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Smart Tips for Cooking Up a Business at Home

By Jean Sifleet

Necessity is the mother of invention.

No matter what the state of the economy, there are always business opportunities in finding new solutions to old problems.

For example, both Liquid Paper and Snugli were invented by moms. We can learn a lot from their stories.

In both cases, observation and experience provided insight for a new solution to an old problem (Liquid Paper - erasing smudges, and Snugli - transporting children).

What started out as small home-based businesses turned into profitable and very successful businesses.

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Liquid Paper

Liquid Paper was invented by Bette Nesmith Graham to fix the smudges she made trying to erase typing errors at work.

After a divorce in the 1940s, she combined her commercial art background with the need to support herself and her small son Michael (later a member of the "Monkees" rock group) by devising the quick drying correcting fluid.

Beginning with small batches in her blender, she gradually grew her business from her kitchen, to her garage, and eventually to a 35,000 square foot company plant with a child-care center and a library for employees.

She kept secret the formula to what began as "Mistake Out" until her second marriage was breaking up in 1975. Fearful the trade secret would be lost, she applied for a patent on her formula and a trademark.

Just months before her death in 1980, she sold the company that she began in her kitchen to the Gillette Corporation for $47.5 million (plus royalties until 2000). Royalties from Liquid Paper went towards a foundation she established to improve the welfare of women, and to other philanthropies.

Snugli

The familiar Snugli fabric child carrier was created by Ann Moore for her own newborn after a stint in the Peace Corps where she observed the quiet, content babies carried in cloth carriers by their African moms. Ann’s own mom, Lucy Auckerman, an experienced seamstress, refined and perfected the details.

Their little cottage industry grew quickly, propelled by a commitment to extreme customer satisfaction.

They patented the Snugli design in 1966, having the carriers sewn by local women, and then entered the manufacturing business in 1979 to meet customer demand.

Years later, in 1985, when the patent was soon to expire, they sold to Gerry Baby Products, part of the Huffy Corporation (later purchased by Evenflo).

Key Learnings:

  • Being smart about protecting intellectual property by using a combination of legal strategies (trade secrets, trademarks and patent protection) and smart business practices.
  • Starting their businesses in their homes and keeping their expenses low.

Timing and "good luck" also played a role in their business success.

Liquid Paper came to market at the time of the IBM Selectric Typewriter - when correcting typing mistakes in the office was a common problem. The product was rejected by IBM. Orders resulted from an article in an office trade magazine in 1958, and General Electric Company placed the first large order, for 400 bottles.

Snugli came to market in the 1960s as natural childbirth and breast-feeding were becoming popular. Adapting their product to the emerging culture of the time was indeed a masterful business strategy.

So, about that business idea that you’re cooking up - ask yourself a few questions:

  • What problem does it solve?
  • Who will benefit from your solution?
  • Why is your solution better than the alternatives?
  • How does it fit with the times?

What steps can you take to protect your idea?

  • Be careful who you show it to (if possible, use a non-disclosure agreement).
  • Is your approach unique and non-obvious? (Consider a patent - 20 years of protection.)
  • Is trade secret a better way to go? (No time limit as long as kept secret.)
  • Can it be copyright protected? (Protects original works of authorship.)
  • What about protecting the name? (Register a trademark, domain name.)

Bottom Line:

Making money from your invention or creative work requires a combination of disciplined actions and "good luck." The disciplined actions include using good business practices and legal protections.

Good luck has a way of finding those who pursue opportunities with preparation and persistence.

NOTE: Information provided is intended as a broad, general overview and is not legal advice.


About the author...

Business Attorney, CPA and 3-time entrepreneur, Jean Sifleet provides practical advice for business challenges based on her first-hand experiences. Her book "Smart Fast, The Desktop Reference Guide for Running Your Business" is a great resource for learning how to avoid legal pitfalls in business.