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Donkin on Work - Innovation

August 2005 – Mothers of invention

What do J K Rowling and Aki Maita have in common? Both were mothers struggling to make ends meet when they had ideas that would amass fortunes worth millions.

Ms Rowling’s idea, the Harry Potter books, would make her one of the richest women in the world. In contrast Ms Maita, inventor of the Tamagotchi toy, continued afterwards to work in a salaried and relatively modest management role for her Japanese employers, the Bandai toy company.

Despite these differences, both were able to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing their ideas entertaining a generation of children all over the world. Neither of these entrepreneurial women, however, was able to draw on advice about how they should go about getting their work in to the marketplace and both faced a struggle to convince executives that their ideas would sell.

Tamara Monosoff, a former White House staffer-turned-inventor, noticed that there were thousands of women in the US facing the same issues: how do you go about bringing an idea to market when you’re raising a family and may have little or no business experience? Her response was to establish Mom Inventors, Inc, a web-based business that markets the ideas of mothers.

Most of the ideas are related to the everyday issues faced in child rearing. The web site features products such as a the Mini Bites Crustless Sandwich Cutter, the Thumbkin for stopping thumb sucking, and Udderly Yours, a pillow that holds the breast in position for “hands free nursing”.

Among the best sellers are the TP Saver, that prevents toddlers from unrolling toilet paper, Shoe Clues - stickers that enable children to distinguish left and right shoes – and Fridgefile, a magnetic filing and message system.

A number of other popular buys on the site, however, are product development seminars designed to help women bring their ideas to market. Responding to the demand Ms Monosoff has now written a book, The Mom Inventors, Inc Handbook, which, as she points out, is for anyone who seeks to be an inventor. It just happens that all her examples are American mothers.

Among the featured inventions is something called the “Couponizer”. This is a system for organising the discount product coupons you can cut out of newspapers and magazines. As one of those people who doesn’t have plastic loyalty or “points” cards for supermarkets and petrol stations and who has never in his entire life cut out a coupon for anything, I couldn’t think of anything more banal.

But a lot of thrifty people – mainly women – do cut out coupons and know what a difference they can make to the weekly shopping bill. Amy Bergin, inventor of the Couponizer, was one of them. She did some market research and found that $336bn in coupons were distributed in the US in 2002. Of those, about 3.8bn were redeemed, producing savings of $3bn, leaving $333bn of possible savings unclaimed.

One telling statistic she uncovered was that 79 per cent of shoppers used coupons. In other words every year at regular intervals millions of people in the US are reaching for their scissors and cutting out coupons. It sounds like it is a national past-time. Ms Bergin’s idea was to give some shape to this shopping habit with a handy organiser that categorises coupons in product ranges. So instead of thumbing through a sheaf of coupons all the time for the right one, you have your washing powder coupons ready when you get to the supermarket detergents aisle.

Another mother wanted something a little bit older looking for her toddlers than a romper suit, so created one-piece garments that looked like separates. So a child that looks to be wearing shorts and a shirt, for example, is in fact wearing a one-piece suit that does not part company at the waist.

Ms Monosoff’s book confirms something that has been suspected for a while: that women who continue to look after their children at home are just as creative and possibly more so, than those who go back in to the workplace. But they do need an outlet for their thinking.

Women inventors have been around for years but have always struggled to get their ideas accepted. Historically many of them used their husbands to put their inventions in front of manufacturers. Autumn Stanley’s book, Mothers and Daughters of Invention, suggests that the US Patents Office has grossly undercounted the number of inventions by women because of the widespread practice of men, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century, of registering their wives’ inventions in their own names.

“Many women have been happy to let other people exploit their ideas in the past,” says Ms Monosoff, “Now they have the chance to get their creations recognised as their own.”

As far back as 1946, Marion O'Brien Donovan had the idea of cutting up her plastic shower curtains to produce a leak-free nappy cover for her baby. The idea, that netted her $1m when she sold the manufacturing rights, was the forerunner of the disposable nappy.

In those days the inventing work of women tended to be eclipsed by men. Hedy Lamarr, one of the most glamorous actresses of the 1940s, was also the co-inventor of a radio-controlled torpedo but her scientific work barely registered in a Hollywood star system that only venerated women for their looks.

Overall the US has something like 82m working mothers, three-quarters of whom are working. “Some 64 per cent of these women,” says Ms Monosoff, “would like to organise their work around their families.”

A growing number today are beginning to realise their dreams. According to the US Small Business Administration, the US now has some 9.1m women entrepreneurs employing 27.7m people and contributing $3.6 trillion to the economy.

A big contributor to the rise in women entrepreneurs, says Ms Monosoff, has been the internet, allowing women to run businesses from home and to organise their work more efficiently. “It fits in well with mothers’ schedules, allowing them to work late at night when their kids are asleep,” she says.

Ms Monosoff’s book is helping to enlarge the working options of women. Too often in the past women have had little choice between working full time when they can still pursue careers or staying at home with their children when often their only option has been scouring the situations vacant columns for advertised part-time jobs that tend to be lowly paid. Today technology is creating new avenues in to a world that is hungry for ideas. The future for women entrepreneurs it seems has probably never been brighter.

The Mom Inventors, Inc Handbook, a step-by-step guide to creating and selling hot products, is published in September by McGraw-Hill, $16.95.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved