Great Business Ideas: Build a Working Model

Great Ideas for your Small Business: Build a Working Model

You may have the most brilliant concept in the world, but raising money to manufacture and market your baby is almost impossible without a working model. The problem is that too many entrepreneurs fall prey to invention scam artists who promise to introduce them to manufacturers but often end up stealing their money.

Your challenge is finding a reputable product design firm that won’t just perfect your prototype, but will also propose economic options to mass-produce it and bring it to market. “People think that if they have a patent they are nine-tenths of the way there,” said Henry Keck, who has been designing products since the 1950s. “When the inventor says it’s 90 percent complete, we say there’s 90 percent more to go.”

Keck, cofounder of Keck-Craig Inc. in Pasadena, has many well-known product designs to his credit. He’s most famous for designing the sleek metal-and-glass flip-top sugar dispenser sitting on millions of restaurant tables around the world.

“We want our products to be well styled and highly mar- ketable,” Keck said. He and his partner, Warren Haussler, rely on a staff of six engineers and model makers to design everything from portable eye washers to battery-operated pesticide sprayers. Their tidy model shop is a tinkerer’s dream, filled with rows of lathes, presses, mills, and saws.

The veteran industrial designers say that too many inventors make the mistake of patenting their idea before they find out whether or not it can be mass-produced in a cost- effective way. “People suffer by being stuck to their patents,” Keck said. “You can add things to a patent or make changes while it’s being processed, but once it’s issued, that’s it.”

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Although many big companies, such as Robertshaw Controls and Avery-Dennison, turn to Keck-Craig for design help, the firm serves small entrepreneurs as well. Small design projects cost $5,000 to $10,000; big jobs can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Warren Haussler, president. The fees they charge depend upon the amount of time and work needed to design and build a model or prototype. They work with ten to twenty clients at a time.

Jim Harris, who invented the Shrimp Pro shrimp deveiner, turned to Keck-Craig to bring his dream to reality. His machine, which is sold to restaurants around the world, can devein sixty shrimp a minute. It hit the market in 1995 with the help of a team at Keck-Craig. Because the machine was so well designed and engineered, Harris said he could cut the retail price in half—from about $1,000 to $500.

“Engineers are an absolute necessity for an entrepreneur,” said Harris. “I’m chief visionary officer. The best ideas come from people who are least capable of bringing them to fruition.”

Harris said he worked Keck-Craig’s model makers and engineers for four months, “yelling and screaming” through- out the process. “You have to agree to disagree,” he said. “That’s the most important part of the process. Engineers have a mind-set, and sometimes you have to bring creativity to their mind-set.”

Harris advises other entrepreneurs looking for engineers and model makers to ask people with similar but noncompetitive products where they had theirs designed. “Check out their facilities and the company’s résumé. Look at what they’ve done,” he said.

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He also cautions inventors to raise money to bring a product to market. This can come to between $150,000 and $300,000, depending on what you are trying to make, especially if you intend to patent your device as he did.