Related to MAKE 05, Woody's World
More from Woody Norris
by William Lidwell
February 01, 2006
William Lidwell interviewed the award winning inventor, Woody Norris, for MAKE 05. In this exclusive web extra, the conversation with Norris continues. Learn Norris' views on inspiring creativity, selling yourself along with your inventions, learning when to quit, and why inventors shouldn't be afraid someone will steal their idea.
Is it fair to say that you were poor growing up?
Oh yes. Growing up, my family was very poor. When I graduated high school, our house still had an outdoor toilet. My dad was a coal miner and was never educated beyond the third grade. He never even learned to write his name. He could write only, "D A D," and I could sort of tell what it was. Our only luxury was a radio, which I ended up taking apart to figure out how it made sound. My mom chanted the mantra to me regularly, "Don't think you are going to college--we are too poor." Initially, this was music to my ears. As I got older, however, I realized that I needed to learn certain things to be successful, and I developed a tremendous hunger to learn.
I am continuously surprised at the number of successful inventors who never obtained a college degree.
Having a degree is just having a piece of paper. It may or may not be an indication of how knowledgeable a person is about a given area. In my case, I signed up for school at the University of Washington, but quickly came to the conclusion that I did not have the time in my life to learn about all of these things that I knew I would never use. So I started taking courses based on my inspirations and interests, not whether or not they counted toward a degree. I read voraciously and would go meet with professors when I wanted to understand certain things. The educational bureaucracy simply could not address my learning interests at an acceptable rate, so I pursued a less traditional path.
This is the key problem when large organizations--be they academic or commercial--try to be "innovative": most fundamental innovation happens at the fringes. Fundamental innovation requires a tolerance for risk-taking and low-hit ratios that large organizations just can't stomach. Accordingly, it is difficult for big schools or companies to achieve that kind of innovation. They have thousands of people all generating ideas, 99% of which are stupid. When you are one person generating ideas with that same batting average, you only have to vet 100 ideas to find one good one. When a company is large, say 10,000 employees, the number of ideas that need to be vetted is unmanageable. And large groups tend to expel the fringe ideas--the tails of the distribution. As a result, it is almost oxymoronic to say "innovative big organization." Big organizations innovate by buying their innovation from smaller companies or individuals, though many of them are in denial about this.
You attribute some of your success to your high school experience in theater and drama. How did this experience contribute to your success as an inventor?
I was in the 9th grade attending high school in Cumberland, Maryland, where I grew up, and a couple of my buddies asked me to stop by after school and wait for them while they auditioned for a part in a play. So I did. They ended up coaxing me into reading, and I ended up getting the lead in the play. I got the lead in every single play from that point until I graduated, as well as a national thespian award when I graduated high school. Acting came very naturally to me. It has helped me tremendously to be able to get up in front of an audience and sell my ideas and myself.
Any other methods you can share?
I don't know if I would call this a method, but it certainly plays a major role in my idea generation. If I sugar-coat it, I would describe it as "talking out loud about problems." In truth, a better description would be "letting my mouth run in front of my brain." Let me give you an example. I got a call from a fellow who worked at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He saw a product announcement that I had sent in to a magazine describing a miniature radio that I had invented and wanted to buy a bag of them. So I sent a bunch of radios to him. A week later, he contacted me and asked me to fly down and meet with him and some of his colleagues to talk about my radio.
So I went to Houston and met with a group of about 20 NASA engineers. After giving them a demonstration and explaining how the radio worked, there was a question and answer period. One of the engineers asked if a similar kind of radio could be built for private communication. I said, "Heck yes." Then another asked if I could make it two-way. I said, "Of course." Full duplex? "No problem," I said. Another asked if the radio could be designed to eliminate the microphone boon, which would often get knocked out of position when astronauts were wearing their helmets. Without even thinking, I said, "Absolutely, I can solve that problem." Then someone called me out and asked how I proposed to do this. "Rather than transmitting the sound through the air," I said, "I'll just transmit the sound through the bones in their head." The room erupted in laughter. They thought I was full of shit. So after blushing three shades of purple, I told the crowd that if they would buy me a ticket to fly back in a month, I would demonstrate a working prototype. So I went home and worked on it day and night until I made it work. This technology went on to be used by NASA and became the basis for the JABRA EarSet. I had no idea what I was saying at the time. My mouth got in front of my head and then I had to deliver. This kind of thing happens a lot. In fact, sometimes I just dim the lights and talk to myself out loud about problems or ideas. This activates different parts of the brain and is a great way of getting new ideas or solving problems.
If a person aspires to be an inventor, how should they prepare themselves?
The easy stuff has been invented. So to be successful, you have to get educated. Now there is a real danger in being educated--more a problem with human nature, than education per se: the more expert you become in a particular area, the more blinders you have as to the possibilities in that area. Inventors need to have an open mind, to able to see around these blinders. So to be successful, you have to get educated to be able to better predict what will and will not work, but you also have to frequently try things that you know will not work. This is easier said than done because the whole time you are doing this, you are absolutely convinced that you are wasting your time. And then occasionally, something that you knew would not work works, and you find humility. Unfortunately, this humility doesn't last long.
You hear a lot about the role of failure in innovation. Though, it sounds like you have lived a bit of a charmed life in this regard. Have you ever had what you would consider a "defining" failure?
I have never had a catastrophic failure and I'll tell you why. It is very difficult for most inventors to assess their work objectively--to be self-critical. Being able to objectively and critically evaluate your work is a virtue of successful inventors. I have always been good at this. And when you critically evaluate your work and come to the conclusion that it's not going to work for whatever reason, you have to have the discipline to quit and move on. For example, I spent several years of my life working on a long-play cassette tape recorder. It enabled you to record almost 20 hours of audio on a standard 90-minute tape--that's an entire unabridged book on one tape. The problem was that the stores wanted to sell ten tapes, not one, because this allowed them to charge more money. As soon as I realized this dynamic, I told my partner that we were going to sell all of the equipment and not work on this project anymore. Next invention.
I think a lot of inventors would get to that same point, recognize the barriers to market, and still not be able to quit because it is just such a cool thing.
You lie to yourself. You smoke your own dope. The biggest things inventors do is lie to themselves without knowing it: "It will catch on … It will go … It will get some traction." They have these dreams of seeing their invention in stores and watching people clamoring to buy it. You have to wake up and look at the odds. You have to be able to detach emotionally when assessing the market. I come up with ideas all the time, but I am good at realizing when they are stupid and killing them before wasting too much time.
Unlike most inventors, you seem particularly adept at developing your inventions into commercial successes. What is your secret?
First, almost as important as being a good inventor is being a good salesman. You are going to have to raise money for development. You are going to have to credibly present yourself and your invention to partners, manufacturers, distributors, and so on. You are going to have to be able to sell the final product. So being able to sell yourself and your invention at every stage of the process is critical to success. If you can't do it, you need to partner with someone who can--and make sure they are honest. Any virtue plus honesty is a rare combination, indeed.
Second, once you are sure that your invention is going to be functional, file a patent as fast as you can. Use a patent attorney. Patents today read like legal briefs, so you really do need a patent attorney to help you navigate through the process and get a patent that will stick. Once you file, here is the deal. If you file a patent and haven't made a prototype, don't expect to get anything for it. If you file a patent and have made a prototype that works pretty well, you may be able to sell it for a minimal amount. Now, if you actually sell some of your products to consumers, you will get more for your patent. The more questions you can answer about price, demand, manufacturing, etc. (i.e., the more risk you can take out of the equation) the more you will be able to get for your invention. So try to hold off as long as you can and prove its value.
Third, once you get your product developed, you have to know how to intelligently market it. For example, I have never paid for an advertisement for any of my inventions over the course of 40 years. So how do I get the word out? Virtually every magazine has a new product section where they talk about new products for free. I put together a nice letter, concise description of the invention, and some quality photographs. If you do a nice job and the invention is truly exciting, it will get featured in multiple magazines. Free advertising. Be creative and you won't need to spend a lot of money.
I think a lot of inventors are paranoid about sharing their work for fear that it will be stolen.
This is a near pathological problem among inventors. File a patent and get over it. You can file a provisional patent with an attorney for $1,000, or you can do it yourself for $80 if you can't afford an attorney. Then you can talk about it. Expose it. If you are not willing to do this, you don't really believe in your invention--you are just kidding yourself. I have never had a company steal one of my inventions in over 40 years of doing this; companies are scared to death of being sued. So do your work, get your patent, and then sell it. Stop making excuses.
Complete the following statements:
The most important thing in life is: family
The person(s) who influenced me most are: the list is just too long
My favorite book is: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins
I am most proud of: the HyperSonic Sound System
Nothing annoys me more than: stupid people
My favorite activity is: watching movies
I wish I were better at: mathematics
If I could go back in time and do one thing differently, it would be: take less time to realize that religion, too, is an invention of man
The one thing I wish I had more of is: time
I would like my epitaph to read: upside down thinker
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