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Chris Hawker, Trident Design
Photo by Chris Casella
Chris Hawker, Trident Design Photo by Chris Casella

The Business of Reinvention: Chris Hawker

For Chris Hawker, the realization struck while young.

His father was plenty successful in the insurance business, but he was always answering to another person, a boss. “From the time I was very little I learned I didn’t want to have a boss. I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to be a boss?’” Hawker began inventing products for industrial aquariums while in college, and within six months of graduation, he’d developed an algae scraper that did well enough for him to found Trident Design, a company to support his inventions.

Next he created an accessory for guitars and had the realization that his passion wasn’t for the aquarium industry but for gadgets of all kinds. His first big break came in the form of the PowerSquid, a flexible electrical outlet device (for more, see page 88) licensed to Philips that outsold all his previous products combined. Trident coasted for several years until Philips suddenly cancelled the squid. So Hawker scrambled to transform, dedicating Trident to helping creators and corporations commercialize their inventions. The company still invents about one-third of its own products, but Hawker and his staff now expend as much energy helping design, develop, and tweak others’ products for eager consumers.

Lightbulb Moment: “I had to completely reinvent the business, and at that point go from being an inventor with a small staff who was basically working on my own stuff, my own ideas, to becoming an agency and helping other inventors in order to leverage what I’d learned doing it myself.”

Sometimes the biggest obstacles are the unknowns. “The biggest challenge was probably just my own naiveté – not knowing what I didn’t know and therefore taking on situations that I had no idea how to handle, and didn’t know I didn’t know how to handle ‘em.”
“I had to kind of invent how we did the business in an industry where there really were no success stories to look at. Inventing as a business, there’s not a lot of examples … the hardest thing to invent was how to actually make this a living.”

One great idea is rarely enough, especially for product development. “Almost every product has a life cycle – it goes up and then it comes down – so it’s extremely rare to have a company born out of one idea…we’re, I think, potentially the very best in the world at licensing in terms of our success rate, and one in three [products] licenses. So two out of three don’t, despite massive effort. Industry average is like one in a hundred. And some of the big guys are like one in several thousand. So it’s high risk, no matter how good your idea is, ‘cause not all great ideas are economic opportunities.”

You have to trust people. “In the end, business is done with other human beings, and if you’re distrustful and annoying to deal with…people come to me all the time and they act distrustful and [they say] ‘You’re not going to steal my idea are you?’ And I’m like, ‘No, but I’m not going to work with you either.’”

Crowdfunding platforms have changed the finance game for startups. It’s lowered the barrier to entry dramatically ‘cause the hardest part by far was raising money. And coming up with ideas and developing products is easy. It’s fun. It’s play … so the good news is, tons of great ideas that before would never see the light of day for lack of funding now get to see the light of day. The bad news is, it’s still hard. It’s gotten a lot easier, but it’s still hard.”
Leadership and managing employees are as important – if not more so – than what you sell. “There was definitely a big challenge on the front-end of learning how to handle employees and manage them in a way that made them happy and yielded results. Because just being totally hands-off doesn’t work, ‘cause if they don’t get results, no one’s happy – they’re not happy, you’re not happy. If you’re micromanaging people and putting too much pressure on them, then again that doesn’t work. So finding the right balance is the key to empowering people and pushing them to do great things without offending them.”

“I’ve taken courses on emotional intelligence to better understand how people including myself work, in order to try to be a better leader and figure out what leadership really means, because it’s not actually that obvious…what does it mean to lead people, as opposed to just boss them around and tell them what to do?’”

Your company should be attractive to your employees, not just your customers. “I have always believed that an employer’s duty is to take care of their people…they’re giving you their labor, they’re giving you their time, their loyalty, and you get to take care of them and be not just their source of money but their social safety net. This isn’t just a business exchange; we’re trying to create a uniquely human environment here where it’s like family, not in the sense of like Disney-style, you know, ‘We’re all a family!’ but more that like we’re actually here taking care of each other and working together to create an awesome place for us all to work.”

Three pieces of advice for inventors: 1. Don’t patent the idea; patent the product. If changes need to be made between concept and commercial reality, it could cost tens of thousands of dollars to reapply for the correct patent. 2. Educate yourself – about patent law, intellectual property law, the process of invention. There are resources. Many of them are free. 3. Don’t be paranoid. Most people are not out to steal your ideas.

For more information about Chris Hawker and Trident Design, visit www.trident-design.com.

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