Sometimes the solution is so close it's easy to overlook it.
But every so often you see a problem and the solution follows right behind. That's the goal, anyway, of many wannabe inventors, dreaming of their next great product or service and how it can pave the way to a well-heeled future.
Ah, if only it were that simple.
Just ask Gainesville resident Philip Wilheit Jr., who was lucky enough to realize his invention — and the solution to a common tailgating problem — was just a beanbag toss away.
One day, while tossing those beanbags into holes on slanted boards — otherwise known as the popular tailgate game of cornhole — Wilheit realized the game they were playing was expensive, hard to transport and could be made by pretty much anyone with a power saw. And because it's become common tailgate fare, it would be impossible to license the game at this point.
Still, he said, the idea behind the game is a good concept — if only there were a game that was cheaper, easier to transport and was made by a company that set specific standards in scoring and materials?
And with that, TargetMatZ was born.
Today, Wilheit is peddling his new invention at tailgate parties in Gainesville and Athens, plans to have the game featured in a couple of educational catalogs and is putting together a special set of about 50 or 60 camouflage-colored TargetMatZ together to send to troops overseas.
"The first thing that popped in my head is a keyhole; when you throw, the first part of the mat is the easiest to hit," said Wilheit as he tossed a flat rubber disc onto a mat a little bit larger than a typical doormat.
The mats have separate areas with assigned point values, with colors denoting whether your disc has landed on a one-, two- or three-point area — or, if it has fallen into the negative point zone. Instead of beanbags, the game uses flat rubber discs with holes, and where the discs land denotes how many points you get.
"As you get farther back with the highest point values, (the mat area) is smaller," he said. "Plus there's more danger of landing in the negative point zone."
TargetMatZ is the first invention for Wilheit, who was working in his family's packaging business when he met Greg Ours, president of Poly Enterprises. That Gainesville-based company specializes in creating multicolored vinyl mats with custom graphics and logos built right into the plastic.
The company is the largest producer in the country of bar mats, the nubbly rubber mats used to keep glasses from spilling all over the bar, and also makes numerous educational toys. When Wilheit realized this local company had the technology to create a prototype of his idea, he and Ours got to work on it.
Collaborating with an inventor happens a lot, Ours said.
"Some of (the ideas) are drawn on a napkin, and some of them are as sophisticated as Philips' was with the graphics," said Ours of the design Wilheit created in Power Point.
"We're a molded vinyl manufacturer - we take liquid and we put it through a curing process and make a solid," he said of his company's role in the process. "The ability for us, to keep these colors from going into each other, is a proprietary process ... There's only two (companies) that do this process in the United States."
A long process
But turning an idea for a tailgate game into a variety of rubber mats ready to be sold involves hundreds of steps and decisions along the way. Along with the Web site and packaging that Wilheit has already started, there are UPC codes to buy, retail stores to negotiate with and shipping logistics to work out, according to Todd Basche, CEO of the California company Wordlock.
Basche co-founded the company with his wife, Rahn, after realizing the technology for combination locks hadn't changed in almost 150 years. He had an idea for a lock that used words rather than an arbitrary set of numbers.
But it's not just about figuring out a new product, he said. You have to consider your target market, the demand for the product and the price point for it. Then, you have to get it designed, manufactured and sold. Oh yeah, and you have to design packaging, marketing materials and a Web site.
"You have to have all these skill sets," he said. "You can't be an inventor, you need to be an entrepreneur. You have to either have the skills or find people with the skills."
But if you do have a great idea for a product, he said, there are a few steps you should take:
Check to see if the product already exists. Half the time, Basche said, you can already buy it. Just because it's not in your house doesn't mean you can't find it at a store.
Know your market. If your market is too specific, you'll have a hard time justifying the expense of making the product.
Protect the idea with a trademark or a patent.
This third point is crucial, Basche said, and he learned it the hard way.
Years ago, he said, he would pack his son's lunch with yogurt, putting it into a resealable bag so his son could later rip off a corner of the bag and slurp out the yogurt.
He thought the idea — one of many logged into his notebook of possible inventions — was good, so he approached Yoplait with the idea of yogurt sold in pouches. They were quick to brush him off.
A few years later, he said, his wife came home from the grocery store and plunked down a box of Go-Gurt, yogurt sold in individual pouches.
"She said, next time you have something in your notebook, do something with it," he said.
Protect your investment
Coby Nixon, a patent attorney with the Atlanta firm Alston and Bird, said there are certain fixed costs when applying for a trademark or a patent.
"The trademark process is a little more fixed," Nixon said. "For both trademark and patent there are filing fees that you pay to the patent office; those are fixed for everyone. ... And then you have the cost of searching (for a patent or trademark); there are fees that are associated with a professional search, and writing the application."
The filing fee for a trademark, which protects a product name, symbol, color, etc., is often $300, and a patent, which prevents others from creating and selling the same invention, is $900, he said. An application for a patent, depending on the type of product, could cost thousands of dollars.
"And also for a patent you have costs for professional drawings to be done; it's a big expense," he said. "But it's something you want to do right. It's a formal process and honestly it takes some time - that's something people aren't aware of in getting a trademark registration. You're dealing with a government agency that deals with these applications that there's a backlog."
The trademark process typically takes more than a year, while it could take more than two years to receive a patent.
Wilheit said he has high hopes for his TargetMatZ.
"It's very easy for people to pick up because everybody knows about cornhole at this point," he said, adding that the game can also be used as a teaching tool in schools because it involves using basic math. The game soon will be offered in a couple of educational catalogs.
At the same time, though, Wilheit said other inventors need to be prepared for anything while they're working to get their idea off the ground.
"Be prepared for things not to work — kinks in the plan," he said. "Just be prepared for stuff like that because it happens all the time."
Basche said the end result of seeing your product on the shelf at a store makes all the hard work worth it in the end.
"(Thomas) Edison really had it right when he said inventing is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration," said Basche, who with his wife quit his job in 2007 to start Wordlock.
Almost three years later they've moved the office out of their house and are up to nine employees in the company.
"But it's incredibly gratifying to see it in the store shelf and having people write great things about it on the blog," he said. "People love the product."