NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Inspiration comes to Michael Boehm in the most mundane of fashions -- by watching people living their everyday lives. On the streets, he takes note of the omnipresent backpacks hanging from the backs of both adults and children. They're functional, but in his mind, they could be a lot more comfortable if they were styled to conform more closely to the lines of the body. That's a problem he might tackle and fix at some point.|
A lifelong inventor, 56-year-old Boehm spends a fair amount of time every day watching people and chatting with them, offering up ideas about ways to improve their gardening equipment, automotive accessories, kitchen appliances and electronic equipment. Most people have opinions about ways to improve common household products, he said, but most people put them out of their mind at the end of the day.
Not Michael Boehm. Once he fixes on the problem, he retreats to one of the three rooms in his Batavia, Ill., home that are filled with Boehm's drafting tables, workbenches, design equipment, spare parts and finished products. It is there he spends the majority of his time each day, pulling apart a myriad of products and re-engineering them to make them work a whole lot better.
The latest, greatest household product
It was a similar process that led Boehm to his biggest invention to date -- the George Foreman Grill. On one of the many trips he makes every week to retail shops, Boehm eyed the selection of indoor grills on the market. He's partial to a nice burger, or a piece of grilled fish from time to time. And, although the selection he eyed was perfectly functional, he couldn't understand why nobody offered one that cooked on both sides at once.
"I knew right away it was going to be a big deal," Boehm said. "It was different, it had some magic and it fulfilled a need."
Indeed, it did become a big deal. Salton Inc. (SFP: Research, Estimates), the company with which Boehm eventually teamed up to manufacture and market his invention, said the company expects to sell its 20 millionth George Foreman indoor grill this year. Gary Ragan, a Salton spokesman, said a sales figure like that makes Boehm's invention the most popular household product created in, well, "a very long time."
"It is a true phenomenon," he said.
Ragan added that between 12 and 15 percent of all U.S. households have at least one Foreman grill. The company fully expects the grill could become, like toasters or blenders, one of those items that every single household considers essential for a complete kitchen.
Born an inventor
Boehm's success is well-known and admired in inventors' circles, but he is hardly an overnight sensation. After nearly 30 years of independent invention and product development, Boehm said he is just beginning to understand how one achieves success as an independent product designer.
Boehm got the inventing bug as a child from his father, who was an automotive designer at the Studebaker Design Studios. Visits to the studio inspired him, in the first grade, to begin customizing the model cars he had built.
"I used to get modeling clay and put a new chassis on one of the cars or something like that," he said. "My parents couldn't figure out why I was doing it."
He has always been fascinated with automotive design, but as he grew older, Boehm began adding to his areas of interest. He started sketching redesigns of a wide variety of products -- from boats to blenders to vending machines.
He went on to study design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, an institution known to consistently produce first rate automobile designers. At Art Center, Boehm honed his skills in designing and engineering industrial products.
He went to work as an industrial designer for a number of large U.S. corporations, all the while working on his own products on the side. Over the years, through trial and error, he learned that making a great product is key, but it's not enough to be a successful independent inventor.
Great products are just the start
"They don't know a wit about marketing," said Joanne Hayes-Rines, editor of Inventor's Digest. "That is the biggest challenge for most inventors."
Combing the retail stores, talking to both customers and sales staff, as Boehm does every week, is the best way to figure out if there is a market for what you are going to make, said Hayes-Rines.
Another common stumbling block for inventors, said Hayes-Rines, is discovering too late in the process that the product they are working on costs more to make than people are willing to pay.
Boehm agreed. Most inventors try first to get a patent, he said, before they even try to discover if there is a market for their goods. Though he has created dozens of new products, he holds only about 10 patents. Once he completes a design and prototype, Boehm, rather than rushing off to the patent office, sits down and writes a story.
The story he writes defines the mass appeal of the products he has created. If he can't write the story, then he has to consider whether the mass appeal truly exists.
With the George Foreman Grill, the first few pieces fell into place fairly easily. He created the prototype, wrote the story and went out to find a pitchman. Foreman was known to enjoy a burger or two before a fight, said Boehm. And he also had experience as a TV pitchman.
Boehm sent him a prototype and asked him to consider becoming a spokesman for the product. Foreman accepted and has been a relentless promoter of the product ever since.
Even with a product and a pitchman, it took Boehm more than two years to sell his invention to a major company. He took it to eight or nine major housewares manufacturers before Salton gave the George Foreman Grill the green light. Five years after the grill was introduced in 1995, Salton considers it one of its most important brands. Ragan said sales of the Foreman grill recently accounted for approximately half of all Salton's quarterly revenue.
Boehm didn't want to discuss the terms of his deal with Salton. He only said he negotiated a payment up front and gets royalties on the sales. It's not money that made him an inventor; rather, it's the pursuit of building a better product. For his part, Foreman earned royalties until last year when Salton paid him $137 million for his name and image to promote the product.
Now, too, Boehm feels there is more at stake than just money. Since the success of the Foreman grill, his reputation as an innovative inventor is on the line. He's been holed up in his workshop for the last few years, readying his next product, which will debut in the next few months.
He won't say what it is. But that the same intuition that told him the George Foreman Grill was going to be a hit tells him this could be even bigger.
"I've been working on this thing for more than a year. It's been a long process of trial and error because I'm trying to do something that has never been done before," he said. "And I just know it is going to be really, really hot."