You know how it is with lawyers and doctors? No matter where they are, somebody brings up this legal problem or that ache and pain. Well, for Richard Levy, it's ideas. People always tug his shirt sleeve and, in quiet voices, say, "Uh, Richard, I've got this great idea and I was wondering. ... " Almost always, he tells them to do it.
"Even the editor on one of my books, he says to me halfway through the editing, 'Look, I got this game idea ... ,' " says Levy, an author and successful toy and game inventor who sometimes refers to his home-based office in Bethesda as never-never land, as in "Never give up, never grow up. ... " The 43-year-old Levy knows the Peter Pan lyrics alright, even lives by them more than most of us dare. But that doesn't mean dreaming up tomorrow's playthings is all fun and games.
"Typically people don't understand that this is a full-time profession," he says. "Throwing ideas out salt-and-pepper style doesn't work. There's a great distance between the idea and getting the product out in retail stores."
Dispelling misconceptions about the labors of invention and steering straight the amateur inventor motivated Levy to write two books about inventing in the past couple of years. One of them, "Inside Santa's Workshop: How Toy Inventors Develop, Sell and Cash In on Their Ideas," scheduled for release by Henry Holt and Co. next Monday, details the how-to of toying with invention. The other, "The Inventor's Desktop Companion: A Guide to Successfully Marketing and Protecting Your Ideas," published last month by Visible Ink Press, is a practical sidekick for anyone who's inventions are beyond the figment stage.
The big trouble with his profession, says Levy, is that it is largely misunderstood by newcomers trying to break in with a bang.
"What does the public hear? That a man on an assembly line of Ford Motor Co. came up with an idea called Pound Puppies and, all of a sudden, Tonka toys is making stuffed animals and this guy is worth a million dollars," he says. "Or a couple of artists who don't even own a car are sitting around in a garage in Massachusetts drawing these Ninja Turtles and now they're making $30 million a year."
Wonderful, romantic stories. But these are the exceptions.
Levy, for instance, makes a lucrative living from inventing. He is known in the industry for landing some 75 toys and games on retail shelves over the past decade. He can walk down the aisles at Toys R Us and rattle off names of the people who originated the products. Blue-chip toy companies such as Fisher-Price come to his office to "noodle" his prototypes.
Yet, his biggest hits so far include an adult social intercourse game called "Adverteasing" that's hardly a household word (despite selling a million copies), and the "Hot Lixx" electronic toy guitar, which most likely won't challenge Pet Rocks and Cabbage Patch Kids for space in the toys hall of fame.
"Yes, lightning strikes occasionally," he says, "but pros grind away at it everyday. ... It is a misconception to think that because someone has something on the market, they're going to be making a lot of money from it. There are lot of toys out there."
Other typical missteps that derail even the best of ideas, according to Levy:
Fear of sharing that precious idea. "There are two kinds of inventors -- the paranoid and the more paranoid," says Levy. "They're afraid to get ripped off. But the bottom line is you can't do it yourself. There's always this serpentine chain of people that builds up as ideas go from the workbench to the retail shelf."
Not doing your homework. "Amateurs will think it's the greatest idea in the world and go blindly calling companies right and left, without finding out if the product ever existed before," he says. "That's why companies are reticent to see people."
Fear of others tampering with your brainstorm. "Any hit we've ever been fortunate to sell, there have been an awful lot of talented people rubbing up against the product," says Levy. "I've never had a prototype go in and come out looking the same."
Deal with first-class toy and game manufacturers, not fly-by-night invention consultants who advertise on television and in the back of tabloids and magazines. "If someone wants to help you market an idea, never give them a penny," says Levy. "Give them a share of profits. This is a ripe area for con artists ... because people are willing to bet the farm on their idea. But I work only with major companies, because they're too big to rip me off and I'm too little to worry about it."
Egos bruised by rejections. "A rejection is nothing more than the rehearsal for the big show," says Levy. "You learn through rejection. I get a rejection every day of the week. Sometimes UPS and the U.S. Mail gridlock in my driveway bringing back rejected ideas."
Don't mistake the idea for a product, says Levy. "It is shape that determines whether steel is going to float or sink."
Most of all, Levy advises upstarts not to go into inventing only for financial motivations. "It doesn't matter if our last product made us $20 million or not," he says. "It's the buzz. It's the hunt. It's the people. You've got to be motivated by the gamesmanship as much as the money. ... We in the toy business can sit around all day long and throw a ball up in the air. And we may just see a new way of doing it."