the independent inventors who need help."
Mind to Money
In addition to his work for clients, Tarlow also focuses on his own products and has finally begun packaging his product development information for inventors. Dubbed "Mind to Money," the package contains four cassette tapes an a workbook, covering suvh topics as evaluating ideas, research, prototypes, legal protection, licensing, manufacturing and business plans. Practical help with each topic is also available through a detailed resource directory. "basically, I grew tired of giving the same spiel ober and over to my clients," he explains. "So I began making up psmall pamphlets they could take home and read. That information eventually grew into the Mind to Money package. "I think of it as an educational process for my clients. It teaches them how to think intelligently, evaluate product ideas and proceed in a professional way. There are several basic rules people must understand and those rules apply no matter what the product is."
Mind to Money has been sold both through Tarlow Design and a series of infomercials. In addition, the package is now available at a special rate fror all Dream Merchant readers.
Knowledge and Persistence
Although corporate downsizing has resulted in lost jobs nationwide, Tarlow belives new opportunities have also been created. "Many companies have trimmed their R & D departments, so they're actually looking for new products. That makes things a bit easier for the independent inventor with good ideas." Tarlow advises that an inventor approach companies only when they have a patent (orpatent pending), a working prototype, price figures for tooling and retail sales, and a letter from retailers who wish to stock the product. Without these tools, he says, the product may never get off the ground. "When you come in with each of those things, you make it easy for a manufacturer to make a decision on you product. There's a certain energy associated with the process and you must capitalize on that. Ifthe process stops because you've forgotten one of those element, you could easily lost the sale." He also suggests that inventors do their homework by learning about the invention marketing process and consistently applying it. "It all comes down to knowledge and persistence," he says. "Learn all that you can and don't be afraid to take risks. The creative process is about getting it wrong most of the time," That may be true, but Ken Tarlow has also done plenty that is right.
How's the old idea machine?
By Ken Tarlow
Ever have an idea, only to see it on the market shelves a few months later? That's why quick action is so important. Let our new invention columnist help you jump-start your own ideas. Where do ideas come from? I belive that ideas for new products are floating in the air, just waiting for someone like you to pull them down and turn them into matieral form.
I think we'be all expereicent he pheneonmenon of habing an idea, and then a while later, seeing it for sale in a store or catalog. Someone else had the same idea, however that person acted on it.
And prospered from it!
This is why quick action is important. Chances are that one or more people are always thinking the same thing and may be acting on it. Alexander Graham Bell beat Elisha Gray to the patent office by a fgew hours with the inenvtion of the telephone. How's that for a close call? To help you jump-start your idea machine, I've include a list of 10 hot trends to consider when searching for a new product idea.
1. The aging of the population – Think about products that appeal to an older age group. The average age of people in the U.S. is growing each year as the Baby Boom Generation moves into its 50s and as advances in medicine prolongs people's lives. One of the hottest selling catalo items these days is a long handled "picker upper" so that older people do not have to bend down to pick up small objects.
2. The nest/Fortress/House – People are spending more time in their homes. They are constantly looking for ways to make their homes more comfortable, more entertaining and more secure. New interests in gourmet cooking at home is a result of this trend.
3. Working at Home – More and more people are telecommuting and working from home offices. Think of the countless ways to make life easier for this growing population.
4. Road Warriors – People are spending a lot more time in their cars and, in some cases, they are becoming offices on wheels. Think of ways to make life more bearable, entertaining, comfortable and safe for the daily commuting population.
5. Home Alone – The number of women in the workforce continues to grow. Kids of all ages need entertaining, educational, safe thins to do while not in school and not supervised by a parent.
6. The Endless Fitness Quest – Fitness seems to be an obsession in the U.S. There is always room for a product that creates a new, fun, efficient way to exercise.
7. The Shrinking Home – As living space decreases, we have more need for ways to organize all the stuff we collect. How can we hang it, hide it, store it, display it or collabpse it?
8. Information Superhighway – Yes, we'be all heard about it and now it's here. Keep an eye on ideas for items to assist people on this superhighway journey. An entire industry has been created from items associated with computers – things for organizing wires, holders for disks, stands and swivels and antiglare screens. Chances are we'll also need products to support the use of the information superhighway.
9. Interactive Everything – Interactive video, virtual reality, sophisticated electronics that simulate reality and respond to our individual movements and questions. It is happening now and expanding rapidly each year. Look for novel applications for this new technology. You do not have to be a techno whiz to do this. Try to understand the capabilities of this new medium, then ask, "what if…"
10. Clean up our Mess – The throw-away society is out of favor today. Saving the environment has replaced the Cold War as the biggest challenge to the continued survival of humans on this planet. There is a great opportunity in reinventing products and manufacturing process to make them environmentally friendly.
How can we throw away less? How can we conserve our limited resources? How can we reduce our polluting ways? This is a product category that can be financially profitable and save the planet at the same time.
Whatever the idea, be sure you follow only those that excite you.
Hang out with Ken Tarlow of Corte Madera, the “Inventor Mentor,” long enough, and the physical world can seem oddly transfigured. Those tiny obstacles you take for granted in life bloom out, like looking through a microscope at your benign rash and gasping in horror at the massive red eruptions blighting your skin.
Take the collective grief caused every day by ice-cube trays. Short of those ice makers in expensive refrigerators, which are always breaking down anyway, no one has figured out how to make a dispenser that can reliably release a single ice cube at a time without causing all the other cubes to fall out also. The problem can be solved with those stiff plastic trays, but only by careful water filling and a long fingernail – and only for some cubes, while others remain totally unreachable.
The other day, after returning from a talk with Ken Tarlow, I found myself in to office kitchen, tipping over the ice-cube tray, my hand splayed over its to catch what I could. When too many cubes dropped out, I had to bend over to pick up a couple of slippery cubes, then, for possibly the first time in my life, it came to me: there must be a better way. No doubt I am not the first to think this. There is probably an entire chilly division of Rubbermaid devoted to Ice-Cube Dispenser Improvement, complete with dozens of cryo-specialist donning white spacesuits in a warehouse-sized test freezer.
But most people pay very little attention to what author Nicholson Baker Calls “the often undocumented daily texture of our lives. “Instead, most folks just figure that these little frustrations are a part of life. They take it on the chin. Ken Tarlow doesn’t think this is a good idea. As a “product developer, “Tarlow’s job is to help people solve just these kinds of everyday problems. You come to him with an idea for a product and he helps patent it design and build it, and sell it to a manufacturer, in a “one-stop-shop” approach. He’s developed over a hundred products, several of which you’ve probably used, which have netted an amazing $400 million in retail sales. By his own estimate, he’s made at least a dozen millionaires.
Tarlow’s design experience has ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, from being the right-hand tinkerer for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to making cheap trinkets for the infamously cheesy Ronco mail-order company. These days, his goal is humbler and more inspiring, for as an inventor he speaks for the common man.
Once upon a time, the world was enchanted by stories of solitary eccentrics like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, inventors who spawned empires from their work desks. Now, we think of most “inventors” as engineering geeks in huge, windowless corporate laboratories, whose inventions are instantly absorbed into the corporate maw. By contrast, most of Tarlow’s clients wouldn’t even call themselves inventors. They’re just people who have had an idea milling around in their heads for a while. “I have spent the last twenty years helping people to convert their dreams into action, “Tarlow Writes in an essay. The truth seems a little more prosaic, if more interesting. As co-inventor of the Hair Vac, the Zip Sip and the smokeless Ashtray, among hundreds of other contraptions, Ken Tarlow deals in what one might call the Post-It Miracle-the late capitalist magic trick though which a silly little idea, if built cheaply, distributed widely and marketed well, can bloom into a vast fortune. LET”S TAKE ANOTHER ONE of these little hassles of life: slipping a pillow into a pillowcase. You might think Harold Moen of Larkspur was the first one to stick the end of a pillow under his chin, clamp his chin down toward his neck to suspend the pillow fluff the pillowcase underneath the pillow, carefully maneuver the pillow between the edges of the pillowcase (without being able to see the case), jerk the pillow down into the case, and then think: There must be another way.
But no. People have been having such thoughts for over a hundred years, as evidenced by the first patent that Ken Tarlow dug up for his client. The Pillow-Holder, designed by Charles N. Leonard of Indianapolis in 1887, was a three-sided wooden frame designed to hold the pillow as the slip was pulled over it. The device never caught on, perhaps because it required the user to sew two loops to the corners of his pillows.
In 1929, Mary Morgan and Charles Hammer of Lima, Ohio, gave it another try with their “device for inserting pillows in slips,” which actually required tow frames and could only fit a certain size pillow. Soon thereafter, another invention was patented involving a permanent clip on the end of the pillow which would engage a support board.
Harold Moen, however, had some new designs in mind. About then years ago, he constructed an aluminum device shaped something like a diving rod. The rod had clips on each end to secure the pillow. But this appeared to be too expensive to make. More recently, he realized that two lengths of light, inexpensive PVC pipe could be pinched around either side of the pillow, compressing the pillow for easy slippage. Moen presented a prototype to Tarlow, who refined the mechanism by which the two pieces of pipe could be quick-released out of the pillow case once it had been slipped over the pillow. (The quick-released involves a cable, two springs and a retaining ball.) Now, with the Pillow Ease (patent pending), you’ll never have to put a pillow in your chin again. Instead, one end of the device is equipped with a hard rubber strip that can be placed against your stomach as you slip the pinched pillow into the case. “You can buy all the parts at a hardware store for eighty-seven cents,” Moen, 82, says excitedly. “It’ll sell for about fifteen bucks.” Moen says he’s test-marketed the Pillow Ease with maids at the local Marriott hotel, who told him they liked it. If he makes a profit, Moen, who is comfortably retired, plans to give the proceeds to charity.
THE NEXT STEP, selling the Pillow Ease idea to a manufacturer who will crank out the product, is the hard part, though it looks like the Pillow Ease will make it over that hurdle also. Tarlow says Pillow Ease is now being seriously considered by a Southern California company that also markets the successful “Sheet Suspenders” product.
Tarlow says that one out of every four or five inventions he develops is actually sold to a manufacturer and makes it to market. That may not sound like a great record, but Tarlow says that many books on product development predict something like a one-hundred-to-one ratio. The product developer also puts his small operation in opposition to big marketing companies that allegedly prey on amateur inventors. Inventors’ groups say these companies don’t make any real effort at selling inventions to manufacturers. One-such company, American Inventors Corporation in Massachusetts, admits [in a Wall Street Journal article] a success rate of less than 2 percent. Nonetheless, the major firms in the field continue to rake in over $100 million a year.
Tarlow says he only charges enough upfront fees to breakeven. If he makes any profit, it’s from royalties: 20 percent for constructing the prototype and getting the patent, 20 percent more when he licenses the product. This gives him a stake in the success of the product.
Some product ideas, however, Tarlow rejects outright because of some “fatal flaw.” When somebody came to him with a suggestions that a car’s steering wheel could be converted to an electronic drum set (the inventor wanted to call it “Traffic Jammers”), Tarlow turned it down because it was too dangerous. “We feel we’re doing a great service by telling people not to do something,” he says.
Essential to the inventors’ mind-set, Tarlow avers, is the “need to ask the question why” instead of simply adapting to the hardships of our common environment. Sometimes it takes a new and innocent approach, Tarlow says, pointing out the example of Edwin Land.
Land, founder of Polaroid Corporation, was on vacation in Santa Fe with his wife and three-year-old daughter. After a day of sightseeing, his daughter asked why she couldn’t see the snapshots right away. Land took her question seriously. Three years later, the Polaroid instant camera was born. ONE DAY in 1972, Ken Tarlow was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Majorca, Spain, with over two thousand other people who had gathered a the hotel to learn how to teach Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. During this training session, the Maharishi remarked that it was nearly impossible to make sure that everyone was showing up for the lessons. What the Maharishi wanted was a huge board full of lights that a trainee could switch on when he walked into the lobby so the guru could know at a glance who was present and who was playing hooky. “And who can do this?” the Maharishi asked, staring at the room. Tarlow looked at his old childhood friend Howard Beckerman, also a follower of the guru. Back in ninth grade, Howard and Ken gained local notoriety by bringing walking, talking robots to school. The year before that, they had set up a two-stage rocket that shot up a half mile, then crashed on a neighbor’s lawn.
Tarlow and Beckerman raised their hands, starting a four-year journey as the Maharishi’s top hardware men. The light board proved impossible – it demanded too much electricity – but soon the Maharishi lit upon another idea. He wanted an inexpensive VCR and television set to allow him to spread his teachings. After years of effort, “vedavision” never got off the ground either. However, Tarlow and Beckerman did set up satellite system which allowed the Maharishi to teach all over the world from his mountaintop headquarters in Switzerland. Tarlow also developed a very inexpensive radio receiver for the country of Nepal, through which the Maharishi taught meditation to 10,000 people at the request of the country’s leader. And he developed the “Buddha Chair,” a low-slung chair that allows the user to sit comfortably in the lotus position.
Tarlow still teaches TM and meditates to clear his own mind. “It’s all there on tape,” Tarlow says of the Maharishi’s teachings. “He’s got ten thousand hours on videotape. What he wanted to do was create a suitcase of knowledge, so that you could go anywhere in the world, set that thing open make that knowledge available to anyone. That’s one of his visions.
“So when I make my million,” he laughs, “I’ll deliver it for him. Right now I’ve got to make a living.” WHEN THE STRAIN of life on one of the Maharishi’s communes got too difficult on Tarlow’s wife and young son, the family left for Southern California. Tarlow ended up at a design company in Beverly Hills, still tinkering, but with a much different goal: to make money for Ronco, the now bankrupt company famous for selling cheap gadgets on television. Tarlow Spent three years designing a dozen products for Ronco, including the Food Dehydrator and Mr. Dentist.
Ronco got its name from a guy named Ron. “Ron was a real piece of work,” Tarlow said of his old boss, Ron Popiel. “He was a good-looking guy, kind of Paul Newmanish, so he always had women falling all over him. But he was a hard-driving guy. He worked one assistant so hard the guy had a heart attack. But he didn’t die. Ron’s reaction was, ‘I almost hot him.’”
Tarlow knew exactly what he was doing for Ron-designing cut-rate products for maximal gain. Ronco’s cheapness was a pity, says Tarlow, because some great ideas went into the products. “They were marginal products, but many of them have gone on to become whole industries. He did a little vacuum thing to get the crumbs off your table way before Dustbuster, but he just did a crummy job. So black and Decker came along and did it right. They were a second-tier drill manufacturer before that, and that one product put them on the map-to the point where they bought out GE’s consumer products division. [Ron] was onto things, but he wasn’t willing to take them to the level of quality and functionality so they’d be serious. “It got to the point where-you remember that “Saturday Night Live’ skit for the Bass-O-Matic, where they dropped that fish in [a blender] and pulverized it? And he drank it. They called it ‘Wrongco.’ I was working with Ron at the time and he was offended. He said, let’s try to make better products. We tried to make better products but… they had to cost less and less.
“He bought this hundred-and-fifty-dollar food dehydrator at a health food store. He set it on the desk and said ‘This could be hot…but I want it to do more than just dehydrate food, and I want to retail it for around eighteen dollars. ‘His margin from manufactured cost to final retail was five or six to one. So it would have to cost like three dollars and fifty cents to manufacture.”
Tarlow’s search for cheap parts took him to a state-run Communist factory in Hungary, which sold him three million light bulbs to sue in the dehydrators for a trifling sum. Ron’s desires were fulfilled, and the food dehydrator sold millions.
Tarlow stopped working for Ronco in 1983. He says Ronco went bankrupt, but eventually Popiel managed to buy back his surplus Ronco merchandise and sell it off. Then Popiel became the father of the infomercial, first selling the hair-simulating spray paint that covers up bald spots, and now the “Popiel Pasta Maker.”
I wanted to know whether Tarlow had any role in creating the world-famous Veg-O-Matic. “The Veg-O-Matic was actually his father,” said Tarlow. “His father started Popiel Company and did Veg-O-Matic and Pocket Fisherman and a couple of other ones. We called Ron the “Son of Veg-O-Matic.” His desire was to outdo his father.
“Ron started his career hawking his father’s product on the boardwalk at Atlantic City. And do you know who was with him? Ed McMahon.”
IN 1985, Tarlow started his own company in Santa Monica, helping people design and market their inventions. Since then he’s designed such successful products as the Turbo Wash (high-powered jet stream helps you wash out-of-the-way places), the Barbie Claw (for barbecues, not blonde mannequins), Mr. Cool Mug (self-cooling mug and the Fast Track Tie Rack (which revolves at the push of a button). Last year Tarlow moved to Marin, where he hired his partner Richard Lazovick. Lazovick and Tarlow work together at Tarlow’s Corte Madera home. The work-shop in the garage contains the lathes and milling and drilling machines; the office has inventions in photographs on the walls.
“He’s the mad professor, “Lazovick says of his partner. “He’s the super-active one. He doesn’t have a lot of organization, because it’s all going into creativity. I have the background in engineering and an MBA, so I try to put some organization into everything.”
In the past year, Tarlow has developed a host of local clients. Of course there’s Harold Moen with the Pillow Ease; there’s also the Snail Jail (traps and kills snails without consumer having to touch snail bait) by Paddy Gallagher of Novato; the Egg Minder (your boiled eggs pop up when they’re done, like a toaster) by Larry Collins of Fairfax, and the Golf Hat (built-in earphones eliminate distractions) by Pat Deering of Petaluma. All these inventions are patented and waiting to be snapped up by a manufacturer. Meanwhile, Tarlow has ambitions. He wants to develop something called Camp Create-the name is trademarked-a backwoods camp where amateur inventors can “find out what their genius is.” He’s also marketing a book and tape set, “Mind to Money,” which takes amateur inventors all the way through product development, from coming up with a good idea to selling it to a manufacturer.
If they’re successful, these projects should help create a little more money for Tarlow himself. But Tarlow does seem to have a genuine desire to help people “follow the little voice inside them,” as he puts it. And he believes that corporations, having cut down on their research-and-development budgets, may be looking to amateur inventors for new products.
“Most of the professionals that develop products, like industrial design firms or engineering firms, are used to working with corporations. The corporations will come in and say they need a new product to add to our line, and they’ll come up with a $100,000 budget. Regular people don’t have that. We’ve tailored ourselves to doing things on a very modest budget.”
So you’ve got an idea for how to build a better mousetrap. Now what?
That’s a question Ken Tarlow of Corte Madera can answer. Tarlow, a trained industrial designer, has made a career out of helping people develop their ideas for new products.
Take the tie-rack lady, the woman he describes as his most successful client. She walked in one day with nothing more than a general idea for a rotating rack, like the kind used by dry cleaners, to organize men’s ties.
Based on her verbal description, Tarlow built an engineering model of a motorized rack, got a patent, and then persuaded a manufacturer to produce it. The result: Two million Fast Track Tie Racks sold to date, generating more than $1million in royalties for the inventor, Barbara Arner.
Not every idea that comes in the door is as marketable, Tarlow said. But after 23 years in the business, he has developed a keen eye for the kinds of products that will sell.
“I try to screen them out so they’ll have a chance of success, “he said. “My main objective is to have my clients make money.”
Some ideas are obviously ludicrous. One man wanted to hollow out the San Gabriel Mountains and install giant fans to blow away the smog in the Los Angeles basin.
When assessing ideas, Tarlow goes by what he calls the “Gee Whiz factor.”
“Any product thought of by an outside person has to be really different,” he said. “It has to be able to stand alone.”
To be awarded a U.S. patent, a product also must have something unique about it. “The patent office is looking for some-thing that took creative thought and has a series of feature that build on each other that create an end result that is truly unique.”
An example was the Seasonart, a rack that stores, measures and dispenses spices. While there are plenty of spices racks, this one is equipped with special sliding doors and vibrators to help break up the spices for measuring.
Michael Dergosits, a San Anselmo resident who practices patent law in San Francisco, said that inventors can choose to go it alone, but professional consultants provide them with an edge.
“The inventor needs to do a personal assessment on whether they are a good enough salesperson to sell it, “Dergosits said. “Very few ideas are intrinsically worthwhile: You need to convince someone." Many companies will not consider outside solicitations, but consultants can help break through the barriers.
Then there are the technical issues. Even if someone can build a model of their invention, it may not be the kind of prototype that can persuade a manufacturer it can be economically reproduced. “You may not need an outside person, but if you are not used to that kind of presentation, you may want to bring someone in to do that work for you,” he said.
More than half the ideas Tarlow sees have a fatal flaw, he said. For example, some are not different enough to be awarded a patent. Others would be too expensive to produce or do not have a large enough market.
About 20 percent of the ideas he accepts and collaborates on find their way to market and make money for the client. That is considered a good record in such a risky industry.
Some of the projects he’s worked on include uniquely adjustable dental chairs, a guitar with interchangeable fretboards, smokeless ashtrays, airline earphones, a foolproof vegetable steamer, and an automatic piggy bank that pays the kids back a nickel in “interest” for each quarter they deposit.
Over the years he’s helped develop 300 products, in categories including housewares, toys, electronics, gifts, and sports-and-recreational equipment.
Currently he is working with clients on sunglasses with lenses that rotate to adjust the brightness, a frozen teething pacifier, and a compact-disc jukebox.
He is also putting the finishing touches on one of his projects, a self-stirring cooking pot. Tarlow, 47, had a successful product-idea-consulting business in Santa Monica but after the Northridge earthquake destroyed his family’s home last year, he decided it was time to move north.
In Corte Madera he’s set up an office in the Den and arranged a small machine shop in the garage. He calls his business Mind to Money.
Tarlow’s love for inventions began early. In the basement of his family’s home he built robots and other contraptions. For years he thought he was just an oddball inventor, until a high-school teacher introduced him to the field of industrial design – and he realized he could get paid for what he did. Besides the financial rewards, inventing things gives him a psychological boost.
“It’s a definite high,” he said. He looks for the same enthusiasm in his clients. Getting a product though is no easy task. “If their intent is strong enough, something happens,” he said. “I really value the energy and enthusiasm people bring with their idea. It’s a risky business, but if you succeed, you can do very well.”
Inventors have a few words of advice to their fellow entrepreneurs: Watch out for scams.
Corte Madera product consultant Ken Tarlow and other inventor advocates caution that there are a number of unscrupulous companies that will promise to help develop ideas but never deliver.
There are invention marketing companies that charge thousands of dollars, “Tarlow said. “The problem is what they say they will do doesn’t produce any results.”
Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on a Pittsburgh company and won a court judgment preventing them from a broad range of misrepresentations.
“There isn’t a day that goes by when we don’t have stories of people who are being exploited by companies that run big slick ads, “said Alan Pratner, president of the nonprofit support and advocacy group Inventors Workshop International in Canoga Park.
Two warning flags are when a company charges large up-front fees and refuses to provide client reference, Pratner said.
The Better Business Bureau, Small Business Administration or local district attorney’s office are good places to check on the track record of a particular consulting company, Pratner said.
For more information about the inventor workshop’s “Inventor Ripoff Elimination” program, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to 7332 Mason Ave., Canoga Park, CA 91306-2822.
Ken Tarlow’s predictions for the hot areas for new inventions.
-The older generation: As the baby boom generation moves into its 50’s products that cater to an aging population should well.
-Home: Having spent a fortune on real estate, people are spending more time at home and are looking for ways to make them more comfortable and secure. More people are also working at home and home-office products are another hot market.
-On the road: People spend more time in their cars and they want things to make the drive more bearable, entertaining and comfortable.
-Latchkey kids: Children left home alone need entertaining, education and safe things to do to fill the hours before parents return from work.
-Fitness: The quest for the perfect body never ends and neither will the search for products to help achieve it.
-Interactive: Virtual reality, Computers and televisions that talk back are all part of the new wave, and interactive technology will be a hot ticket.
-Environment: Products that help clean up Mother Earth and conserve resources will continue to be popular.
Sizzling hot temperatures over the summer of 1995 inspired Fairfax resident Ted Strauss to come up with an idea for a full body air conditioner that fits around the neck.
Ken Tarlow’s expertise in turning ideas into successful products made Strauss’ idea a reality – and a money maker.
Tarlow is a Corte Madera inventor who for the past 14 years has been mentoring other inventors through his business, America Invents. In his total 25 years working in product design, Tarlow estimates he has helped develop more than 300 consumer products with sales totaling $1 billion.
He helped Strauss design, build a prototype and get a patent for and license his body cooler to national consumer products retailer Sharper Image, which has sold more than 200,000 of devices at $49.50 a pop. The body cooler can be seen on late-night television commercials and at Sharper Image stores, such as the one in Corte Madera, Tarlow said.
“Most people think they have to be some exceptional person to be an inventor,” Tarlow said. “But all you have to have is an idea. People get these ideas and just don’t know what to do with them.”
Tarlow has worked with hundreds of inventors, and says about 20 percent of them have ideas that are commercially successful. Unless an inventor has the time and money to manufacture their own product, they must find someone else to do it. That’s not always easy, Tarlow said.
“It takes a long time to locate the right manufacturer and negotiate a licensing agreement,” he said. “Manufacturers usually have a lot on their plates with their own projects.”
That’s why Tarlow does not charge his clients for the process of searching for a manufacturer. If he secures a deal, however, Tarlow asks for 30 percent of the royalties. Tarlow also charges inventors for creating the prototype and guiding them through the patent-writing process.
“I try to keep my rates low because I know that I am not dealing with large companies,” he said. Tarlow got much of his experience in product design and manufacturing at large companies he worked for in Southern California. But, he said, he realized that regular people with ideas had nowhere to go with them. That’s when he decided to go into business for himself helping people bring their ideas to the consumer marketplace.
“I have been a tinkerer all my life but I never had the time to tinker all the way to the market, ” Strauss said.
David Teller of Mill Valley is one of Tarlow’s clients. With Tarlow’s help, Teller has devised a product designed to prevent sudden infant death syndrome. It attaches to a baby’s diaper and sounds an alarm when the baby rolls on its stomach.
Teller credits Tarlow with helping him create his product. The two are negotiating a licensing contract with a national retail store.
“He is an incredible resource and has high integrity, which is something we inventors worry about, “Teller said.
Tarlow’s love of new gadgets started at a young age. In the second grade, he designed a flying contraption made from a piece of bamboo and a balloon. He sold them to friends for 5 cents each. His parents turned over the basement of their Long Island home to him for his work–shop, where he created go-carts, remote-control cars and robots.
Now 53, Tarlow still enjoys tinkering and has turned his garage into the office of America Invents. “He has his own office but still a lot of his work spills into the house,” said his wife, Gail. She said being the wife of an inventor is exciting, but added there are downsides.
“The best part about being the wife of an inventor is when he needs a piece from one of our appliances to compete an invention," she said sarcastically. “For a while we had a hair dryer that did not get warm and a VCR that could not rewind because he needed the parts. I get two of everything now.”
Ken Tarlow will be on hand at the Marin County Fair this weekend, Showing slides of Marin inventors and trying to drum up business.
“I will be waving the flag letting people know that I am in business,” Tarlow said. “If people have an idea, we can talk about it. Maybe we can make it happen.”