January 25, 2002

Small-Time Inventors Take Super Show By Storm

By Yvette tenBerge

Jean-Guy Raymond, a 70-year-old retired firefighter from Montreal, Canada, stands next to a display that consists of a pumpkin-sized, black ball fitted into a heavy, polished wood base. Although his casual attire and stance project calm, his eyes are intent on passersby who stop to watch a video playing on a monitor to his right. Observers exchange puzzled looks as they view footage of Mr. Raymond, or members of his family, partially lying on the floor and rolling their stomachs over the Abdomax, an invention that Mr. Raymond believes will take fitness-crazy America by storm.

Jean-Guy Raymond with the Abdomax.

Mr. Raymond is one of over 2,000 people or companies who converged at Las Vegas' Venetian Hotel from January 21 through 23, at the Super Show, the largest sporting goods trade show in North America.

Although a nearby booth selling the Ab Energizer dwarfs his display, Mr. Raymond remains unphased. As his agent explains the product design to onlookers, Mr. Raymond delves into a brief history of his invention. He first used the medicine ball, a weighted ball used to create resistance in abdominal exercises, when he was in his teens. He liked the concept, but developed the Abdomax out of a quest to make using the medicine ball a possibility for those exercising alone.

"I started using a basketball on the floor, but this was hard on the shoulders and not stable enough. From there, I took a salad bowl, filled it with marbles, and found this to work better," says Mr. Raymond, who spent four years designing the product and organizing a team with the knowledge to build and market the apparatus.

Although Mr. Raymond's booth does not provide pamphlets describing his invention, and despite the fact that the only existing sample of his product is the one on display, he has already spent $25,000 of his own money to bring the Abdomax this far. When asked what his goals are for this product, which is set to retail for $195, he smiles confidently before stating that he intends for "everybody to be able to use it every morning."

The United States Patent and Trademark Office's 2001 figures prove that Mr. Raymond is not alone in believing in the potential of an idea. Out of 344,717 patent applications submitted, 187,824 were granted. The average length of time it takes to receive a patent ­ a legal claim on a product idea granted for a set amount of time - is 19 months.

Chuck Monary, 51, has three accounting degrees, an MBA from Pepperdine University and has served as a Chief Financial Officer for an aerospace company. He is now the brain - and the pocketbook - behind the Road Toad, the "greatest peddle-powered bumper car" ever invented. His eyes twinkle as he instructs his 22-year-old son Tony to crash into a nearby concrete post and demonstrate the car's "indestructible plastic body."

"You take an old-time toy, add some modern-day materials and change some kind of functionality of it so that it appears high-tech," says Mr. Monary, who claims to have had Legos "in my head" since he was eight-years-old, and who had the idea for in-line skates, better known today as "Roller Blades," back in 1968. "They told me I was crazy."

After selling a company that manufactured high-tech antennas for flight testing in 1998, Mr. Monary had the free time to make sure that he did not allow another "crazy idea" to pass him by. "I love the bumper cars, but we wanted them to go faster and hit harder, while still being safe and easy to control," says Mr. Monary, who spent three days developing the concept and a year and a half designing and building the car. "Inventing a product is 99.9 percent perspiration and 0.1 percent inspiration."

The cars, which come in colors such as red, green, teal and purple, are set to retail for $795. A large backdrop proclaims that the three-wheel vehicle reaches speeds of up to eight miles per hour, turns 360 degrees "on a dime," drives forward and reverse, folds for easy storage and travel and will hold people weighing up to 250 pounds.

When asked what advice he would give to those who dream of seeing their ideas sitting on a store shelf, he has a list. "It is going to cost three to five times more than you imagine, and it will take three to five times longer to make," says Mr. Monary, who changed his car design up to three times per week. "A person also needs to have a lot of patience and a tolerance for failure."

Chuck Monary and the Road Toad.

Although companies like Converse and Adidas are household names, another small inventor has found a way to snag a significant amount of attention at the more than 25 shows per year that he attends. Olaf Stanton, 40, is the owner of Characters Unlimited, Inc. He records his voice into an electronic transmitter, and then laughs as a life-sized, animated cowboy named Ernie moves his mouth to Mr. Stanton's words. A passerby jumps in surprise and looks up from his catalogue before adjusting his glasses and walking on.

"We are here to sell to businesses that are looking for an attention-getting display, but some people buy them for their homes or for theme restaurants," says Mr. Stanton, motioning to a large buffalo head that slowly rocks from side to side, and to a wizard draped in a purple cloak. "These are for people who like to have fun with their businesses, and who are looking for something to be remembered for."

He flips through a white binder and stops on a testimonial from a company called TruckTrail in Colorado. They purchased a talking horse head from Mr. Stanton and write that customers regularly call asking if they are the "trailer dealer with the talking horse head. They may not remember our name, but they sure do remember the horse head!"

He stops to record a few sentences in the voice of Bill Clinton, and chuckles as he watches an animated character in a baseball uniform repeat his words. When asked about the strangest request that he has received in the 15 years that he has owned Characters Unlimited, he flips through an album and stops on a page with photos of an older woman with large glasses.
"This man had his dead mother made, and he now sits her in his living room in a rocking chair," says Mr. Stanton, who confesses that the man also sent items such as his mother's false teeth, her wedding rings and her clothing ­ all of which he wanted incorporated into the doll's design.

Mr. Stanton puts down his transmitter for a moment and shares his thoughts on how an inventor can ensure the success of his product. "You don't know what people's reaction will be until you get it out there and show it," says Mr. Stanton, whose animated characters cost up to $5,000. "The true test is to see if someone will pay money to own your product."

Whether the product is a fitness apparatus like the Abdomax, an adult-sized toy like the Road Toad or an advertising device such as Ernie the Cowboy, a few things are clear: each inventor should come equipped with a cup of Jean-Guy Raymond's determination, a gallon of Chuck Monary's business knowledge and a truck load of Olaf Stanton's simple joy for the invention.

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