Sketchbook to playbook: turning ideas into inventions

We’ve all seen the ad: George Foreman telling us that “People ask me all the time, ‘George…’” and the tag line is, “I tell them to call my friends at InventHelp.” The purpose of the ad, apart from generating wealth for Foreman, is to drive traffic toward InventHelp, where all ideas will be magically developed into a multi-million dollar product line—wouldn’t it be great if it were that easy?

Most of us ignore the commercial or parody it, and yet all of us have had, at one time or another, an idea for something.

Every one of us has heard the story of the college kid who creates a new app or computer program in his dorm room, and the next thing we know the kid has launched a company, issued an Initial Public Offering, and has become an  overnight multi-millionaire.

Maybe it’s a social media platform, maybe an operating system, maybe even the next generation gaming station; perhaps the idea was an accident or borne out of frustration, and even anger.

At the end of the day, no matter what the motivation may have been, it was passion for the idea that ultimately led these young entrepreneurs to take those first tentative steps.

I’m not sure that they were any smarter than the rest of us; rather, their idea drove them to experiment over and over again until they felt they had it right.

I want to suggest that the entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t reside only in Ivy League schools, or spring from computer science or coding classes; in fact, it may reside here at Clarion, maybe in your dorm, perhaps on your floor, or even in your room.

It could be something you scribbled on the back of a napkin one day, drew on the back cover of your planner, but whatever it is, it just won’t stop haunting you.

It may not even be an “invention” or application; it may be the start of business where you believe you can deliver a product better or more efficiently than your competition. It may be a business that fills a niche within society—whatever it is, you want to develop it, and, you need help.

Fortunately, you don’t have to call InventHelp.

Help is right here in Clarion, in fact, it’s just past Wal-Mart.

It’s the Small Business Development Center of Clarion University, and it exists just for people like you, people who have a dream. My guess is that not many Clarion students are aware of the SBDC, or what it is that they can do to help you get your idea off the ground.

Last semester there was a blurb in the CU Digest about the Pennsylvania State’s New Business Start-up Competition. I had an idea, in fact it was one I had for years. What finally drove me to enter, I don’t quite know, but I took the leap. You can create a team if you want, get a member of the faculty to be on the team, but I’m a “distance” student and hadn’t forged those relationships, so I entered alone.

I ended up working with Tracy Reinsel from the SBDC, without whose help I would have never finished.

Sometimes we get ideas and get so caught up in the imagination of it that we forget about the work that is involved to bring to fruition. No one should think that the idea is all that matters, you have to be able to execute the idea, and that my friends, is work.

Everything you’ve imagined has to be put down on paper in excruciating detail, every question has to be answered, finances have to be projected out three years, income and balance sheets have to be submitted; in fact, by the time you’ve finished a good business plan, you’ll have done more research, writing and re-writing than you ever thought possible.

I started my business plan in October of 2015 and finally submitted it on the closing date of the competition, Feb. 1. Stacks of research, phone calls, e-mails, links, talking back and forth with Reinsel, writing and re-writing, large whiskeys late at night wondering what in the world I was trying to do, no end of doubt; apart from the Marine Corps, finishing this business plan was one of the most challenging things I have ever done.

The beauty was the SBDC: when you go out to talk with one of their representatives, and you begin to work with them on your idea, you have an equal partner-at least I felt that I did. They have access to databases that I couldn’t access without paying for it, and demographic research is key to any business startup; you need to know if there is a market, and you need to know your market. The amount of resources the Clarion SBDC has at its disposal (and yours) is phenomenal.

Apart from that, there are “classes” being offered at the site all the time. I’ve been to at least five, and scheduled for more this month.

One of the best classes I have ever attended was simply on starting a small business: “I have an idea, now what do I have to do to get it moving?” Don’t be intimated, the age range of people attending is traditional college age to retirees, some with experience, but most are just like you, they have an idea or a passion for something, and they want to turn it into a business.

Most importantly, they want you to succeed. They want your business to be the absolute best that it can be, and you can see that in their interaction with you and their seminars. Let me say it again: They want you to succeed.

Ultimately, it is your project and your work, that’s as it should be, but they are there every step of the way mentoring, sometimes badgering (but in a good way!), sometimes asking tough questions, but all toward the goal of your success.

You can go to their website at and sign up for the e-mails detailing the seminar schedule, and, if you are a Clarion student, there’s no charge.

I believe that anyone who is even contemplating going into business for themselves should simply attend “The First Step: How to Start and Finance Your Business,” the next time it is offered on site. It is about three and half hours, but it’s not boring or dull, and you’ve no investment but your time.

At a minimum you’ll learn all the considerations that go into deciding whether to take the entrepreneurial plunge, and, you may well make some new friends, as well as hearing about experiences other people with ideas have had.

So don’t call the Clarion Small Business Development Center.

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