Little Brainstorms, Big Bucks

updated 08/03/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/03/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the pantheon of human ingenuity's marvels, the Koosh Ball ranks well below, say, the wheel. But your kids would rather play with the Koosh Ball, and there's a lesson in that: Necessity isn't the only mother of invention. Ordinary Americans have proved superbly gifted, in fact, at solving problems you might not have realized even existed, and in the process have made themselves millionaires. Bedeviled by greasy bacon, flimsy mops and the irritating absence of a squeezable egg? Meet some entrepreneurial wizards who had the same troubles, plus the wit to do something about them.

Cactus Jack, One-Shot Wonder

Six years ago Jack Barringer was home with his wife, Emy, in Ames, Iowa, when an Alka-Seltzer ad came on TV. As tablets dissolved to the accompaniment of the familiar "plop, plop, fizz, fizz" jingle, an idea bubbled up in his mind. "Why can't we make a solid cleaner you drop in water?" he said.

With the help of a chemist, Jack, now 55, began making Cactus Jack's 1-Shot All Purpose Cleaner, a bullet-shaped pellet that turns a quart of water into a cleaning solution for everything from floors to mirrors, grease to pet stains. He followed up with a car wash-and-wax pellet and a pill-like laundry "vitamin" to replace detergents, bleaches and fabric softeners. Last year his products grossed more than $2 million in sales.

Growing up in Atlantic, Iowa, Barringer was considered "as dumb as they come," he says. He has since proved otherwise, making, losing and remaking fortunes. He has parlayed a used milk truck into a dairy (lost gambling in Las Vegas in 1978); turned a barroom fad into his first million-dollar invention, the Monster Arm-Wrestling Machine (which ultimately bankrupted his business in 1984, thanks to broken arms and ensuing lawsuits); and used a horse-drawn buggy to promote a national shoeshine-cart franchise. "The best way to make a lot of money is to find a problem and solve it," says Barringer. But he warns that ideas, "like slippery fish," need to be hooked quickly.

Which brings us to his latest invention, the 1-Shot Catch-a-Lot. The fishing system ($29.95) has a bait pellet that dissolves, releasing the scent of blood while making a lure shake like a dying fish. And it's netting Barringer yet another fortune. And if he loses everything once more? "Give me six months to whine," he says, "and then I'll do it all over again."

Egg-sellent!!!

It took Mark Davis several months to discover the secret to perfect muscle tone, but he found it—inside the door of his brother's refrigerator. In 1989, Davis, now 44, an Alabama native with a knack for gadgets ("I was always trying to find a way to make my go-cart faster"), set out to sharpen his game as center left fielder on a Charlotte, N.C., church softball team. At first the former Navy officer was content to squeeze an old tennis ball to strengthen his grip. But then Davis opened the fridge and picked up an egg. "Hey," he recalls thinking, "this fits the contours of my hand pretty well."

Inspired, Davis, who had quit his job as a nuclear-plant inspections trainer the previous year, went on to form a company called Eggstra Enterprises to market the muscle-building (and tension-reducing) rubber Eggsercizer. That was the easy part. Then he visited a patent attorney, who pronounced his ovoid object "too generic" to patent. "Even my wife," he admits, "told me to give it up."

But Davis was certain the egg was golden. Within months he persuaded friends and relatives to put up $18,000, and found a more encouraging lawyer. Now Davis, a divorced father of two living in Alabaster, Ala., counts the Chicago White Sox and President Clinton as customers. "People laughed," says Davis, "but we've grossed $4 million."

The Cat's Meow

Pointing to his elegant, century-old Victorian home in Toronto, former tool-and-dye maker Peter Gumpesberger, 37, dispatches questions of how much money he has made from his QuickSand Litter Sifting System with a wink. "This," he says, "is the house cat-crap bought."

Indeed, Gumpesberger's device, which enables cat owners to sift the catty deposits out of their litter with no scooping required, has sold nearly 2 million units in the United States, at $19.95 each, in just two years. Not only is his interlocking three-tray system (which also reduces odors by minimizing the disturbance of the waste) making him rich, it has won him accolades as a 1996 Canadian Inventor of the Year.

In 1994, Gumpesberger, grandson of a German inventor, was cleaning his cat Blackie's litter and thinking, "There must be a better way," when he remembered the part-time job he'd had at 16, breading shrimp using a sandbox sifter. In short order he whipped up an aluminum cat-litter sifting prototype, got a patent and went to a friend's trendy hair salon to pitch his invention to the wealthy potential investors there. Dini Petty, a Canadian talk show host, offered to put up $100,000, and Gumpesberger was on his way to his fortune. "By creating a throne for my cat," he laughs, "I live like a king."

She Really Cleaned Up

As a 16-year-old animal lover, Joy Mangano came up with the idea for a fluorescent flea collar to keep cats and dogs from getting run over at night. But the very next year, a major pet-supply company came out with a similar product. Mangano, now 42 and the holder of several profitable patents, learned a lesson: "I told myself the next time I had a good idea, I would bring it to the market."

Sure enough, inspiration did strike again, this time as Mangano—a mother of three on New York's Long Island—was mopping her floor in 1989. "I was finding myself depending on a sponge or paper towels because mops didn't last that long," she says. "I was throwing them away every few months." Her solution: a sturdy plastic mop with a unique self-wringing action.

In 1992, Mangano managed to sell a few thousand of her Miracle Mops on QVC, a cable shopping channel. Sales plateaued, and QVC planned to return the remaining mops. Not so fast, said Mangano. "Put me on the air," she demanded. QVC agreed, and Mangano—with a pitch "right from my heart"—sold 18,000 mops in 20 minutes. "The phones went crazy," she says.

Mangano, now divorced, has mopped up with $80 million in sales. "It's easy for me to design products," says Mangano, who has half a dozen other best-selling inventions—including a fold-up jewelry case for traveling. "I just don't have enough time in the day to do them all—unless I invent a longer day."

Bringing Home the Bacon

Six years ago truck salesman Jon Fleck's 8-year-old daughter, Abbey, was watching him blot the fat off freshly fried bacon with paper when she had a brainstorm. "Dad, you'd save a lot of trouble if the bacon was standing up when it cooked," she said. "The fat would drip off." Abbey sketched out a rough diagram of how the gadget would look. Voila! The Flecks of White Bear Lake, Minn., have been in hog heaven ever since.

Well, not exactly. First, Abbey's grandfather George, 81, had to mortgage a farm to raise start-up money. Then, Jon had to persuade skeptical retailers, including Wal-Mart, to sell the product, dubbed Makin' Bacon. Annual royalties are now well over $1 million. But Abbey has no plans for more inventing. "If you have an idea, it just comes," she says.

Having a Ball

Scott Stillinger calls inventing a science. Step One: Identify a need. In the mid-'80s, Stillinger, now 48, found that his young kids Doug and Kelsey had trouble learning to catch. So he bought a box of rubber bands and made a ball-shaped blob that was easy to hold on to.

Step Two: Market your product. After refining the design with brightly colored rubber threads, Stillinger and his brother-in-law Mark Button, 41, took their "rubber spaghetti balls" to a store owner. "You're going to be millionaires," she said. Stillinger, who had studied product design at Stanford, devised a machine to produce the balls in a barn near his Campbell, Calif., home.

Step Three: Name your product. "Through a process of surveys and logic," he explains, "we decided on Koosh."

Step Four: Get rich. After selling 50 million Koosh Balls, Stillinger and Button sold the company in 1994. Today, with his wife, Diane, he spends much of his time traveling, golfing—and, yes, working on new inventions.

Step Five: See Step One.

A Hair-Brained Idea That Worked

For Dallas hairstylist Denie Schach, 1990 was not looking good. She had sold her business at a loss; her husband, John, had lost his well-paying job; and their car had been repossessed. In need of cash, Schach, now 48, began teaching classes at beauty parlors on how to do your own hair, using your fingers as curlers. But the slippery locks were hard to hold on to. "Then I thought, 'I could teach this better if I had some foamlike fingers,' " she says.

She bought a roll of foam and began sewing pieces together, but they kept breaking. Schach gave up. Later she was looking for buttons in a fabric store, when she spotted a bolt of the foamy material used to line car ceilings. She took some home, sewed a piece of wire between layers and created the Hairdini, a simple hair-rolling device. By 1994 she was grossing over $1 million a year. Once Hairdini hit TV, sales quadrupled, prompting spinoffs—Teeni Hairdini, Mighty Big Hairdini and Braidini—and creating one very rich Denie.

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