WASHINGTON — Air Force Maj. Matt Butler has already moved 25,000 units of his lawn game, Rollors, after coming up with the idea between flights over Afghanistan and Iraq. No, he wants to share what he’s learned with other service members and veterans who have an entrepreneurial bent.
His next project is a website, which he hopes to launch next year, aimed at service member inventors.
“There’s some things that I’ve done wrong,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I’ve done right. I’d like to share those with other people.”
He conjured up Rollors during his deployments’ slow periods, when his thoughts often turned to home in the Midwest, playing lawn games with family at picnics or barbecues.
The game is, essentially, a combination of horseshoes and bocce with an added element of luck. Players roll wooden, hockey-puck sized discs toward a target (think the rod in a horseshoe pit), and different points are awarded depending on how the discs land. Cost: $30 to $40 a set.
Butler’s 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 advised, is to make sure your idea isn’t already taken.
Too many people have just jumped into the market to find there idea is already out there, he said. Or that the idea was out there, but didn’t succeed.
“Just because it’s on the market doesn’t mean it’s successful,” he said. Take the time and do the research.
There are many ways to handle protecting your intellectual property, Butler said, but the process is complicated.
“Just because you look on the store shelves of Target or Kohl’s or any retailer and it’s not there, doesn’t mean somebody hasn’t submitted a patent,” he said.
The first thing to do, probably even while researching the viability of an idea in the first place, is to check out the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s database to see if someone already patented the product. Google also has searchable patent data.
Filing the patent claim yourself is possible, he said, but added a patent requires a whole different kind of writing and thinking. He decided to get help from a patent lawyer.
“It’s very complex,” Butler said.” After I saw what he did, I thought the money that I paid was very worthwhile.”
Handling your business
“You always want to keep yourself prepared and protected,” he said.
If the idea or product looks like it’s worth the investment of time and money, Butler recommends incorporating or 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.
Build a prototype
The idea bouncing around your head or scribbled on a napkin isn’t nearly as helpful as a tangible mock-up, he said.
“You want to start getting some cost estimates,” he said, 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.
“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.”
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 buying it from you first. Anything to get the product out there, he explained.
“You can’t just pick up the phone and go, ‘Let me hit number one for the senior buyer here,’” he said. “It’s almost impossible to find that senior buyer. It’s like gold once you do.”
Distribution and licensing
Entrepreneurs could take on manufacturing and distribution responsibilities on their own, Butler said, meaning greater reward, but greater risk.
He decided to license Rollors with Maranda Enterprises of Wisconsin, which takes 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, Rollors, became bigger than what I could do while being in the military,” he said.