How Bloomington-Normal Inventions Take Flight
A new year means new ideas, and Bloomington-Normal is generating some big ones.
Three years ago, two residents invented the Toilet Timer, which earned an investment from Mark Cuban on “Shark Tank” TV program. Another resident will perhaps soon have his invention stocked on the shelves of a local grocery store.
But what really turns a dream into reality?
Entrepreneurship isn’t just about ideas. Getting an innovation off the ground takes courage, hard work and a bit of luck. That’s according to Dave Benjamin, creator of the Bath Buoy, a product to keep children safe in the bathtub.
“The spirit of entrepreneurship is to own it, to make it and bring it to people. The process and the sort of adventure of getting there,” said Benjamin. “It is sometimes the climb of the mountain and not just the apex.”
Benjamin said executing a business model doesn’t always require a degree. He said an entrepreneur just has to know how to put it all together.
“Nothing I am doing here took my degree. It just took help with other third-party companies, which are all local, to take my idea and cultivate it. Bring it to life,” said Benjamin. “Skill takes luck. You can’t deny that fact.”
For Benjamin, entrepreneurship is more about staying local and finding happiness somewhere in the middle. He said his motivation comes from seeing his product in the hands of the community.
“All the local stuff, where some guy started with a mop in a car dealership and 40 years later he owns 10 car dealerships ... that’s the story I care about,” said Benjamin. “That’s what really inspires me to be an entrepreneur on that scale.”
Benjamin said he doesn’t want to be like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, but rather an inspiration to regular people.
Making it to ‘Shark Tank’
Another entrepreneur, Adam Stephey, created the Toilet Timer. Stephey recently appeared on the ABC TV show “Shark Tank.”
Stephey said the product should be about the message it sends. The Toilet Timer is designed for people who waste time on their phones ... on the throne. The message is clear: Get off the pot! Stephey said utility has a place in the innovation world, but for him and his product the funny message to “poo procrastinators” is what keeps the product’s success climbing.
“You need to be able to tune and adjust your expectations or even make a pivot,” said Stephey. “You may have invented something or innovated something that is for a different audience than you were originally intending, but I think smart entrepreneurs and innovators can recognize that and use that to shift course to go after the real target audience.”
Stephey found that having a target audience might not come until late in development. For a product to have success, Stephey said an entrepreneur has to be willing to adapt and act fast.
Stephey started with a soft launch that avoided big upfront investments.
“When you are working for yourself, you can work for free ... you can put in a lot of free hours for yourself without having to rack up physical monetary expenses,” said Stephey.
When you ask for a little bit of help, it can go a long way for your invention. Benjamin said all of his products are produced in St. Louis and shipped to Bloomington.
“Local resources are important because they’re dependable and generally they’re good for you, too. Creating that connection is so much easier when it is in your own neighborhood,” said Benjamin.
There’s no formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur and there’s really no degree, but Stephey said education and learning help in indirect ways
“For example, I have had some woodworking classes which seem completely unrelated to what I do now, but there are some skills I learned in those classes that contribute to product design. Anything that you learn, you are going to find ways to apply stuff even if it isn’t inherently obvious,” said Stephey.
Getting help in the community
A business idea or innovation may flop. In Normal, marketing professor Peter Kaufman runs the Innovation Consulting Community Center at Illinois State University.
Kaufman said high impact innovators, like Jeff Bezos or Henry Ford, are highly motivated, but also flexible and will pivot when challenges face the innovation. But even these big-time innovators had help. According to the Washington Post, Amazon now employs more than 1 million people. Amazon added 400,000 jobs this year to handle the surge in online shopping.
“So it (the Innovation Consulting Community Center) really resembles what goes on in the real world,” said Kaufman, “which is working with teams usually if people have skill sets in different areas: How do you best leverage and benefit from those different skills of the people on the team you are working with?”
Community members use the consulting center in order to get a fresh, young perspective. Kaufman said the younger perspective may offer solutions to social and technology issues.
“When you're working with people from different majors in different disciplines, to solve that particular challenge, or to take advantage of a particular opportunity, you can get a more rich solution,” said Kaufman.
Throughout this pandemic year, business owners have been trying to stay afloat. The Illinois Small Business Development Center of McLean County at Illinois Wesleyan offers services to those seeking professional advice.
Benjamin said good innovators seek help.
Small Business Development Center Executive Director Karen Bussone said business and entrepreneurship is not all peaches and cream.
“We share with them some of the realities of becoming a business owner. It’s not necessarily that unity, and everything is great and moves forward in a positive way. That’s very optimistic. However, one has to look at the full picture and sometimes that cream can sour, unfortunately.”
Bussone said the center serves nearly 700 clients, and 40% are entrepreneur startups.
“There’s been a lot of small businesses across the United States that have been lost due to the pandemic. But that spirit of entrepreneurship is still alive and well. McLean County is living proof of that, as we’ve experienced 16 startups since the onset of the pandemic. The higher majority of those are from 2020,” she said.
Bussone said during the pandemic, there have been three businesses that sought out SBDC services and failed, two of which were startups. She said storefront businesses are the hardest hit.
However, Bussone said knowing the market and creating a business model is the first step to success because banks look for that traditional business plan.
“We help them with market research to make sure there is a market for what it is they’re wanting to (do), whether it’s products or services," she said. "We also look at demographics and location ... if they need a storefront. We help them with financial statements and putting that together and ensuring they have all the important components of a business plan so that they can be prepared themselves, number one. Number two: that they could go to an investor or a bank and ask for a loan and get that approved because they can demonstrate that they will be able to pay off their debt.”
Bussone said the entrepreneurship spirit increased in August despite the pandemic.
“We have had pre-venture entrepreneurs come to us, and that ‘light’ they have gets brighter. They'll say, ‘Yes, I want to move forward, and this is why.’ And we've had some clients say, ‘You know what, my ‘light’ is a little dim right now. You brought some things up that I had not thought of, and I'm not ready yet.’ But yet, we've had some of those clients return to us maybe a year or two later, and they're ready to go,” said Bussone.
Bussone said it is gut-wrenching that small businesses are failing due to the pandemic, but the center attempts to support spirit with realistic advice and ultimately the entrepreneur must outweigh the research and come to a decision.
“People still believe in their passion, and they are ready to carry that torch and make it happen. That just warms my heart,” she said.
The center serves McLean County, including the rural communities; the center has clients in 17 of the 19 rural communities. Entrepreneurs must register at the SBDC website for consultation.