SportsLizard Entrepreneur Blog

Monday, February 05, 2007

My invention and my entrepreneurial start

I read Dave's post on Mind Petals earlier today entitled What Sparked Your Journey To Becoming An Entrepreneur and it really got me thinking because I didn't have the traditional entrepreneurial start. I wasn't one of those kids that had a lemonade stand when I was 5, or sold candy for profit in high school, and I am not one of those people with business in my blood.

It all started for me on my engineering co-op in 2003. A co-op, for those of you who don't know, is a paid internship that usually spans a semester and a summer, but could be longer. Most students co-op close to graduation, and the pay is usually closer to an entry level job compared to an internship. The idea is that you get to test a company for 8 months and they get to test you doing real world work. In the end, both parties learn a ton about what they want.

Before my co-op I had several internships that, in hindsight, have helped me immensely as a business owner, and I had a few relatives in business, but I had never even considered running my own business. I just wanted to get my degree, get my 60k/year job out of school, and then focus more on my personal life and less on my professional life - I viewed it as my "reward" for busting my ass in college.

But all that changed during the first week of my co-op. I was a quality engineering co-op for a large consumer goods company (that I'm sure you've all heard of) and my job was to design and implement quality tests and procedures to help ensure the product released was safe for the consumer. This included product testing, packaging and shipping testing, environmental testing, and just about everything else you can think of.

In the first day I shadowed a QE that was performing an impact test on the product - by repeatedly dropping it from 5 feet in the air! I was shocked that a large company still relied on such rudimentary tests that are highly uncontrollable and yield no tangible data (other than broken or not broken). I asked about a device to do that, and the answer I got was "we've looked into it and nothing really exists." I didn't believe it, but the more research I did I realized they were correct.

I told this to one of the design co-ops, and we quickly whipped up some CAD drawings for such a device. I pitched it to the director of engineering and he loved it. Over the course of our co-op, we solicited quotes for the components and by the time we left to go back to RPI, we we're given a 10k budget to build the device and told we'd be paid $20/hr. We had the best job ever! We spent the majority of the semester building this thing in my partner's spare bedroom and reporting our hours on the web - our bosses were 200 miles away. The lab we built was probably the most unsafe environment ever (we once shot a LinMot slider through a wall), but we were innovating so we didn't care.

Fast forward to now - the device and the software work well (but not flawlessly to my knowledge) and there is a patent pending (it's literally the only one in the world and that continues to amaze me) that WON'T have my name on it since I left my job with the same company last year. We tried to get permission from the company to market and sell the product ourselves, with a proceeds going to them and also with a promise not to sell it to their competitors, but we were denied.

As I was going through the process though, I realized that I had so much more potential than just working for someone else. I realized that I could see problems that other people couldn't, or at least come up with solutions that other people couldn't. That director of engineering came up to me at all of 20 years old and told me that he thought my best potential was as a business owner.

Although my partner and I failed at turning this invention into a commercially viable one and we also failed at another business (for another invention), I realized that before I graduated I wanted to start a business, any business, because I knew I could do it. A few months later the idea for SportsLizard was born and I began learning how to program. I took a few classes my senior year in college, and it was on.

I suppose the lesson in all of this is that there is no set way to become an entrepreneur. Some are born into it and some have a life-changing event like my invention that open their eyes to the possibilities.

What's your story?

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