By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Don Chernoff is a born tinkerer from New Jersey who worked for chip manufacturer Intel and later for his own small company, making hardware and software for electron microscopes. When he was traveling for his microscope business, Don came up with the inspiration that freed him to pursue what he now considers his true calling: being an inventor.
An early boarding frequent flier, Don would amuse himself by watching his fellow passengers struggle with garment bags. "They couldn't fit them in the bin," he says, "and the shapes were bulky." That's when he had a flash of insight: If you took a garment bag and rolled it up, "it would be a smaller more efficient shape" but wouldn't leave the creases in a suit that folding does.
Don, 48, started playing around with prototypes and received his first utility patent in 1996, about the time he moved to Vienna to be closer to his brother and his family. The SkyRoll, which retails for about $100, consists of a garment bag that wraps around a plastic tube, in which one can pack shoes, toiletries and other items. Don found a U.S. company that works with Chinese manufacturers, which helped him create a prototype. In 2001, he ordered 1,000 SkyRolls to sell.
Traditional luggage makers turned up their noses at Don's innovation, and he was thinking of giving up when he had another epiphany: to contact Men's Wearhouse. "The product is designed to help you travel with a suit and keep it looking good," he says, "and I thought, Where better to do that than a store that sells suits and doesn't sell luggage?"
It took a couple of years of lobbying by Don, but Men's Wearhouse finally agreed to give the SkyRoll a try in a few of its stores in 2004. "Within a week or two, they called back and said, 'How soon can you get us thousands of them,'?" says Don, who paid for the large order out of his savings. The 1,000-plus-store chain is still his biggest customer, selling more than 1,000 SkyRolls a month; Don also sells them on his Web site.
A few years later, Don redesigned the product to incorporate a wheeled, two-compartment suitcase. The $199 SkyRoll on Wheels is outselling its predecessor by almost five to one on the Web, Don says.
Don says SkyRoll brings in an annual profit of about $200,000. "It's a living; it's not a fortune. The more I do it, the more I do it for the freedom and not the money." He would like to build SkyRoll into a business that he can sell. "I never wanted to run a luggage company, or any other company," he says. What he enjoys most is the process of innovating. "I literally got a high from the idea, Wow, somebody will pay money for something I've thought of.?"
After 9/11, which made him ask himself what he was waiting for, Don began pursuing other long-held creative interests, such as photography. In late 2005, he self-published a book of photographs called Wild Washington, which has sold about 1,000 copies. And he has other business ideas he's eager to explore, such as a helmet to better protect football players from concussions. "I'd love to talk to Dan Snyder about it," he says.
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