Air Force Maj. Matt Butler has already moved 25,000 units of his lawn game, http://rollors.net/">Rollors, after coming up with the idea between flights over Afghanistan and Iraq. Now he wants to share what he's learned with other service members and veterans who have an entrepreneurial bent.
"Starting a business is going to take a lot of effort. There's a big commitment to it," he said. "You have to be ready and mentally prepared to sacrifice time and effort and money."
His next project is a website, which he hopes to launch next year, aimed at service member-inventors.
"There are some things that I've done wrong," Butler said. "There are a lot of things I've done right. I'd like to share those with other people."
He conceived Rollors during down times on deployments, when his thoughts often turned to home in the Midwest, playing lawn games with family at picnics or barbecues.
The game essentially combines horseshoes and bocce with an added element of luck. Players roll hockey-puck-sized wooden discs toward a target (think of the rod in a horseshoe pit), and points are awarded depending on how the discs land. The game costs $30 to $40 a set.
Butler has already had more than a dozen requests for advice from aspiring inventors in the military. He figures 30 minutes of advice and direction would be enough for most entrepreneurs to get started, whether they're creating a new product or starting a small business.
So you have an idea for a product or service. The first step, he advises, is to make sure your idea isn't already taken.
Too many people have just jumped into the market to find their idea is already out there, he said — or that the idea had been out there, but did not succeed. Take the time and do the research.
There are many ways to protect your intellectual property, Butler said, but the process is complicated.
The first thing to do, probably even while researching the viability of an idea, is to check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's database to see whether someone already has patented the product. Google also has searchable patent data.
While it's possible to file the patent claim yourself, Butler recommends getting help from a patent lawyer. A patent requires a whole different kind of writing and thinking.
A large share of the estimated $20,000 Butler invested in Rollors was for legal fees, he said, but after seeing what the patent lawyer was able to do for him, "I thought the money that I paid was very worthwhile."
Handling your business
If the idea or product looks like it's worth the investment of time and money, Butler recommends starting a limited-liability corporation, which separates your personal assets from business assets. Then, should something go wrong and legal action arise, your savings are protected.
Building a prototype
The idea bouncing around your head or scribbled on a napkin isn't nearly as helpful as a tangible mock-up, Butler said. Prototyping for Rollors took about a year.
"You want to start getting some cost estimates," and building a test version of the product can help determine how to spend and where. That might mean changing materials, removing a feature or adding a service.
One needs to ask, "Where am I going to get the best bang for my buck here?" Butler said. "Sometimes you have to give a little bit."
Getting it on shelves
Butler started selling Rollors out of a cardboard box at church craft fairs. Today, a few years later, the game is sold online by Toys ‘R' Us, Target, REI, Sears, Wal-Mart and Dick's Sporting Goods.
Getting to the big time is tough, and getting attention for a product means attending trade shows, advertising, contacting retail buyers, using social media, submitting the product for reviews, even having retailers sell your product without paying you for it first. Anything to get the product out there, he explained.
"You can't just pick up the phone" and call the top buyer at Target or Wal-Mart, he said — the networking takes time and patience. "It's almost impossible to find that senior buyer. It's like gold once you do," he said.
Distribution and licensing
Entrepreneurs can take on manufacturing and distribution responsibilities themselves, Butler said. That can bring greater reward, but greater risk.
He decided to license Rollors with Maranda Enterprises of Wisconsin, which took over production and distribution of the game for a cut of the profits, and he thinks it's a great route for active-duty service members.
"I did that solely on the fact that the game became bigger than what I could do while being in the military," he said.