Prof. John Rizvi, Esq.
This Inventor Squeezed & Squeezed Until The Breakthrough Came!
Inventors, you have all plunged your knife into a glass ketchup bottle to squeeze a little extra sauce onto your delicious fries. But inverting the bottle (this time made of plastic) and using a patented self-dispensing valve to smooth out this intricate culinary operation is touch of historical ingenuity that surely brings a smile to your face.
This marketing masterstroke by Heinz, a food processing company, in the early part of this century owes much of its success to the breakthrough made by Paul Brown and his partner over a decade earlier in a small injection molding shop.
A Stubborn, Persistent Inventor
If the words “try, try and try again” mean anything to you, they were a religion for Paul Brown who invented the tiny valve found in squeezable plastic bottles, including shampoo and ketchup.
It would take over 111 prototypes, several depleted credit cards, and a hat-in-hand plea to his mom and friends for more cash before the breakthrough finally came.
Yet when it did come, his invention would solve so many frustrating problems in such a clever and neat manner that I’m sure all of you intrepid inventors out there wonder about the genius entrepreneur behind it -- and why YOU didn’t invent it YOURSELF!
Such is the case of Paul Brown and his valve patent. Not only did it completely change the way people pour their ketchup, but it also made Brown a multimillionaire just a few short years later.
A Messy Problem
Like many other inventors, Paul Brown was working a steady job as the owner of a precision molding company by day. He wondered if he could invent a plastic bottle closure that would open enough to allow even and controlled dispensing of the product when squeezed.
Once the pressure was released, the bottle closure would close tightly enough to ensure that no messy leakage occurred. Like many others reading this, Brown was no stranger to patents or their necessity in the process of protecting his intellectual property. In fact, he started applying for patents in July 1988 under the name of his company, Liquid Molding Systems, Inc.
It was around that time that a client approached him with a request for a valve that enabled shampoo bottles to be stored upside down. The caveat: they couldn't leak while doing so. Brown, and an employee Tim Socier, worked primarily with liquid silicone and a molding press and started designing prototypes.
Brown was averse to computers, but Socier was skilled with computer-assisted design (CAD). The combination of their skills complemented each other.
Engineering a Patented Solution
As any inventor knows, the road to success is rarely smooth -- and it definitely wasn't for this pair either. They came up with a silicone valve shaped like a dome with an opening that looked like the letter X.
Its petal-like flaps opened when the bottle was squeezed. Once the person stopped squeezing, the flaps closed and the substance inside the bottle stayed there.
This frustrating experience continued for over 100 prototypes putting a serious dent in Brown’s wallet. Just like Sarah Blakely, Alex Gomez and Jay Sorenson, this inventor flew without a net and was as stubborn as they come.
You could rightly say that Brown was modeling himself on Thomas Edison who famously proclaimed that “I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Thank God It's Friday!
With a potential buyer stopping by just three days later, Brown convinced Socier to work through much of one fateful Friday night. By Saturday morning, Socier had good news for Brown: by making the dome thinner around the flaps, the new prototype worked exactly as they'd hoped.
Even the potential client was impressed enough to buy it.
The 112th try had produced the magic result well before the 10,000 mark cheekily referenced by Edison’s quote further above.
Fast forward a few years, and some major brands were using it to solve problems. NASA used the valve to create leak-proof cups for their astronauts to use in space.
Baby products manufacturer Gerber also used the valve to solve the age-old problem of leaky sippy cups.
It wasn't until 1991, though, that things changed dramatically for Paul Brown. Heinz wanted to use his invention to develop their now-famous upside down ketchup bottle.
Heinz Comes Calling
Fueled by his unique valve technology, Brown applied the same concept to ketchup bottles. In doing so, he solved a significant pain point for ketchup lovers everywhere: their inability to get the amount of ketchup they wanted out of the bottle without having to wait.
Today, it’s estimated that around 75% of Heinz’s Tomato Ketchup is sold in plastic bottles, with the upside down version being a popular choice.
Just four years later, Brown sold Liquid Molding Systems, Inc. for $13 million.
He was able to get out of credit card debt, pay back the loans from his friends and his mother and purchase a Florida vacation home.
An Inventor's Toil Pays Off
There's no doubt that Brown's creativity, persistence and determination were the driving factors of his success. It was his foresight in protecting his intellectual property, however, that propelled him to success and allowed him to reap the advantages of his hard work for the rest of his life.
This was also the case for other inventors who started from scratch including Erno Rubik, who invented the legendary Rubik’s Cube and was referenced in my recent TED talk For Inventors.
Both of these inventors had partners who helped them cross the finish line with inches to spare and truly valued the underlying intellectual property and novelty of their ideas.
These lessons in partnership are mirrored in mentorship programs, including the inventor workshops I hold on a regular basis for small, independent entrepreneurs.
As a fledgling inventor who is testing and retesting ideas and prototypes, it's all too easy to give up after a few attempts. Don't get discouraged though!
If Brown and Socier hadn't tried that 112th time, we still might be pounding on the bottom of the ketchup bottle or cursing each time we removed our sorry knife from a ketchup bottle made of glass.
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