How To Invent A Billion Dollar Product and Personally Gain Very Little

In 1930, a young engineer was sent by his supervisor to spend time working on the floor of a Minneapolis auto body shop. The reason for the working visit was to review the performance of his employer’s principal product, industrial grade sandpaper, in actual use as a car door was being sanded. The young mans name was Richard Drew.

While in the repair shop, young Mr. Drew was exposed to a rougher work environment than he was used to. The floor of the shop was loud, dirty, and, well, quite profane. A good deal of the profanity was related to the difficulty the repairmen experienced while attempting to perfectly match paint panels and striping to auto bodies. They quite simply had no rudimentary tool, other than a steady hand and line of sight to make perfectly smooth straight lines that did not overlap.

Richard Drew was curious and began to consider options to simplify the process of crisply painting multiple color paint to auto bodies. His invention was ingenious, elegantly simple, and is a standard in every “do-it-yourselfer’s” toolbox to this day. He created “masking tape”. There is almost no paint job done in a home or business that does not employ masking tape to protect and finish edges.

Arthur Fry was also seeking a simple answer to a personally vexing problem. Mr. Fry was continually losing his place in his church hymnal when he attended Sunday services at his church. He hated bending, or “dog earing” pages. He did not want to mark or damage the hymnal in any way. Book-mark’s would simply fall out of the hymnal.

He was also, a Minneapolis area resident, and decided to seek a solution in his place of employment. Mr. Fry went to a colleague, Spencer Silver, who was working on a type of new glue with minimal adhesion properties. He borrowed a bit of Spencer’s prototype glue and applied a bit to the edge of a small square of paper. When applied to paper, the glued square attached snuggly, but was easily removed without damaging the host paper.

In the 1970’s, Fry and Spencer’s employer, trademarked their invention and began attempting to market the product. At first there was little consumer interest. Then in 1979, almost ready to give up, the Company decided to widely sample the product in office supply stores. The response was overwhelming. The Post It Note was born.

Masking tape and Post It Note were commercialized internationally by the giant (today) 3M Company of Minneapolis. Employees Richard Drew, Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver had invented much needed and valued consumer products that have generated billions of sales and profits for 3M. However, all three were all simply employees of 3M.

In most Company’s, certainly mature ones, employees sign releases that assign all rights to their work product to the employing Company. Drew, Fry and Silver had signed such releases and were rewarded accordingly by 3M. However, they were rewarded as employees, not entrepreneurial inventors. A bonus and a raise will always be appreciated, but there was no profit participation available for their great advances.

These men were working and creating on the Company’s time, using Company resources and had released all rights to their work to 3M. They had good jobs, working for a great Company – but – had no further claim on the profits generated by their creativity.

Imagine the wealth and fame that these inventors might have enjoyed if they had commercialized these products themselves. Not every one has an entrepreneurial constitution. In fact, most people should not leave gainful employment to pursuit the chimera of launching a product or business. However, the opportunity to create the next masking tape, or Post It Note is seized everyday, here in America, by someone.

As an entrepreneur you totally expose yourself to the vagaries of the market. As an employee you enjoy a corporate cocoon with protective layers of resources and assets readily at hand. But think about it. If you could invent the next new product advance, with hope of commercial success, would you be pleased with a bonus and a raise – or – seek the opportunity to fully harvest and control your product and your destiny? I know what I would do.

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