Small Business

Turn a Product Idea into a Prototype


Warren M. Haussler, president of Keck-Craig, a prototyping service for inventors and industrial clients, explains how the process works

Walking around the office, laboratory, and workshop at Keck-Craig in Pasadena, Calif., is something like touring a strange mechanical museum. Quirky machines—from tennis-ball servers to shrimp deveiners and beer-can chillers—are displayed everywhere, all designed and/or built by Keck-Craig. The $1 million company is one of a handful around the U.S.that helps inventors turn their ideas into reality, says Warren M.Haussler, president of the 59-year-old business.He spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about what makes an entrepreneur successful. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow. Karen E. Klein: How many inventions have you worked on? Warren M. Haussler: Since the company was started in 1951, we've done about 1,800 projects involving electrical and mechanical design and development. Of those, 700 or 800 were brought to market. The others didn't work out. Why not? It's a long way from designing a prototype to getting a product on the market. After a product is designed and ready to be manufactured, it still takes a lot of time and money before it can be distributed and sold. About half of your business comes from individual entrepreneurs and half from industrial clients. What do you do for the entrepreneurs? We take their ideas—whether it's just a concept in their head or some design drawings—and make them work right, look nice, and be able to be manufactured efficiently. They leave here with feasible, working prototypes, drawings, and manufacturing specs. The inventor can turn that prototype into a product or use it to raise money. We don't do legal work or manufacturing, but we can refer them to people who do. You probably hear about some strange ideas. Once or twice a year we get somebody who wants to defy the laws of gravity, walk on water, or make a perpetual motion machine. We tell them no, even though it means turning down work. The idea has to have some merit or we won't deal with it. Sometimes the ideas are terrific, but the cost of manufacturing is too high compared to the potential market price. Anyone who comes in, we give an hour of free time so we can pencil out the idea. And we always assign the patent solely to them. We just want to get paid for what we do. What are some recent ideas that you brought to life? A guy from New York sent us a drawing for a beer chiller. We designed a plastic pitcher where you put in a can of beer, add ice and water, and the beer spins around for one minute and gets cold. He had it manufactured in Hong Kong and now sells it online. An African American woman had an idea for a plastic brush called the Unbraider. It takes out cornrows quickly, without tangles. We designed a prototype and she had it manufactured in Taiwan. She worked in the beauty supply industry, so she had distribution and contacts. Another insider—a guy in the fish distribution business—came to us with an idea for a shrimp deveiner and we designed it so it could be manufactured very reasonably. He got the product to market, wiped out his only competitor, and sold the company to a French corporation. Does it help when you're dealing with someone who's already working in the industry? That's absolutely the best kind of entrepreneur. Someone who's knowledgeable about the business, knows what's needed in a new product, has done some surveys, and has some financing, whether it's from investors or savings or a second mortgage. How much does your service typically cost? It usually takes $30,000 to $40,000—about the cost of a new car. It's hard to turn around anything for less than $10,000 and it can go up to $100,000. What are entrepreneurs' biggest concerns? They're all worried about confidentiality. Some of them are paranoid. Everything we do is completely confidential and we only work on one project of a kind, so there's no problem. How has the recession affected your business? Around October 2008, things got very tight and we had to worry about expenses. But there was a pickup in business in January 2009 and it's still going. Since January 2010, we've added two people. So we're up to nine staff and we've got business booked through the end of the year. How much business are you getting these days from entrepreneurial clients? We used to get 10 to 12 inquiries a month from entrepreneurs, but that dropped to 2 or 3 a month in 2009 and most of our work started to come from corporate clients. Since January, we've been back up to 7 or 8 inventor inquiries a month. I think we're coming out of recession and that changes the mental attitude of people. I also think there are also some who realize they aren't ever going to get their old job back and they need to pursue something new. You've been at Keck-Craig 20 years. What keeps you going? It's all about the entrepreneurial drive of the inventor. That's what makes an idea go. Sometimes we see a crazy idea make it big, and other times there are great ideas that never go anywhere. But when I sense that entrepreneurial attitude—what the hell? It's too much fun to quit.

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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