Byline: Pat Neleski, Times-Union correspondent
BRUNSWICK -- Four local inventors aren't out to change the world -- just make it better.
Together the four have patented, manufactured and are selling such products as the Trash Can Buddy, Mail Alert, The Lug Master, Hair Bear and the King Tong One Big Griller.
David Grimes wanted to keep his trash can from blowing over in the wind, and to save people a trip when checking their mail. Jonathan Smith knew how hard it was to loosen lug nuts when changing flat tires.
Carl Langford liked the stuffed animal his son had tied around his mother's hair and Don Gaughf turned a bad joke into a marketable product.
"I joked with my son, 'Bad pun makes big bucks,' " Gaughf said.
Those ideas, though, didn't spring fully formed onto store shelves. In the words of Thomas Edison, it was 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.
"People say if you build a better mousetrap, they will beat a path to your door," said Smith, an engineer and patent agent for Southeast Georgia. "That's not true. You have to make the path, then you have to go out and drag people down the path to your door to see your invention."
Grimes made his own path 16 years ago with Mail Alert, a device that attaches to the side of a mail box and flips over when the door is open. He designed the product, made a prototype, found a manufacturer, wrote his own ads, filled the orders and is keeping track of the inventory.
He has sold 4,000 of the devices at $4.95 each through direct marketing and mail order sales.
He thinks Trash Can Buddy will be a bigger hit and plans to seek a different path to the marketplace with it.
Smith agrees it is necessary for inventors to do a lot of the work themselves.
An engineer by training, Smith is also the only licensed agent for the U.S. Patent Trademark Office between Savannah and Jacksonville to the south and Valdosta to the west. He helps prospective inventors get patents and offers a little more. Grimes took Smith's advice on small details of the Trash Can Buddy, and found the changes he suggested helped him get the patent approved more quickly.
"What I like about him is that he is an engineer, he understands what inventors are going through," he said.
Smith's invention, The Lug Master, sells in Wal-Mart stores throughout the Southeast.
The Hair Bear, a small stuffed Koala Bear attached to a hair scrunchy, is sold at zoo gift stores from Arizona to Boston. (The Jacksonville zoo doesn't carry them, Langford said.)
And the Big Griller, a gift pack containing a gorilla chest apron, tongs, a platter, hat and mug, has had steady sales at Spencer gift stores nationwide. It's a lot of work, but Langford thinks the process is worth the effort.
"It's a very human thing to invent, to make a new creation that is yours alone," Langford said.
Smith said some companies exploit the creative side of inventors, charging inventors as much as $20,000 to do some of the things they could do themselves.
"They can nickel and dime you to death," Smith said. One of the big problems, he said, is that some promoters inflate the value, and prospective market for an invention. Others imply the inventor need only provide the idea, and for a hefty fee, the promoter will do the rest.
"There isn't this big book of ideas out there, and you get your name in it, they'll start sending you money," Grimes said. …